National Geographic: Adventures - Master of the Abyss (1999)

By the beginning of the
Twentieth Century,
human explorers have navigated the
earth and soared through the skies.
Yet one earthly realm remains
silent and hostile.
The deep.
Its crushing pressures kill all
who attempt to invade
its forbidden darkness.
Then, in 1930, an adventurous
scientist and a wealthy dreamer
undertake a daring voyage
in a tiny steel capsule,
to a place no living man
has ever gone.
Success will make them
ocean science pioneers.
Failure will end in death.
Awaiting them-beckoning them-
is a fantastic unexplored universe.
This is the story of these first
intrepid descents into the abyss.
Earth is an ocean planet.
Water covers over seventy percent
at an average depth of two miles.
Yet at the beginning of
the twentieth century,
almost nothing is known about
the deep ocean.
Then, in 1925,
a charismatic explorer and scientist
turns his attention to the sea.
His name is William Beebe.
And his quest begins with a shallow
dive in a crude copper helmet.
At 48, Beebe has spent his life
bringing tales of jungle adventures
home to the American public.
Now he is re-born into a new world.
"As I peered down I realized that
I was looking toward a world of life
almost as unknown as
that of Mars or Venus.
William Beebe believes that
the only way to study the sea
is to explore it himself.
To date, few other scientists
have ventured into the ocean
and witnessed its wonders.
Modern oceanographic knowledge
of deep-sea fish
is comparable to the information of
a student of African animals,
who has trapped a small collection
of rats and mice,
but is still wholly unaware of
antelope, elephants, lions and rhinos."
Beebe is tantalized by the unknown
world in the depths below-
and the unseen creatures
which live there.
Beebe is already
a celebrity scientist.
He was the 25-year old prodigy
named curator of Birds
at the Bronx Zoo, today's
Wildlife Conservation Society.
He is a gifted writer,
and a restless traveler,
popularizing scientific observation
with a healthy dose of
exotic adventure.
His friends include former
President Theodore Roosevelt.
In what is believed to be his
last letter before his death in 1919,
Roosevelt praises Beebe's work.
At age forty, he turns his attention
and energy to the First World War
and volunteers as a pilot,
serving in skies over Europe.
When the war is over, William Beebe
returns to his explorations-
and in 1925, sets out on the ocean
journey that will change his life.
Beebe's ship is Arcturus, donated to
him by a wealthy patron.
A tireless promoter, Beebe knows
how to use adventure to sell science.
Several Manhattan millionaires
sponsor his expedition.
Beebe steers Arcturus for
the Sargasso Sea,
in search of the teeming aquatic life
amidst the rafts of floating
sargassum weed.
His team of fifteen scientists labor
gathering fish and ocean animals,
recording and cataloging
their findings,
and preserving specimens for more
detailed study at the Bronx Zoo.
For 25 years,
Beebe has scoured the continents.
Now, he opens his eyes to
a new world, the living sea.
But does life exist
in the deeper ocean?
And if so, is it different?
Arcturus is specially equipped to
dredge the deep.
Beebe orders nets to be sent down
over half a mile
They return with hundreds
of creatures,
most are dead, many are alive,
and most importantly, many species
are completely unknown to science.
Beebe is astounded.
"When we realize the possibilities of
deep-sea life still unknown to us,
every haul of the dredge should be
welcomed by an enthusiasm
equaled only by the possible hope of
communication with our sister planets."
Beebe longs to know about life in this
sunless place, where plants cannot grow.
How do creatures thrive in an
animal world of total darkness?
Beebe wants to see this alien
ecosystem at work, with his own eyes.
Ocean life becomes Beebe's obsession.
He makes hundreds of descents,
pushing his copper helmet-
and his body-to its maximum depth.
At just over sixty feet,
he reaches his limit.
Even obsession can take him no deeper.
Below him are chasms deeper than
the Grand Canyon.
Barely beneath the surface,
the reach of human exploration ends.
To dive much deeper is foolish,
and deadly.
"I made my way to a steep precipice,
balanced on the brink,
and looked down,
down into the green depths.
It would have been exceedingly unwise
to go much farther.
At double the depth I had reached
I would probably become insensible
and unable to ascend."
Ocean pressure can crush
the unprotected human body
at just three hundred feet.
Even submarines in Beebe's day can
descend no deeper than four hundred.
Beebe is determined to descend
into the darkness-
and just as determined
to return alive.
He needs radical new technology.
Beebe's well-publicized shallow dives
make him an underwater icon-
the brave explorer
in the copper helmet
is the Jacques Cousteau of
the Roaring Twenties.
