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The Remarkable Life of William Beebe

The Remarkable

Life of

William Beebe Explorer and Naturalist

Carol Grant Gould

Island Press / shearwater books Washington





A Shearwater Book Published by Island Press Copyright © 2004 Carol Grant Gould All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the publisher: Island Press, 1718 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20009. s h e a r wat e r b o o k s is a trademark of The Center for Resource Economics. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data Gould, Carol Grant. The remarkable life of William Beebe : explorer and naturalist / Carol Grant Gould. p. cm. “A Shearwater book.” Includes bibliographical references ( p. ) and index. isbn 1-55963-858-3 (cloth : alk. paper) 1. Beebe, William, 1877-1962. 2. Zoologists—Biography 3. Explorers—Biography. I. Title. ql31.b37g68 2004 508'.092—dc22 2004012082 British Cataloguing-in-Publication data available Printed on recycled, acid-free paper Design by David Bullen Design Manufactured in the United States of America 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To Jim, with love






part i


1. Counting Crows


2. Fledging


3. Portrait of the Naturalist as a Young Man


4. Sailing North


5. The Scientists’ Apprentice


6. Bronx Zoological Park


7. Widening Horizons


8. Nestbuilding


part ii


9. Flying South


10. Migration


11. The Naturalist as Author


12. Rain Forest at Last


13. In Search of Wildness


14. City Lights


15. Pheasant Jungles


16. Western Himalayas


17. Bearing East


18. Recalibration


19. Betrayal


20. Wilderness Found


21. Jungle Peace


part iii

Marine Biologist

22. The Encantadas


23. New York Aerie


24. The Arcturus Adventure


25. Fire and Water


26. Elswyth


27. Bermuda Diary


28. Out of the Depths


29. On the Air


30. Half Mile Down


31. Fishing

330 part iv

Tropical Ecologist

32. Ocean to Jungle


33. Rancho Grande


34. High Jungle


35. Simla


36. Home to Roost


37. Simla Sunset








Selected Bibliography


Sources of Illustrations




The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again. William Beebe, The Bird, 1906

chapter 30

Half Mile Down If one dives and returns to the surface inarticulate with amazement . . . , then he deserves to go down again and again. If he is unmoved or disappointed, then there remains for him on earth only a longer or shorter period of waiting for death. William Beebe, The Arcturus Adventure


h e D e p r e s s i o n ’s c h i l l i n g effects, filtering through the ranks of the zoo’s wealthy benefactors, not only had beached the bathysphere for the 1933 season but also were threatening the zoo itself, which responded by cutting salaries and letting employees go. Will offered to take a 50 percent cut in salary to help the zoo; since his salary went to the DTR, it was like cutting his own throat. John Tee-Van was able to stay on at a minimum salary thanks to Helen’s family; Gloria was getting by; Jocelyn was still working for a pittance paid by Will, augmented by donations from Herbert Satterlee, who generously helped with the expenses involved in publishing Will’s technical work on fish. Still, the DTR was in serious danger of being shut down. Help again came from the National Geographic Society. Seeing a great story for its magazine, the society agreed to sponsor the 1934 season in return for another article and a lion’s share of the credit. Gilbert Grosvenor, head of the society, made no demand for a record-breaking dive, but Beebe was under no illusion about the need to make news. The society would assign a full-time publicity manager, and Will knew it was his job to keep him occupied. 317


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The bathysphere had lived for the past year beneath Auguste Piccard’s gondola in the Hall of Science of the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Piccard had piloted his balloon up 50,000 feet to study cosmic rays; he and Beebe had lectured and been filmed together as dauntless explorers of alien regions. At the exposition, half a million people had thrust their heads through the bathysphere’s narrow door, probably glad they did not have to go farther in. When the Geographic Society agreed to sponsor the expedition, they knew that some refitting of the four-year-old ball would be necessary after its many descents and the year of display; when the technicians at the Watson-Stillman Company in New Jersey, “the place of her birth,” checked her out, they discovered several flaws that required major work. The quartz windows were found to have minute fractures, which could cause them to crack under a fraction of the strain they had previously borne. The copper setting of the door and its brass wing bolt had crystallized and had to be replaced. “When high officials of the Air Reduction Company viewed our old oxygen tanks and chemical trays,” Will wrote in Half Mile Down, “and saw our palm-leaf fans, they said such things were more or less, contem-

John Tee-Van’s diagram of the workings of the 1934 bathysphere.

