www.thebermudian.com FALL 2014 | 65
Off Nonsuch, 1934
A fictional account of William Beebe and Otis Barton’s famous
historical bathysphere dives off Bermuda in the 1930s
It wasn’t an expedition for the claustrophobic. Two and a quarter tons of steel dangled from a cable less than an inch thick. The four-foot-wide interior had to accommodate not only the two men, but bulky technical equipment, oxygen tanks, photographic apparatus, and lights and trays
of chemicals to soak up carbon dioxide. At 3,000 feet below the surface,
the water pressure exerted per square inch exceeds 1,000 pounds. It was
an enormous undertaking, not just dangerous but a truly original attempt to
explore a completely unknown part of the planet.
The bathysphere was engineer Otis Barton’s brainchild, based on his
own designs and built at his own expense. Barton approached naturalist
and explorer William Beebe, after reading of his deep-sea diving ambitions,
hoping to join forces. Beebe was already something of a celebrity scientist,
having published a number of successful and popular books, as well as having
gone through a messy public divorce. Barton didn’t have the connections to
fully fund his own ambitious diving plans. He knew his as yet unnamed sphere
was better able to withstand the immense pressure of the ocean depths
than Beebe’s reinforced cylindrical diving tank, and Beebe evidently realised
Barton was on to something. An uneasy partnership was born as they worked
together to organise financial and public support for their project—a difficult
prospect in 1929 in the wake of the Wall Street Crash.
Bermuda was an ideal base for their expeditions; the shallow waters close
to shore and the sudden drop of the seamount into deep water gave them two
very different ecosystems from which to gather data. A scientific team assembled labs on Nonsuch Island to examine specimens caught in trawling nets.
Among them was Beebe’s assistant John Tee-Van, illustrator Else Bostel-mann, and Gloria Hollister, an ichthyologist who also manned the telephone,
the lifeline between the men in the bathysphere and the surface.
From 1930 to 1934 Barton and Beebe set consecutive depth records in the
bathysphere and on August 15, 1934, they descended to 3,028 feet, setting
a record that would stand until 1949. Hollister would also break barriers,
eventually descending beyond the 410 feet mentioned in this story to over 1,000
feet—a depth record set by a woman which would remain unbroken for 30 years.
Records aside, these individuals were pioneers in the truest sense of the word,
seeking to illuminate the unknown and broaden our understanding of the world.
Herewith, a fictionalised account of the August 15, 1934, descent in the
bathysphere, when Barton and Beebe set the world record. Their observa-
tions of the environment they discovered were relayed to Gloria Hollister at
the surface via telephone.
WRITTEN BY ALEXANDRA STEWART