In the summer of 1930, aboard a ship floating near the Atlantic island of Nonsuch, marine biologist Gloria Hollister sat on a crate, writing furiously in a notebook with a telephone receiver pressed to her ear. The phone line was attached to a steel cable that plunged 3,000 feet into the sea. There, suspended by the cable, dangled a four-and-a-half-foot steel ball called the bathysphere. Crumpled inside, gazing through three-inch quartz windows at the undersea world, was Hollister’s colleague William Beebe. He called up to her, describing previously unseen creatures, explosions of bioluminescence, and strange effects of light and color.
BEEBE HEARD BARTON FIDDLING behind him to regain the phone connection. The bathysphere was still.
His mind had floated out through the three-inch quartz panes and fused with the darkening water. He saw clouds of small vibrating motes. He could not understand what they were.
He saw flying snails within delicate shells, as if made of tissue or wet parchment, with flaps of flesh wafting in space, pushing them forward.
He saw lanternfish lit up with iridescent flesh, as if the shining were a kind of armor.
In the silence of the ball, he heard the engineer’s frustrated breath. It was awkward and cold and muggy.
He saw a pair of pilot fish outside, but they were so faint it was as if they were ghosts. Beyond them, in the distance, some dark forms hovered but did not approach.
He saw big silvery-bronze eels, some crustacea with flattened bodies. The phone reconnected with a click and a brief eruption of static.
Beebe heard Hollister’s voice again and reassured her. All was well. Yes.
It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two.
The bathysphere began to lower further, and he began talking again, listing and describing what he saw in as much detail as he could, as he’d trained himself to do. But it was as if his mind had stayed outside the vessel, afloat with the darkening forms as they disappeared and reappeared at lower depths.
How to talk to Hollister if he was as dispersed as the darkness?
He called up the names of flying snails and squids, a big leptocephalus, a golden-tailed serpent dragon, a kind of eel-like form, probably an idiacanthus.
He watched a beautiful, dime-sized light approach, until, without the slightest warning, it seemed to explode. The flash was so bright he jerked his head back from the window.
They passed through fifty feet of terrible emptiness, until, out of nowhere, a creature he could not name appeared.
He could hardly call it a body. It was like filaments, a network of luminosity, delicate, with large meshes, all aglow and in motion, waving slowly as it drifted.
Though this was not the only time he saw this nameless vision, he could never say what it was, or define it as a single creature, or even really be sure he had seen it.
They sank another fifty feet, and there he saw a series of lights flashing, like the electric grid of a city seen from the sky. He saw layer upon layer emerge and fade in the darkness but could not see or envision what was happening. Some kind of invertebrate lifeform, he guessed, so delicate and evanescent that there would be no sign of it if he brought one up in a net.
As they sank further, the beam weakened. Its light quickly absorbed by the dense water. There at the edge of its reach, he saw a large form. He’d seen it before but wasn’t sure if he should even mention it. Perhaps it had been a trick of the imagination. But there it was again—a significant form appearing in silhouette. He guessed it was not really black, but a shade that appeared black among the blacknesses. Hardly visible, the slightest trace of a silhouette, a suggestion of color. It was swimming, or appeared to be swimming. Whether it was a fish or squid or some other organism, he could not say.
BEEBE LIKED TO CONTEMPLATE varieties of darkness. The balance between day and night changed through the seasons, and through latitudes, but even if punctuated by fire or more and more by electric lights, it always kept accounts. Along the equator it was essentially one to one.
Beebe had learned that the root of the English word night was the old Gothic hneiwan or Anglo-Saxon hnigan, which meant “descend.” So what he was doing in the bathysphere could be considered nightening.
In the jungle, night came with the sounds of animals that kept the mind alert. As darkness fell, other senses sharpened. Now in the deep ocean, the descent of night blossomed into a new kind of eternity that had no balance like the days and nights of the surface. There was no hearing and smelling in the deep beyond the unfortunate sounds or smells of Barton.
In the bathysphere, the nighttime alertness of the jungle mind gave way to awe in the face of the vulnerability of the human body. Crushed in the depths in a fraction of a second. Again and again, Beebe contemplated the quickness with which it might happen, how soon it could be over.
In a city at night, you might see even down a dark alley. At the edge of town, you might grab a flashlight. When the flashlight batteries go dead, you’re left to feel your way forward with your hands or grab a stick and walk like the blind. Eventually, you might learn to walk like that perfectly well.
Beebe remembered a naturalist’s assistant he once heard about, who followed his boss through the jungle. The naturalist went forward flipping stones, looking for ants, and the assistant went behind, in his path, carefully placing every upturned stone back in place.
Night was like that.
In the Beam
|1140 ft||Beam on.|
|1180||Ctenophores with no light.|
|1200||Sparks in all directions—dozens of them—
Large creature back again, out in distance,
maybe longer than I thought.
Pteropods, shield-shaped, shining by reflected
Big glow in the distance, 6 to 8 inches across,
light going up.
Pediculate, 3 inches long, very deep, a pale
lemon-yellow colored light on illicium.
Now it is close to window. Same fish went
past again. Between me and illumined front of
this fish swam another 3-inch fish which was faintly
lighted all over with a silvery luminescence.
|1250||Same fish back again, with small tail
and no lights of its own.
Copepods brilliantly lighted in beam.
|1290||Another flash, a pale rose-red.|
|1300||Pediculate around window,
4 inches, very near glass, dull luminous teeth,
As many organisms as ever. Bathysphere
rolling up and down very gently.
Big Leptocephalus, 8-inches by 1-inch deep, rapidly
Few Worms and a Siphonophore.
Beam fading off into rich turquoise.
Melanostomiatid-like fish, 1 inch long.
Smallest fish with double, lateral lights ever seen.
|1390||A lavender light right up to window, cheek light.
Slim, slender fish like a male Idiacanthus,
but seems much longer,
with a yellow cheek light.
Now a Siphonophore, or jellyfish, with luminous tentacles.
|1450||Same large fish again.
|1500||Argyropelecus, four of them spinning
around beam, their lights glowing
4 of the slimmest fish I have ever seen.
They streak through light, about 15
inches long. Long slender jaws, yet quite
different from known eels.
Barometer reading 77.
Pale flesh-colored fish around 2 feet
long, no lights. It is a pale pasty whitish-buff
and very high melanostomiatic fins. Grand clear
view, memorized details.
Humidity 60%, temperature 80.
Excerpted from The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths, by Brad Fox. Copyright © 2023 by Brad Fox. Used with permission of the publisher, Astra House. All rights reserved.