Covering three-quarters of Earth’s surface, the ocean is the last frontier of exploration on our planet. Water pressure could overwhelm a diver below 200 feet and submarines before 1930 could dive no lower than 600 feet. The average depth of the ocean is 12,450 feet.
In 1928, an engineer named Otis Barton presented a plan for a deep-sea craft to Charles William Beebe, who was director of the Department of Tropical Research at the New York Zoological Society. Barton planned to descend into the dark depths in a sturdy metal sphere just four feet in diameter.
He called it a bathysphere, after two Greek words meaning “deep” and “ball.” Beebe liked the simplicity of the design and two years later he joined Barton off Bermuda for the first in a series of dives.
Held by a strand of steel cable from a floating ship and supplied with oxygen tanks, the craft carried the men into the depths, farther than any living person had yet gone. There, through two windows made of quartz, Beebe reported seeing “a world as strange as Mars or Venus.”
Fish that had only been seen in fishermen’s nets swam past their windows. On the first expedition, Beebe and Barton descended to 1,426 feet, a world record. In 1932, they went deeper, to 2,220 feet. In hushed tones, Beebe described the brilliant sea animals on a live radio broadcast. As the craft descended farther, he ran out of words.
Many of the fish had never been seen before. One fish, which Beebe called the dragonfish, grew to six feet and carried a jaw full of sharp teeth. Another, called an avocet eel, was slender like a snake and displayed brilliant patterns of light.
Beebe later described them as “one of the loveliest things I have ever seen.” On August 14, 1934, Beebe and Barton took their last, and deepest dive, together, ending at 3,028 feet. The record would hold for fifteen years.