Back at the Bronx Zoo, Beebe sets
his sights on the ocean depths-
for two years, he draws up plan after
plan for a deep-sea diving device.
He abandons them all as impractical.
In 1928, Beebe decides to move to
the ocean to pursue his obsession.
His choice is Bermuda.
The Bermuda government donates
a hospital
on the outlying Island of Nonsuch.
Beebe knows that Bermuda
is the perfect base for exploration
of the deep Atlantic,
one of the few places in the world
where the sea floor plummets more
than a mile deep, just off shore.
Attracted by the new science
of oceanography,
and by the dynamism of
Beebe's character,
the lab at Nonsuch draws young,
talented researchers.
John Tee-Van, a New Yorker,
has been Beebe's assistant
since Teevan was nineteen-
Teevan is Beebe's personal planner-
harness for Beebe's
unstoppable energy.
Twenty-seven year old New Yorker
Gloria Hollister joins Beebe's team.
Hollister is typical of the young,
fashionable, and brilliant group.
The research team works long hours
at varying jobs,
but Bermuda life is comfortable,
and the climate ideal for
a mid-ocean outpost.
Beebe's boundless energy inspires
the group in discovery after discovery.
Gloria Hollister experiments
with Beebe's copper helmet,
continuing research in the shallows,
following Beebe's footsteps down
into the living sea.
But William Beebe cannot shed
his dreams of the deep waters
just off shore-filled with creatures
that he has only seen in nets.
He is three years into his quest,
and he still has no idea
how to reach the living deep.
The answer will come
from a rich stranger.
His name is Otis Barton.
Barton is 29, the high-spirited heir
of a New England retailer.
He has read about William Beebe's
deep ocean dream in New York papers,
and he has the money
to make it come true.
He offers to finance the design
and construction of a device
that can be lowered to at least
on one condition:
that he gets to ride along.
Barton's hopes and dreams
for the world's first working deep-
diving capsule start to take shape.
It is a hollow sphere of
inch-and-a-half thick steel.
Its strength lies in its round design-
withstanding the relentless ocean
pressure by equalizing its assault.
No glass is strong enough
for portholes.
Barton orders panes of fused quartz,
three inches thick.
These tiny windows might allow man's
first glimpse of the living deep-
but they too,
must withstand the pressure.
The factory work
takes more than a year.
Beebe is within reach of his dream.
Word comes from New York.
The diving globe is ready.
For Otis Barton,
the price tag of 12,000 dollars proves
to be a sizeable chunk of his fortune.
In May, 1930,
Barton arrives in Bermuda.
He has come with the vessel that,
if it works,
will transport two men to the
unknown deep-
making history, and changing science.
On the docks of Bermuda,
William Beebe inspects
the bizarre deep-sea capsule.
He calls the invention a bathysphere-
meaning "deep sea ball".
Barton's plan is simple.
The bathysphere will descend on
a 3500-foot steel cable.
The hatch is just 14 inches wide,
sealed from the outside with
a 400-pound steel door.
The bathysphere is
unwieldy and untested,
but it is Beebe's best and only
prospect to get to the deep alive.
June 3, 1930. The journey
to deep waters begins.
Beebe and Barton hire a retired
British warship, the Ready,
to serve as mother ship
for the bathysphere.
The Ready isn't ready for much.
The tired old hulk must be towed to
the deep water site
so Beebe can make his first descent.
Beebe cannibalizes the winch from
his old research vessel Arcturus
and bolts it to the Ready's deck.
It will have to support
the bathysphere's
two-and-a-half ton weight,
plus two tons of steel cable.
If the cable snaps or snags,
the bathysphere, and the men,
will plummet to the ocean floor,
with no hope of rescue.
Beebe chooses a place a few miles
off shore,
where waters are a mile
and a half deep.
The Ready is halted.
First-an unmanned test-to see if
the bathysphere performs as planned.
As the power winch lets out
the steel cable,
an additional rubber-coated electric
line is deployed by hand.
This line will allow them to use
a searchlight,
and more importantly, to communicate
with the mother ship.
In just forty minutes the steel ball
dangles 2000 feet below the surface.
The simple test ends in disaster.
The vital electrical conduit
has snaked itself
around the top of the capsule
no fewer than forty-five times.
Beebe fears that his adventure may
be over, before it has even begun.
It looked as if we were to pay penalty
at the very start
for daring to attempt to delve into
the forbidden depths.
Beebe has learned his first lesson
in deep-ocean exploration.
Every attention must be paid
to mechanical matters.
The ocean is not forgiving-the
slightest miscalculation could kill.
It takes a full day
to unravel the cable.
No damage is found.
Three days later, on June 6,
Beebe tries another unmanned test.
