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Sunday, April 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Book Review

Diving into an extraordinary life

Special to The Seattle Times

Enlarge this photoWILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY

In a photo from Brad Matsen's "Descent," William Beebe sits atop the bathysphere, designed by Otis Barton.

"The Remarkable Life of William Beebe: Explorer and Naturalist"
by Carol Grant Gould
Island Press, 447 pp., $30

"Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss"
by Brad Matsen
Pantheon, 286 pp., $25

On Sept. 22, 1932, William Beebe and Otis Barton climbed through a 14-inch-wide porthole into a steel sphere that rested on a barge off the coast of Bermuda. An assistant closed the hatch with a 400-pound cover, which he sealed by twisting and hammering 10 bolts. A winch then lifted the 54-inch diameter sphere and lowered it into the water. Their only connection with the world above was a telephone wire and a steel cable. The winch continued to lower Barton and Beebe until they were 1,550 feet underwater, deeper than any humans had ever descended.

They were not alone. Listening in on the conversation between Beebe and Gloria Hollister, who was on the boat where the winch sat, were millions of people tuned in worldwide to NBC radio. For the next 25 minutes Beebe described what he saw as they dropped another 650 feet: "It is black as Hades." "The biggest fish yet went by. It is shaped like a barracuda." "Loads of little ... I don't know what they are."

Thirty minutes later Beebe and Barton were back on the surface, triumphant after reaching a depth of 2,200 feet.

When Beebe made his descent with Barton, he was in a unique position. Probably no other naturalist has ever been as well known as he. His books regularly made it to the best-seller lists. His articles appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic and Harpers, as well as in many scientific journals. He had been friends with Teddy Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling and A.A. Milne, took Prince George diving, and socialized with New York City's high society. He even had a scandalous divorce.

Coming up

Brad Matsen


The author of "Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss" will read at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com) and at 6:30 p.m., Friday, at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

Despite his nearly half-century of fame, no one had written a detailed biography of Beebe. Now, two books fill in the life of one of America's greatest and once most popular scientists. Author Carol Grant Gould takes the bigger approach, covering his entire life in "The Remarkable Life of William Beebe: Explorer and Naturalist." Part-time Seattle resident Brad Matsen homes in on Beebe's most famous exploration in "Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss." Both are well-written, engaging accounts.

Born in 1877 in Brooklyn, Beebe was the type of boy who, when playing football, noticed the bats flying around. He spent all his spare money on buying animal and mineral specimens and all his spare time collecting, cataloging and describing. By the age of 18, his room looked like a natural-history museum. He went to college at Columbia University and was quickly taken under the tutelage of Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History. With Osborn's support, Beebe got a job at the new Bronx Zoo, which soon led to his first expedition, to Nova Scotia. This trip led to many scientific explorations, including treks to Nepal, China, South America and the Galapagos.

Most trips produced books and articles, all eagerly awaited by the public. It was during the height of Beebe's fame that Otis Barton approached him with his plans for exploring the unknown depths of the ocean. Wealthy and restless, Barton dreamed of being an explorer, like his hero Beebe. He also knew that he needed Beebe's connections to take his project from plan to reality. Despite Beebe's initial concerns about Barton's flightiness, he realized that Barton had come up with the perfect design for what later became known as the bathysphere.

Matsen carefully reconstructs their testy relationship, the development of the bathysphere and its subsequent descents. He clearly shows the excitement and fear of being lowered on a steel cable down into the abyss. Sadly, the two men parted ways and never spoke together after Barton produced a movie, "Titans of the Deep," which combined surface footage of the bathysphere with shots of sharks and of women who wore less than most serious underwater explorers.

William Beebe died in 1962 and was buried in Trinidad. Although he was a prolific writer and publicizer of his work, he kept his private life to himself. He left his papers to his longtime companion, Jocelyn Crane, with the stipulation that they would not be available until after the death of his wife. Fortunately, Carol Grant Gould had befriended Crane and was given complete access to Beebe's work. She has written a biography worthy of Beebe. It makes compelling and, better yet, inspiring reading for anyone interested in the natural world.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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