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porary with the Stone Age.” A new system employed a tiny electric fan that blew over four chemical trays, changing and purifying the air every couple of minutes. New tanks with a sophisticated valve system allowed the oxygen to be regulated more precisely. As before, the companies involved shouldered much of the expense: Bell took the old earphones for their museum and replaced them with new ones; General Electric paid for the new windows. The Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories donated medical supplies that would take care of any contingency “except the possible major one,” Will wrote.1 John Long, the publicist, turned out to be a real blessing. For one thing, he kept the omnivorous reporters away. The National Geographic Society was footing the bills for the expedition and expected to have exclusive rights to the story. An even greater benefit was that Otis could no longer complain that Will was hogging the limelight, as Long had complete oversight. This had been a sore point ever since the unlikely partnership began: Barton needed publicity desperately to get his infant film production ventures off the ground, but the papers stubbornly clung to Beebe as the popular and charismatic personality the public wanted to see and hear about. Unprepossessing in appearance, Barton came across as gawky and inarticulate. His expertise was in the nuts and bolts of the equipment rather than in the more romantic ideals of the scientific quest for knowledge. Will asked repeatedly for Barton’s name to be printed alongside his, and for every description of the expedition to credit him with his part. His name is inserted, in Will’s handwriting, into the announcer’s script for the 1932 broadcast in several places. But despite these reiterated pleas, the press cut Barton dead. The Zoological Society took a hit on the publicity as well. National Geographic had stipulated that the operation be called an official National Geographic Society Expedition, and the zoo, unable to fund Beebe themselves, had reluctantly agreed. Out of loyalty Will insisted that the Zoological Society be credited in any articles with all development of the bathysphere and with support of previous and ongoing research. Still, when the publicity associated with the dive earned the Geographic Society a raft of new members, zoo officials wrung their hands. Once the sphere reached Bermuda, it took a month to get it assembled and tested with the rest of the equipment. The great seven-


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ton winch Will had salvaged from the Arcturus ten years before still worked perfectly, and by August the system was ready for a trial run. To avoid the trouble and expense of domestic staff at the new house, the crew had been living at the Biological Station, walking or cycling the seven-minute commute to the lab they had set up at New Nonsuch. They had been working hard on net hauls, and Will was particularly intrigued by a series of films he and Tee-Van were making of developing eel eggs. The Skink, the Gladisfen, and the Ready were finally primed for a run, and Otis and Will were sealed into the sphere and dropped down an anticlimactic four feet—and promptly had to be hauled up, as water was cascading in around the door. John, feeling justifiably that for a short test run a few corners could be cut, had fastened only four of the great bolts that held the door. The result, Will wrote, was a joking matter, but still it left behind an unforgettable memory, “a subconscious reaction all its own, which will never quite be eradicated by the instantly succeeding ones of reason and humor.” Ultimately, though, he reflected that he had profited by the incident: “Nothing ensures a better seat on a horse than having been bucked or run away with.” 2 On August 7 the weather was calm enough for the dress rehearsal. Carrying only the temperature and humidity gauges and Barton’s camera, set—after a characteristic last-moment panic—to expose film by remote signal, the sphere was lowered to a depth of 3,020 feet. It came up holding 400 feet of exposed film, with “no one knew what secrets of fish or the lights of fish concealed in its silver coat.” 3 In fact, when developed, the film showed nothing but darkness varied with a few tiny spots of light, but it was at least dry. A disheartening series of squalls set in to thwart the plans for an immediate dive, but there was always something to be added or set to rights. Will decided that the radical reduction in the rate of oxygen delivery—from two liters per minute to one—needed a dry run, and had himself sealed in the ball on deck for two hours. The new air purification system worked perfectly, but the calcium chloride, which soaked up the moisture from the air, did such a good job that the water it absorbed condensed and dripped weak acid from its tray down into the blower. They shifted the trays so that the blower was on top, and placed a collecting tray underneath. They also discovered that the rubber hose that conveyed the electrical cables had become stiff and brittle and

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could no longer be packed into its box atop the sphere. This “stuffing box” was the weakest point in the bathysphere’s armor, so they replaced the last 600 feet of hose with a new piece. By August 11 the squalls had died out to swells—daunting to a seasick Barton but not actually dangerous—and Beebe gave the go-ahead. The two men were lowered, as they had been so often in previous years, but Will was astonished all over again at the experience. The golden light of day gave over suddenly to green: faces, tanks, trays, even the blackened walls were tinged with green. After the froth of bubbles the surface became a ceiling, “crinkling, and slowly lifting and settling, while here and there, pinned to this ceiling, were tufts of sargassum weed.” The ancient hull of the Ready, the bathysphere’s home barge, hove into view as they twirled slowly, looking like a coral reef with great streamers of plant and animal life. The green faded imperceptibly with increasing depth, and Will began to focus on the swarms of tiny copepods and other planktonic life. At 320 feet a lovely colony of siphonophores drifted past. At this level they appeared like spun glass. Others which I saw were illumined, but whether by their own or reflected light I cannot say. These are colonial

Preparing for a National Geographic dive, 1934.