This time, the cables do not tangle.
But upon inspection,
Beebe and Barton discover a small
pool of water in the sealed capsule.
All things considered,
Beebe declares the test a success.
He'll risk his life-and Barton's-
and attempt the decent.
Beebe and Barton outfit the capsule
with oxygen tanks and
purifying chemical trays:
soda lime for clearing
carbon monoxide,
and calcium chloride
for absorbing moisture.
Beebe hasn't forgotten
his first lesson-
he will concentrate solely
on the mechanics of his mission-
dive one is not for science,
but survival.
At the moment Beebe has waited
for and dreamed of-
he finds himself at a loss for words.
"I looked around at the sea and sky,
the boats and my friends,
and not being able to think of
any pithy saying
which might echo down the ages,
I said nothing, crawled painfully
over the steel bolts,
fell inside and curled up on the cold,
hard bottom of the sphere."
On deck, John Teevan supervises
the mission.
He has served William Beebe
for half his life.
Now Beebe's life is in his hands.
Beebe and Barton are big men-
both of them, six feet tall,
crammed into a sphere less than
five feet across.
Heavy hammers pound steel bolts tight,
a deafening experience
inside the sphere.
Gloria Hollister will communicate
with Beebe by telephone-
the first to record his observations,
or to hear his final words
in the event of a catastrophe.
The final bolt.
On deck, the team is tense,
each person concentrating,
hoping for the best,
imagining the worst.
Nothing has been left to chance,
yet no one has ever attempted
anything like this before.
At one PM, on June 6, 1930,
the bathysphere is swung
over the side.
In less than a minute,
they are sixty feet down, the range
of Beebe's old copper helmet.
They are suspended by
a thread of steel,
with a mile and a half of
ocean beneath them-
and no hope of rescue
if their equipment fails.
Barton closely monitors
the oxygen supply.
Too little, and they will
slowly suffocate.
Too much, and they can
become disoriented.
At 600 feet, Beebe speaks from
a place no living man has ever been.
"Only dead men have sunk below this."
Beyond the tiny windows,
the two ocean pioneers
witness an eerie twilight.
"We were the first living men to look
out at the strange illumination:
an indefinable translucent blue."
Then, at 800 feet,
with all going well,
Beebe suddenly calls off the descent.
His instincts tell him, stop.
"Some hunch-some mental warning
which I have had at half a dozen
critical times in my life,
spelled bottom for this trip."
At this depth, Beebe knows that
the ocean pressure would kill them
in a way much more terrifying
than drowning.
"There was no possible chance
of being drowned,
for the first few drops
would have shot
through flesh and bone
like steel bullets."
He orders Teevan to haul them home.
Two strangers in a strange device
have dived deeper than
any living men in history.
Consumed by the operation of
the sphere itself,
Beebe has paid little attention to
the world of the deep-
but he has proven that humans can
descend into the abyss and return alive.
His team greets him with
congratulations, elation, and relief.
William Beebe and Otis Barton
will descend again,
deeper - not just for adventure,
but for science.
Their journey has only begun.
The unlikely partnership of William
Beebe and Otis Barton has created
an entirely new field of science-
manned exploration of the deep ocean.
They know they can get there-
but what's down there?
Now the real work of scientific
observation begins.
On June 11, 1930, they are lowered
again into the Bermuda chasm-
more than three thousand tons of
water pressure
assaults the steel hull,
but again it holds firm-
and offers Beebe and Barton
a first look at the creatures of
the ocean abyss.
Beyond the windows,
the strange animals that had perished
in the nets of Arcturus
now move majestically
in the deep darkness.
"When I came again to examine
the deep-sea treasures in my nets,
I would feel as an astronomer might
who looks through his telescope
after having rocketed to Mars and back,
or like a paleontologist
who could suddenly annihilate time
and see his fossils alive."
The animals Beebe describes, such as
shimmering jellyfish, appear fragile-
yet they are superbly adapted to the
pressure, the cold, and the darkness.
It is a scientific revelation
in a realm of constant peril.
Each square inch of the quartz windows
holds back 650 pounds of water
- stresses that no submarine or
diving suit has ever withstood.
They reach a depth of 1426 feet-
and come home alive.
On June 13, 1930, in a telegram
to the NY Times,
the scientist and the inventor
announce to the world that
they have joined the ranks of
history's great explorers.
Armed with confidence in the
bathysphere's safety,
Beebe permits John Tee-Van and Gloria
Hollister to dive to 400 feet.
Hollister sets a new depth record
for women.
In the weeks to come, the bathysphere
is taken on repeated dives,
testing its capabilities.
