A Round Trip to Davy Jones's Locker

Latest update June 20, 1930 Started on January 1, 1928
sea

In 1931, William Beebe and Otis Barton traveled to Bermuda to dive one half mile down into the ocean in a two ton metal ball. The two set the record for deepest dive at 1,426 feet below the surface, and brought back tales of the strange creatures they found.

January 1, 1928
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Mission Underway

By June 20, the bathysphere had made 15 descents including one to 1,426 below the surface, and three to 800 feet.


On the last dive of the year, Beebe describes seeing hundreds of parrotfish streaming to the depths of the ocean, while others sit vertically, waiting for wrasse to clean the debris after feeding on coral.

As Beebe sat next to Barton in the cramped sphere, he looked out into the dark ocean and reflected on the past days.

He wrote "Here, under a pressure which if loosened, in a fraction of a second would make amorphous tissue of our bodies, breathing our own homemade atmosphere, sending a few comforting words chasing up and down a string of hose, - here I was privileged to sit and try to crystallize what I observed through inadequate eyes and interpreted with a mind wholly unequal to the task. To the ever-recurring question 'How did it feel?' etc., I can only quote the words of Herbert Spencer, I felt like 'an infinitesimal atom floating in illimitable space.'"

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Though led by men, the Bathysphere expedition would not have been the same without the support of the mostly female team.


Gloria Hollister spent most of her time on the surface end of the radio wire transcribing Beebe's messages as he radioed to the boat. She was also hired for her dissecting abilities, which she had proven with years spent in a lab with the New York Zoological Society. But her duties were not restricted to stenography and cutting fish open.

On June 11, her 30th birthday, Hollister set the record for deepest descent by a woman at 410 feet. But this was not her only trip in the bathysphere. In 1934 she smashed her own recored and descended to 1,208 feet.

After the Bathysphere expeditions, Hollister took her naturalist skills to Guyana on another expedition for the New York Zoological Society which she herself led. Later in life, she was integral in establishing the Mianus River Gorge in New York.

Here, Gloria Hollister and John Tee Van radio with the Bathysphere on its deepest dive in 1934, a half mile down. Photo by David Knudsen.

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Barton and Beebe make significant changes to the inside of the bathysphere including adding shelves for notebooks and painting the interior wall black to eliminate all reflection. They also added hooks to hang various types of bait near the windows.


The two continued to dive over the next nine days, descending slightly further with each dive.

About eight miles off shore on a tug boat named the Gladisfen, Beebe and Barton climbed into the big metal ball with Beebe positioned near the three six inch quartz windows and Barton near the various instruments. The hatch was sealed shut, screwed and hammered into place. The two were completely sealed off from the outside world, except for Beebe's windows and telephone wires that connected them to team member Gloria Hollister.


The bathysphere was hoisted into the air, over the side of the tug, and into the ocean with a forceful splash. "While the two cables were being clamped together to prevent twisting we revolved once and the hull of the barge came in to view a few yards away. " Beebe wrote. "It was covered with a magnificent coral reef growth,- waving banners of seadweed, long, tubular sponges, jet-black blobs of ascidians and tissue-thin pearl shells. Word came down, I sent up an answering order and the hull passed slowly upward and out of sight." (National Geographic Magazine: June 1931, 659)

At 300 feet, Barton discovered a slow trickle of water coming in through the door. The stream of water continued to enter as the dive went on, but thankfully did not become a significant problem for the divers.

Within two minutes, the bathysphere and descended 400 feet. The ocean around them grew darker as they continued to climbed down. At 800 feet, the bathysphere stood still for about an hour before ascending to the surface with no ill effects on the men inside.

The first dive in the bathysphere was a success.

Photo from William Beebe.

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Beebe met wealthy engineer Otis Barton two years before the expedition was finally carried out. Barton not only helped Beebe with the design of the bathsphyere but also had funds with which to make the vessel. Beebe wrote "Never for a moment did either of us admit the possibility of failure, - Barton sustained by his thorough knowledge of the mechanical margins of safety, while my hopes of seeing a new world of life left no opportunity for worry about possible defects." (National Geographic Magazine: June 1931, 653)


The bathysphere was made out of 3,500 feet of sevn-eighth inch non twisting steel cable weighing in at two tons. A half mile of rubber hose was attached, which contained electric light wires and telephone wires to communicate with team members at the surface. Two men and equipment fit inside the cozy 4.5 feet in diameter space, with a cushion thrown in at the last minute for an attempt at some level of comfort. Oxygen tanks fitted with valves released two liters of oxygen into the bathysphere every minute. Calcium chloride was used to absorb moisture, and soda lime for removing carbon dioxide from the air.

Neither had any idea how this experiment would end up.

Photo from William Beebe of Beebe in a diving helmet.

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Expedition Background

In 1927, William Beebe, Director of the Department of Tropical Research, began diving in Bermuda using a copper helmet and an air hose. Though typical at the time, this method limited how deep Beebe could descend before pressure would limit his ability to return to the surface. Standing on a precipice and staring into the vast ocean depths, Beebe was filled with an insatiable desire to find out just what kind of creatures were living farther down.


Photo by John Tee-Van.

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This is so exciting Sara! Looking forward to revisiting this story with new eyes and your perspective.

Thanks David!

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