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creatures like submerged Portuguese men-o’-war, and similar to those beautiful beings are composed of a colony of individuals, which perform separate functions, such as flotation, swimming, stinging, feeding, and breeding, all joined by the common bond of a food canal. Here in their own haunts they swept slowly along like an inverted spray of lilies-of-the-valley, alive and in constant motion. In our nets we find only the half-broken swimming bells, like cracked, crystal chalices, with all the wonderful loops and tendrils and animal flowers completely lost or contracted into a mass of tangled threads.4

They encountered yellowtails, pilot fish, blue-banded jacks, and other so-called surface fish at surprisingly low depths. Silvery squid shot past, and lantern fish. At 800 feet they passed through a cloud of copepods, as well as the roundmouth cyclothones. Too often the transient beam of the spotlight frightened away the creatures it was supposed to illumine. At 1,000 feet they took stock of their surroundings. Stuffing box and door were dry, and the humidity was under such good control that they did not have to use their bandit handkerchiefs to keep the window from fogging. By 1,100 feet, the number of lights from animals increased as the darkness became ever more absolute. Will noted a jelly, its diaphanous folds waving slowly in the terrific pressure, and a transparent fourinch larval eel. Clouds of flying snails sailed past, and small shrimps exploded in a blinding cloud of luminescent anti-ink when they bumped against the glass. A three-inch anglerfish swam past, its grotesque features topped by a pale, lemon-colored light on a slender tentacle, rows of sinister teeth glowing dully. Just above 1,400 feet, two eighteen-inch black sea eels swam past, and so did a strange sea dragon–like fish. Then Will had the rare treat of seeing a wholly new, unknown fish hang just outside the window for long enough to describe it fully. He grabbed Barton to verify his description, which was of a two-foot-long, pale buff creature, “alive, quiet, watching our strange machine, apparently oblivious that the hinder half of its body was bathed in a strange luminosity.” It was a color worthy of these black depths, like the sickly sprouts of plants in a cellar. Another strange thing was its almost tailless condition, the caudal fin being reduced to a tiny knob or button, while

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the vertical fins, taking its place, rose high above and stretched far beneath the body. . . . I missed its pelvic fins and its teeth, if it had any, while such things as nostrils and ray counts were, of course, out of the question.5

Confident from long experience that his observations were sound, Will named the fish the pallid sailfin, Bathyembryx istiophasma, “which is a Grecian way of saying that it comes from deep in the abyss and swims with ghostly sails.” Extremely wary of naming new species, Will ordinarily did not do it without extensive behavioral and anatomical study. But these were not normal conditions, and there would be no second chances. So, with great caution and Otis’s inexpert verification, he gave taxonomic names to several of the creatures he was able to see clearly. Will published his observations and discoveries in the Zoological Society’s Bulletin,6 which always had first claim on his output, and in an appendix to Half Mile Down. For each order and family, he described in detail how he had made the identification. For the Sternoptychidae, for instance—the skeleton fish and hatchet fish—he reported twentyeight observations between 650 and 2,800 feet. “During the early dives I did not distinguish between Argyropelecus and Sternoptyx, but when I began concentrating only upon what I was watching, and refused

Beebe talking to Gloria from the bathysphere.


