By Jon Forrest Dohlin
As American radio listeners from Boston to Birmingham listened live, the New York Zoological Society’s William Beebe announced that “a school of brilliantly illuminated jellyfish with pale green lights came within three feet of [our] window. I have never seen such brilliant light.” At 1,500 feet beneath the surface, Beebe, a naturalist, and Otis Barton, an engineer, were on their way to completing the deepest ocean dive in history.
At a time when no one had previously descended deeper than 350 feet and survived, Beebe and Barton set out in 1930 to explore the vast depths of the Atlantic near the island of Bermuda in the bathysphere submersible invented by Barton. The men crammed into a cast iron sphere that was 4.75 feet in diameter with 1” thick walls to withstand the immense pressure of the ocean’s depths.
Over the next four years the two men and their colleagues would complete a total of 35 dives while documenting the ocean. Their dives were a partnership between The New York Zoological Society and The National Geographic Society. Finally, on August 15, 1934, Beebe and Barton completed their deepest descent 3,028 feet – more than half a mile – as surface crews carefully spooled out the thin cable that was their lifeline.
Like many present-day scientists, Beebe and Barton were moved by the desire to explore and report the unknown. Beebe named several new species of deep-sea marine life after making observations during his dives (several of which were recorded by the expedition’s artist, Else Bostelmann) many of which have since been confirmed thanks to advances in underwater photography. By completing their journey and bringing to light the amazing animals of the deep Beebe and Barton inspired generations of oceanographers and lay-people alike.
Decades after that daring dive, Beebe’s work continues to inspire the scientists and staff of the Wildlife Conservation Society, formerly the New York Zoological Society. From our first days at Battery Park in 1896 to our comeback after Hurricane Sandy, the WCS’s New York Aquarium has educated New Yorkers about their ocean heritage.
Just as Beebe and Barton inspired the world with new knowledge of the ocean decades ago, Aquarium scientists today work diligently to better understand the ecosystems of the sea, rivers, estuaries and wetlands of this beautiful city of islands. Through our research in the field and our programs and exhibits at the New York Aquarium, WCS helps connect the 20 million people living in the greater New York metro area with the magnificent ocean wilderness just outside their door: the ‘sea that never sleeps,’ where diverse and still intact populations of fish—including over 25 species of sharks—swim alongside great whales, seals and sea turtles through sea mounts and vast submarine canyons filled with deep sea cold water corals.
It is an honor for us to house the Bathysphere at the New York Aquarium, where this week we celebrate the 80th anniversary of that dive. Had it taken place today, fans and autograph seekers would line up to take selfies with the explorers and their blue steel pod accompanied by hashtags like “#historicdive” or “#newrecord” —just as today they gather around the Bathysphere in front of the Aquarium to snap their selfies with the hashtag #ILOVENYA.
More technologically-advanced vessels have been created since Beebe and Barton’s expedition, but Beebe and Barton’s exploration in the Bathysphere was the first time ocean researchers were able to observe deep-sea creatures in their natural habitat.
The spirit of Beebe’s work continues today at the Wildlife Conservation Society, where New York Aquarium conservationists continue to explore and New York Aquarium exhibits give all New Yorkers a breathtaking glimpse into the waters of our vibrant ocean home.
Jon Forrest Dohlin is WCS Vice President and Director of the New York Aquarium.