Before Cousteau

November 19, 2014 1:39 AM

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As a teenager, I became briefly obsessed with the deep sea. The eternally dark ocean floor, populated by mean-looking fish with glowing fins, giant worms and whale carcasses, seemed like a suitably mystical subject for my adolescent poetry. I know I wasn't alone; for many of us, the deep sea seems as fascinating and alien as the surface of Mars. I was surprised to learn as an adult that the history of deep-sea exploration is nearly as young as that of space travel. Before 1930, no one had been able to make a dive deeper than 500 feet. The ocean was still a great unknown in the years between the world wars, and some scientists speculated that the bottom was a "dead zone" where the pressure and darkness made life impossible. It was in this atmosphere of total uncertainty that William Beebe and Otis Barton built a hollow steel ball called the Bathysphere.

Like Jacques Cousteau, who has cited him as an influence, William Beebe was a scientist, explorer, inventor, author and wildly popular public figure. His first book, Two Bird Lovers in Mexico (1905), included both his scientific observations of pheasants and riveting prose about the expedition, whic...

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