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to be distracted by succeeding flares, I could easily tell one form from another, if they were close to the window and side on.” Of the cyclothones, “at 2,400 feet I once recognized a pair of ten-inch Gonostoma elongatum. The coppery iridescence of their sides shone out clearly, and the serial photophores, with their characteristically large reflectors, were distinct. I probably saw several more of these fish, confusing them with melanostomiatids, but my eye was too slow to make out more than the merest outlines.” 7 Aside from the sheer quantity of life, the most scientifically valuable observation was that there were surprisingly large fish in the depths, and that they moved more quickly than scientists would have predicted. Since they were not often caught in the deep trawling nets, it had been thought that large-bodied animals must be unable to survive in the abyssal depths. Lack of food and light and tremendous pressure on delicate tissues seemed to make the existence of massive creatures unlikely. Will’s observations proved that despite these extreme conditions, large fish were common at great depths, a fact that opened new fields of physiological research. At 2,300 feet on this dive, Hollister told the divers to listen through the earphone to the tug’s whistles, saluting the new record depth—100 feet deeper than their deepest dive in 1932.They descended still farther, noting a skeleton fish, a pair of large copper-sided scimitar-mouths, a fish as flat as a moonfish that “entered the beam, and banking steeply, fled in haste.” One flying snail, “from among the countless billions of his fellows,” flapped back and forth across the glass. And something Will could only describe as rainbow gars stood almost upright in the beam, slender and stiff with long pointed jaws on brilliant scarlet heads, strong blue back of the gills, and clear yellow on the rear and tail. At once he wondered what purpose, in the darkness of the deep, the colors could serve. In all of this time Will alternated his position at the window with Otis’s camera. Despite the inadequate light, Barton was determined to prove that he could take worthwhile photos from the abyss. He had tried a much stronger light, but its terrific heat had threatened the integrity of the window, whose outside was exposed to frigid temperatures and great stress. Nothing resulted from his attempts. Exhausted from the strain of watching, Will called for an ascent at 2,510 feet. A minute later he saw a new anglerfish, similar to the others

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but distinctive in its mouth and teeth and its tall, light-topped tentacles. “No pioneer, peering at a Martian landscape, could ever have a greater thrill than did I at such an opportunity.” 8 Then, at 1,900 feet, he saw the loveliest specimen yet: a large, almost round brownish fish which, when out of the beam, showed five “unbelievably beautiful lines of light, one equatorial, with two curved ones above and two below. Each line was composed of a series of large, pale yellow lights, and every one of these was surrounded by a semicircle of very small, but intensely purple photophores.” 9 Will named this animal Bathysidus pentagrammus, the five-lined constellation fish. They did a contour dive in the afternoon and spent the next day trawling the same waters they had dropped through. As always, they were thrilled with the creatures they hauled from the icy depths, but amazed at the meagerness of the haul compared with what they knew firsthand of the abundance of life below. Either fish were attracted in unusual numbers to the light of the bathysphere, Will wrote in an article for the prestigious journal Science, or the number of deep-sea fish caught in their nets was a great underrepresentation of the density of undersea life. Will, Jocelyn, and John attended the nets as they were brought up and took notes on what they saw. They transferred the catch into tubs of icy salt water and were rewarded by seeing some of the creatures revive. On this haul they brought up a pair of ten-inch scimitar-mouths like the ones Will had seen on the last dive, and for the first time one of the strange black swallowers survived to swim around his jar at full speed. Another treasure was Dolichopteryx, or spookfish, living, gaycolored, and almost transparent. As far as Will knew, it was the first ever to be taken alive. OnAugust 15 the weather held, and the crew set off from St. George’s harbor. The Gladisfen pulled the Ready with its load of steel, cable, and crew back to the same spot where they had descended before, and dropped the sphere over, with Beebe and Barton. On this dive they saw much more life than before: clouds of copepods floating by, including small opalescent Sapphirina, blue in the light beam; a huge shadowlike fish at least twenty feet long; and several of the Lamprotoxus sea dragons Beebe loved, chin barbels hanging downward, their bow lights shining green. Only sixteen of these had ever been netted, seven of those by Beebe. The record size of these grotesque fish had been eight inches;


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but here were four individuals more than twice that, quite possibly a new species. This time they continued to descend to a depth of 3,028 feet; only a dozen coils of wire were left on the bare winch reel. Concerned that the remainder might fly off spontaneously, Captain Sylvester asked Will to okay the ascent. They had made the half-mile mark he had hoped for without difficulty, and the last few feet had shown more large fish than ever before, so he was content. He cabled Elswyth, who was in London preparing her play Young Mr. Disraeli for the theater: deep dives over. 3028 feet today. new world, giant fish. love, will.10 A subdued controversy continues over some of the fish Beebe described. Taxonomic standards are rigorous and require dissection and verification as well as the procuring of representative or “type” specimens. Will believed devoutly in those standards, but he realized that the unearthly creatures he saw from the bathysphere were unlikely to be caught and classified directly, at least not soon. After much agonizing, he submitted detailed taxonomic descriptions and names for several of the fish he had seen, including the five-lined constellation fish. Will was convinced that he had been accurate and critical in his assessments, and he felt that the assigning of names would help in future deep ocean research. In retrospect, it is easy to see that this was an unwise move, particularly for someone who was so defensive about his scientific reputation. Although researchers who knew his expertise and his cautious nature accepted his discoveries implicitly, outraged taxonomists scrambled to decry the breach of established scientific etiquette, which they saw as the thin end of a disastrous wedge. Will was both hurt and depressed: he had thought his experience, combined with the unique situation, would speak for itself. Because some of the creatures have never been seen since, some experts think they never existed. Others, such as Dr. Robert Ballard, who specializes in deep-sea exploration, find it easy to believe that Beebe’s exotics remain elusive. With only a tiny fraction—less than 1 percent—of the oceans explored, Ballard thinks the odds against rediscovery are great. The primitive coelacanth was thought to have been extinct for 70 million years until one was brought up by fishermen in 1938, and it was only in 1968 that a new species of huge shark came to light. The sixty-foot giant squid has never been seen alive in its element,

