The Bathysphere Book, Reviewed

When a book like this comes along, take in what the review has to say, maybe read a second opinion, then go find a copy from any of the several independent booksellers offering it:

In “The Bathysphere Book,” Brad Fox chronicles the fascinating Depression-era ocean explorations of William Beebe.

Wildlife Conservation Society Archives

Consider the siphonophore. An inhabitant of the lightless ocean, it looks like a single organism, but is actually a collection of minute creatures, each with its own purpose, working in harmony to move, to eat, to stay alive. They seem impossible but they are real. In 1930 William Beebe was 3,000 feet underwater in a bathysphere, an early deep-sea submersible, when he spotted a huge one: a writhing 20-yard mass whose pale magenta shone impossibly against the absolute blackness of the water. As you can imagine, it made an impression.

Wildlife Conservation Society Archives

“The siphonophore mind, Beebe thought, asks us to rethink our individuality, to consider our epidermis as only one way to measure the extent of our bodies,” writes Brad Fox in “The Bathysphere Book,” a hypnotic new account of Beebe’s Depression-era underwater exploration. “In that light, our furious competition, our back-stabbing and fights over resources, is nonsense. Better we work together, getting closer and closer, more finely attuned to each other’s needs until we are indistinguishable.”

Beautifully written and beautifully made, “The Bathysphere Book” is a piece of poetic nonfiction that strives to conjure up the crushing blackness of the midnight zone. Full color, overflowing with stunning illustrations of the uncanny creatures that live beyond the sun, it raises questions of exploration and wonder, of nature and humanity, and lets readers find answers on their own. If it has a thesis, it is a call to follow the example of the siphonophore, whose components have managed the rare trick of joining together without losing themselves along the way.

The bathysphere was designed by Otis Barton, an engineer who did not let crippling seasickness stop him from accompanying Beebe on the dives. They spent four years exploring the waters off Bermuda’s Nonsuch Island, watching light and color vanish as they dropped ever deeper, relaying observations to Gloria Hollister, the scientist and explorer who manned the boat above. Fox quotes their notes liberally, elevating their stark strangeness to poetry that would sound very nice read in the grim voice of T.S. Eliot:

30 ft: Very large blotched parrotfish, three feet long.
Oxygen gauge reading 500 pounds.
More Chaetodons, four bands, 12 inches.
Sounding 9 fathoms.
A six-foot Shark quite near. It swam
around a huge brain coral when it saw us.
Sounding 9 fathoms.

Read the whole review here.

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