The impressionable Barton,
in an act of generosity,
grants William Beebe ownership
of the bathysphere,
on the condition that he be
called back for future dives.
In October, the coming winter
puts an end to field work off Bermuda.
The bathysphere is put in storage.
It is time for Beebe to return to the
Bronx Zoo and write his reports.
But Beebe knows that
writing reports
is not the way to keep the public
informed and the money flowing.
In newspaper interviews,
magazine articles and a lecture tour,
William Beebe promotes oceanography
in a popular and accessible way.
He likens his dives to visiting outer
space-without leaving the Earth.
Beebe enlists an artist,
Else Bostelmann,
to illustrate the haunting images of
the creatures seen from the bathysphere.
Bizarre marine animals
that, at the time,
no one but William Beebe
has seen alive in the deep.
Beebe joins the ranks of the
great explorers of his era,
household names such as
Charles Lindbergh and Richard Byrd,
heroes of the skies.
Beebe believes his ocean exploration
is of greater value.
The concrete intellectual returns
from aviation are most superficial...
but adventuring under sea
is an unearthly experience,
and we are actually entering
a new world."
In the press,
it is 'Beebe and his Bathysphere.'
The man who built it-and paid for it-
Otis Barton-is rarely mentioned.
Barton is stung.
In Spring, 1931, despite the
devastation of the Great Depression,
the resourceful Beebe
raises enough funding
for a scaled-down year of
ocean research off Bermuda.
He returns to methods perfected on
Arcturus six years earlier-
deep-ocean dragging with nets.
As before, specimens are retrieved-
creatures Beebe has seen alive
from the bathysphere.
Nonsuch Island hums with activity.
But the bathysphere
remains in storage,
while Beebe writes another book
to further promote his ocean science.
The year passes into another.
Then, Beebe makes a decision
that makes headlines.
He and Otis Barton will attempt to
descend to a depth of half a mile-
and his communication
with Gloria Hollister
will be broadcast live on NBC Radio
and on affiliate stations
around the world.
Beebe is determined that
his bathysphere adventure
not to go down in history as a stunt.
He must go back, and deeper, seeking a
major discovery in the name of science-
even if it means risking his own life.
September, 1932. Storms lash Bermuda.
A bad omen for events to come.
Otis Barton decides to install a new
window in the diving ball
to permit better photography,
despite Beebe's fears that
any modification to the quartz ports
would be dangerous.
The decrepit barge, Ready has been
replaced by a tugboat called Freedom.
But the new mother-ship leaks and
wallows under its heavy load,
and on one occasion almost sinks.
Waiting for weather to clear,
they make an unmanned test
of the new design,
sending it down to 3000 feet.
But the bathysphere is unusually heavy,
straining at its fragile lifeline.
When the capsule surfaces,
it is filled with an explosive cocktail
of hyper-pressurized water and air.
Anyone in the bolt's path would
have been decapitated.
Anyone inside would have been
pulverized into a liquid.
It is a sober reminder of the brutal
power of the deep.
For two weeks, Atlantic storms ground
the world's first deep sea explorers.
Beebe and Barton remove the
leaking window of the bathysphere
and fit the hole with
a heavy steel plug.
For the journalists Beebe has invited
to witness his historic dive,
there's nothing to report.
On September 22, Beebe decides
to give the press their story.
He will risk his life,
and Otis Barton's,
on a perilous dive.
These are the worst conditions in which
they have ever attempted a descent-
Again, Beebe and Barton endure the
painful climb across the steel bolts,
squeeze through the narrow hatchway,
and tumble onto the capsule's
hard steel floor.
Beebe has set a goal of half a mile-
almost twice as deep
as they have gone before.
He is willing to dive dangerously deep
to give the press what he's promised-
the discovery of new forms of life,
broadcast live.
Beebe and Barton pass 1400 feet,
shattering their previous record,
and continue down.
At 1700 feet, they are enveloped in
eternal darkness-a new milestone.
Beebe has reached a realm
where no light has ever shone.
"I was beyond sunlight as far as
the human eye could tell,
and from here down,
for two billion years
there had been no day or night,
no summer or winter, no passing of
time until we came to record it."
He is rewarded for the risk
he has taken.
At 2200 feet, thousands of pinpoints
of light appear out of the blackness.
Strange creatures, thriving
in the black, cold ocean depths.
Beebe witnesses these amazing animals
in a flood of bioluminescence.
The number of creatures illumined,
and the strength and color
of these lights-
all these have been far beyond
all my expectations.
He broadcasts his fantastic discovery
to the radio audience.
The world listens to this first-hand
account of life at 2200 feet below.
But on the surface,
the Freedom pitches and rolls,
threatening to sever
the capsule's lifeline.
