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Beebe’s Bathysphere

September 3, 2020

Beebe’s Bathysphere

- as seen by -

Joseph Gessert Joseph Gessert

Just to the left of the main entrance to WCS’s New York Aquarium is an unassuming historical relic. The bathysphere is a blue iron sphere, its mottled surface interrupted by four thick panes of glass. The contraption is perhaps five feet tall and looks homemade. A thick, welded connection atop the sphere ends in a rusted stub of cable.

On August 15, 1934, the steel cable attached to that connection unspooled to lower the bathysphere more than half a mile into the Atlantic Ocean off Bermuda. Jammed into the sphere were WCS’s Director of Tropical Research William Beebe and the bathysphere’s engineer Otis Barton. As they peered out of four-inch portholes into the murky depths, water leaked into the sphere, and their half mile of telephone line crackled with the voices of nervous surface tenders. Beyond cold metal and thick glass swam fish and crawled invertebrates that had been seen only dead on the surface, dragged up by fishermen and scientists, the pressure change rendering them unrecognizable. Beebe and Barton’s were the first human eyes to observe these creatures in their habitat, and on their safe return, the two explorers did everything in their power to share the wonder of what they had seen.

Today, it is difficult for us to imagine the courage and dedication that drove Beebe and Barton down into those depths 86 years ago, but the Wildlife Conservation Society and the New York Aquarium are proud to carry on in the spirit of their expeditions, pursuing scientific knowledge and conservation, and doing whatever we can to share our love of the living world with New Yorkers and visitors from around the world.

It’s been a strange few months for all of us, everywhere, and we’re very happy to have visitors trickling back into our parks. We’ve missed you. When you’re next at the aquarium, spend a moment with the bathysphere. Put a hand on its surface. Imagine those murky depths, the two adults jammed into that small space, and their fear and joy as they dropped beneath the surface and down to the ocean’s floor to learn a little more about our amazing world.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Wildlife Conservation Society is celebrating 125 years of saving wildlife and wild places in 2020. WCS was founded as the New York Zoological Society in 1895, and the flagship Bronx Zoo opened in 1899. Wild View will feature regular posts on the history of the Society’s photography and other events throughout the year.


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