Rachel Carson, William Beebe and Ocean Exploration

Robert D. Ballard with Will Hively, The Eternal Darkness: A Personal History of Deep-Sea Exploration (Princeton Science Library)

Brad Fox, The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths (Astra House)

On July 19, 1949, Rachel Carson donned an 84-pound classic copper diving helmet to descend into the stormy waters of Biscayne Bay in Florida. Carson joined, if briefly, the long history of ocean exploration, especially the deep sea that had fascinated humans since earliest recorded history. Carson was doing research for her massive best-seller, The Sea Around Us (1951), that garnered awards, fame, and sufficient funds for her to leave government service and devote her time to writing.

Her writing, of course, led to Silent Spring and the birth of the modern environmental movement. But it was a once famous, colorful ornithologist, explorer, and pioneering deep ocean diver named William Beebe who helped launch Carson’s career.

Beebe was shown Carson’s first published nature piece, “Undersea,” by the editors at Atlantic and was deeply impressed. Carson sought a meeting with him in 1938 and hoped Beebe could arrange a dive off Bermuda to experience the sea first-hand. Diving would have to wait, but when Carson expanded the essay into her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), Beebe praised it in the Saturday Review and then included a section from the book in his compendium of famous nature authors, The Book of Naturalists (1945). Carson was the first and only woman to be included. Beebe and Carson became friends; she frequently sought his advice and continued to hope to arrange a deep sea dive.

In her research in the 1930s for Under the Sea-Wind, Carson had read deeply and thoroughly in the history of oceanographic research, including the findings of the H.M.S Challenger whose 1875 voyage to take soundings and collect species began our understanding of the depth of the ocean and the denizens of the deep. She also studied The Depths of the Ocean (1912) by Sir John Murray and Johan Hjort, the most comprehensive oceanography reference of the time that offered a detailed history of ocean exploration and the astounding findings of the Michael Sars, a ship lent to Murray by the Norwegian government. It was filled with illustrations of marine species of all kinds, but they were lifeless and black-and-white. And, of course, Carson was familiar with Beebe’s early, shallow dives in his homemade helmets and the familiar diving helmet like the one she would use. Then, Beebe’s exploits and discoveries in the submersible Bathyscape that he described in his 1934 best-seller, Half-Mile Under, popularized ocean exploration. But, again, the photos were black-and-white and the colorful illustrations of marine species presented were paintings by the science artist Else Bostelmann.

That is how the public depictions of marine species and oceanography stood throughout the years of World War II when ocean exploration and discoveries fell to the U.S. Navy. When Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind, which had sold poorly despite critical acclaim, was reissued in 1952 following the success of The Sea Around Us, Carson had two simultaneous best sellers. Critics and the public marveled at Carson’s ability to portray the “poetry” of the ocean, especially her dramatic, cinematic, and colorful prose that brought the sea creatures in Under the Sea-Wind to life. Underwater color photography and film, the work of Jacques Cousteau, the nature documentaries we now take for granted, were yet to come. It was Rachel Carson who turned post-war Americans used to static, black-and-white depictions of ocean life into lovers of the sea and early environmentalists.

William Beebe is a catalyst for Rachel Carson’s career and central to the history of oceanography. But his daring and well-publicized career also inspired a small boy named Robert Ballard who idolized Beebe and carried out many of the important ocean explorations and discoveries after World War II. In The Eternal Darkness, Ballard offers a detailed and dramatic narrative that captures the near-death escapes and dangers of the deep dives by Beebe and his inventive and wealthy co-adventurer, Otis Barton. It was Barton who designed the Bathysphere and crawled into its cramped space alongside Beebe.

Ballard discovered the remains of the Titanic, found intact sunken Byzantine wooden ships with cargoes of fine wine, and located John F. Kennedy’s iconic PT-109. But it is the incredible discoveries about the ocean, including the realities of plate tectonics and human observations some seven miles below the surface that fascinate him. Ballard manages to keep us spell bound as new kinds of diving submersibles float by us, beginning with the Trieste, a bathyscaph that intrigued him when it set new records off San Diego in 1959 near where he grew up. But colorful personalities, as well as diving machines, also fill the pages of The Eternal Darkness. Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard, who had collaborated with Albert Einstein, is one of these daredevil pioneers. But Ballard describes him as not looking the part. Instead, “behind his large, bald forehead, long strands of hair tumbled, Ben Franklin-style, to the base of his neck. Horn-rim glasses and often a tie, sometimes askew, gave him the appearance of a professor engrossed in his work.”

Ballard, a Ph.D. scientist who served as a U.S. naval officer, resembles neither a daredevil, nor a physicist. But his descriptions of horrible disasters such as the crushing of the U.S. submarine Thresher, or the crash and sinking with H-bombs aboard of a B-52 bomber convey vividly that deep sea exploration is akin to and as dangerous as space exploration — but without the public acclaim. Ballard and other ocean explorers were constantly at risk. Finally, in the 1960s, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute managed to create a small, lighter weight submersible named Alvin that could bring scientists into the deep and also maneuver. Thus, Alvin was brought to the waters off Spain to recover American H-bombs in an operation fraught with danger and secrecy. A golden age of ocean exploration was underway. But finally, the age of manned deep sea exploration, given its dangers and costs, came to an end and was replaced by robotic vessels. Then, through a technological leap that Ballard describes approvingly, images and data from the bottom of the ocean could be live streamed to schools, colleges and citizens around the globe. Now, scientists and explorers can make discoveries from the comfort of their computer terminals.

How far we have come in just one hundred years of exploration and what we may have lost is best captured in The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths (Astra House, 2023) by novelist Brad Fox. A sort of antidote to the practical, pragmatic, space race-style exploration extolled by Robert Ballard, it is a sensual and philosophical account of William Beebe’s explorations in the Bathysphere and the end of the age of human deep diving. With daring prose worthy of diving into the abyss, Fox shares with us Beebe’s musings, poems, and reflections on the meaning of observing life at the bottom of the sea.

At the end, Fox talks about the correspondence and friendship of Beebe and Rachel Carson. Both are transformed by exploring and imagining the depths of the sea – its mysteries, uncertainties, its endless shifting, its having given birth to life itself. Both share a sense of awe, wonder and imagination – an almost spiritual sense – of sharing the Earth with species that have evolved over the eons that are at once very different from and very like ourselves. It is that sense of wonder that Fox, like Beebe and Carson, worries may be lost if we look to expand our knowledge of the sea, of Earth, of life itself primarily through remote, technical means and chiefly for the convenience and comfort of us humans.