Beebe calls off the dive,
short of his half-mile goal.
On the return to the surface,
Beebe announces the most
extraordinary sight of all-
a 6-foot-long predator with vicious,
glowing fangs-
he names it the
"Untouchable bathysphere fish."
Beebe's sighting remains,
to this day, the one and only.
In a lifetime of well-publicized
this is Beebe's finest hour.
He has broken his own depth record-
described creatures never seen before-
and broadcast the entire event
to the world.
The achievement and William Beebe
make front-page news-
a triumph Beebe hopes will translate
into dollars.
At the age of 55, Beebe's energy
is inexhaustible,
and his ambition unfettered.
He decides to make one more expedition
to smash the half-mile barrier
which has eluded him.
But the Great Depression has made
private money scarce.
Beebe works for over a year,
seeking funding.
Finally, the National Geographic
Society agrees
to finance a series of dives
in summer, 1934.
Otis Barton has not been as fortunate.
A victim of hard times,
he is scrambling to make a living
for the first time in his life.
Barton launches a career
as a movie producer,
and spends 1933 filming
an underwater adventure.
The film is a flop.
But William Beebe has not forgotten
the man
who has helped make him
an international luminary.
In 1934, he remembers his pledge to
include Barton on his bathysphere dives,
and invites Barton to join him.
For four years,
Barton has slipped into the shadows
as Beebe's star has risen.
Despite his grievances, Barton agrees
to join Beebe once again.
John Tee-Van and Gloria Hollister
also return
for what is to be the bathysphere's
most dangerous descent.
After countless hours
at deep-ocean pressures,
the capsule needs an costly overhaul.
The price tag includes
new quartz windows,
a new oxygen purifier, and improved
communication lines.
On August 7, 1934, an unmanned test
reaches 3,020 feet.
The refitted capsule
performs perfectly.
Satisfied, Beebe and Barton squirm
into the steel chamber.
While Beebe's personal goal is
to break the half-mile barrier,
he will continues to relay
his observations,
convinced that the deeper he goes
the more he'll discover.
And Beebe delivers.
He announces his discovery of
three more new creatures-
and gives them fanciful names.
Pallid Sailfin
Three-Starred Anglerfish
Five Lined-Constellation Fish
And once again,
no one since has seen these fish.
Barton attempts to document
the sights outside the sphere,
but his movie film shows only faint,
blurred images.
Only Beebe's descriptions endure.
The dive drops Beebe and Barton
to 2,510 feet,
shattering all old records,
but still short of the half-mile goal.
Then, eight days later on August 15,
Beebe pushes the ball
to its absolute limit.
It comes to a rest at a depth of
The spool of cable has nearly run out.
One more revolution could send
the capsule
in an unstoppable death plunge
to the ocean floor.
At this depth, the bathysphere's steel
and quartz
withstands more than a thousand
pounds per square inch of pressure.
Steel and quartz hold firm.
William Beebe and Otis Barton
pause at a depth
no explorer before them has ever
reached, for a moment of contemplation.
"The only other place comparable to
these marvelous nether regions,
must surely be naked space itself,
where the blackness of space
must really be closely akin to
the world of life
as it appears to the eyes of
an awed human being,
in the open ocean,
one half mile down."
Even after his record-breaking
William Beebe remains obsessed
with the deep ocean.
But by the mid-30s the Depression
has claimed too many victims,
and privately funded exploration
fades into memory.
Beebe must abandon his Bermuda
headquarters in 1937.
Beebe returns to jungle research
for the Bronx Zoo, now known as
the Wildlife Conservation Society.
He spends the last years of his life
in Trinidad,
and never loses the love for action
that once made him a household name.
But his fame slips away as years pass,
and Beebe dies quietly, far from
the limelight, in 1962, aged 85.
Otis Barton leaps from one scheme
to another.
In 1948, he returns to the ocean
in an improved bathysphere-
and breaks his own record by
descending alone to 4,500 feet.
But the world takes little notice-
Barton dies in 1992, aged 93,
and five people attend his funeral.
Barton's record endures until 1960,
when the US Navy submersible Trieste
descends to 35,000 feet-
more than six miles.
That record stands.
Today, most of Beebe's discoveries
have been verified.
The risks he took opened up
a new era of exploration.
His gift to us is a new way of
looking at the ocean,
that thrives today as the modern
science of oceanography.
In a crude copper helmet-
in a primitive steel ball-
William Beebe dared to challenge
the ignorance of the ages,
to search for life in a dark
and hostile world.
His legacy is one of adventure
and knowledge-
a pioneer and a wanderer
in the living sea.