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and in 2000, the discovery of a new twenty-three-foot deep-sea squid electrified the scientific community. The paper announcing its discovery notes that the existence of such a substantial animal, now known to be common in the world’s largest ecosystem yet not previously captured or observed, is an indication of how little is known about life in the deep ocean.11 Every time a new expedition is launched, new creatures are discovered. Ballard himself has observed dozens of unknown species. Some authorities calculate that the ocean fauna make up 97 percent of the planet’s biomass and contain more diversity than even the rain forests.12 Beebe’s scrupulous honesty and his tremendous sense of responsibility to science suggest that unless the oxygen and CO2 levels made him hallucinate, the fish he saw still live their cloistered lives in the deep Atlantic. The article Will wrote for National Geographic Magazine, “A Half Mile Down,” accompanied by sixteen of the eerie paintings Else Bostelmann had made to his specifications, made a gigantic splash. The book of the same name, which came out months later, was on the New York Times best-seller list for months, and opportunities to lecture and write articles multiplied. Will accepted many more of these than he wanted, but the grim reality was upon him: the Depression was no bowl of oatmeal, and his sort of big-ticket science was in deadly peril. Finding his fortune in tatters, Otis Barton knew that he had to make his underwater film addiction pay or “go belatedly into some humdrum business.” 13 With characteristic extravagance, he embarked on filming expeditions to Panama and the Bahamas, hiring Hollywood darling Ilya Tolstoy to direct, and local bathing beauties to act the parts of maidens threatened by large, menacing sharks and rays. His stories of these attempts make pathetic reading. The underwater film he pursued to completion, Titans of the Deep, included photos of the bathysphere surrounded by starlets dressed as provocatively as diving helmets and wetsuits allowed. Beebe’s name figured prominently in the advertising.The clumsy production so embarrassed Will, already beleaguered by accusations of publicity seeking, that he wrote a letter to Science renouncing any connection to its production. After this, Barton tried nature photography in Africa and other exotic locales, but he could never get the animals and the equipment to perform at the same time. Barton never stopped trying to design devices that would go deeper than the bathysphere, and at length succeeded in establishing a depth


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record in 1949 in his bathysphere-like “Benthoscope.” Soon after, however, Auguste Piccard, who had reached great heights in his balloon, entered the competition. Impressed with the bathysphere when he had seen it at the Chicago Exposition, Piccard began toying with the idea of an untethered, maneuverable submersible. In the 1950s Piccard and his son, Jacques, tested a prototype “bathyscaphe”; in 1960, Jacques would descend nearly seven miles in his elegantly designed bathyscaphe Trieste. Even without the bathysphere, the 1935 season in Bermuda was productive, with the tug Gladisfen, now well into her dotage, hauling the huge nets up from depths much greater than the bathysphere had plumbed. Will loved the thrill of the hunt, and he and Gloria, Jocelyn, and John described and dissected and stained and studied the strange creatures the nets brought up. The bathysphere had been an important step, but the ecology of the ocean was a vast field of research. They delved into the lives of the organisms they were particularly interested in and sent others, live or preserved, to other specialists. But the bathy-

“Professor Beebe, gourmet and ichthyologist, secretly fries his new discovery, instead of pickling it for posterity.” Miguel Covarrubias/Vanity Fair © 1933 Condé Nast Publications Inc.

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sphere descents were too egregiously expensive for anyone on a tight budget, and besides, Will had seen what he wished to see. In all, there had been sixteen deep dives over three seasons, and many more contour dives, and he realized how imperfect and inadequate his knowledge of the astonishing fauna of the deep sea would always be. The underwater world was still a mystery, but he had taken the first step toward demythologizing it, and was not unwilling to pass the torch to Barton and the Piccards.

The Remarkable Life of William Beebe  

Chapter 30: Half Mile Down