Cover image for The eternal darkness : a personal history of deep-sea exploration
The eternal darkness : a personal history of deep-sea exploration
Ballard, Robert D.
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Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2000]

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xii, 388 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 24 cm
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GC65 .B275 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
GC65 .B275 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
GC65 .B275 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Until a few decades ago, the ocean depths were almost as mysterious and inaccessible as outer space. Oceans cover two-thirds of the earth's surface with an average depth of more than two miles--yet humans had never ventured more than a few hundred feet below the waves. One of the great scientific and archaeological feats of our time has been finally to cast light on the "eternal darkness" of the deep sea. This is the story of that achievement, told by the man who has done more than any other to make it possible: Robert Ballard.

Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic. He led the teams that discovered hydrothermal vents and "black smokers"--cracks in the ocean floor where springs of superheated water support some of the strangest life-forms on the planet. He was a diver on the team that explored the mid-Atlantic ridge for the first time, confirming the theory of plate tectonics. Today, using a nuclear submarine from the U.S. Navy, he's exploring the ancient trade routes of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea for the remains of historic vessels and their cargo. In this book, he combines science, history, spectacular illustrations, and first-hand stories from his own expeditions in a uniquely personal account of how twentieth-century explorers have pushed back the frontiers of technology to take us into the midst of a world we could once only guess at.

Ballard begins in 1930 with William Beebe and Otis Barton, pioneers of the ocean depths who made the world's first deep-sea dives in a cramped steel sphere. He introduces us to Auguste and Jacques Piccard, whose "Bathyscaph"descended in 1960 to the lowest point on the ocean floor. He reviews the celebrated advances made by Jacques Cousteau. He describes his own major discoveries--from sea-floor spreading to black smokers--as well as his technical breakthroughs, including the development of remote-operated underwater vehicles and the revolutionary search techniques that led to the discovery and exploration of the Titanic, the Nazi battleship Bismarck, ancient trading vessels, and other great ships.

Readers will come away with a richer understanding of history, earth science, biology, and marine technology--and a new appreciation for the remarkable men and women who have explored some of the most remote and fascinating places on the planet.

Author Notes

Robert Ballard was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1942, and was educated at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Hawaii, the University of Southern California, and the University of Rhode Island, where he received his Ph.D. in 1974. Part explorer, part geologist, part oceanographer, and part marine engineer, Ballard has worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Falmouth, Massachusetts, since 1969. He is currently director of the Center for Marine Exploration there.

Ballard is perhaps best known to the general public in connection to the luxury liner Titanic. Ballard organized and participated in the expedition that discovered the ship in 1985. More important, however, is his work in designing underwater survey vehicles and in participating in dives to explore the ocean floor. His work in marine design and engineering, in particular, has led to a dramatic increase in the scope of deep-sea exploration. In the 1960s, Ballard helped develop the Alvin, a deep-sea, three-man submersible equipped with a remote controlled mechanical arm for collecting specimens from the ocean floor. The device played an important role in mid-ocean studies, including exploration of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and dives to the Cayman Trough, a 24,000-foot-deep gash in the ocean floor south of Cuba.

Ballard was part of the Galapagos Hydrothermal Expedition in 1977, which discovered and investigated deep-sea thermal vents spouting mineral-rich water from volcanic cracks in the Earth's crust. In the 1980s, Ballard helped develop the Argo-Jason unmanned submersible system, the most advanced craft of its kind. Argo is a 16-foot submersible vehicle and Jason is a self-propelled robot tethered to Argo. The search for the Titanic was undertaken as a test of the Argo-Jason system; the success of the expedition demonstrated its capabilities and, according to Ballard, "ushered in a new era of undersea exploration."

The author of several bestselling books on deep-sea exploration, Ballard also contributes regularly to National Geographic and other magazines and he has produced several videotapes of deep-sea expeditions. His reputation as a "science populizer" has prompted harsh criticism from some of his scientific colleagues.

In 1985, Ballard was one of four scientists awarded a Secretary of the Navy Research Chair in Oceanography, an award that carries with it an $800,000 grant for oceanographic research.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

The man who found the Titanic, discovered black smokers on the sea floor and first ventured into the mid-Atlantic ridge tells the story of deep-sea exploration through his own story and those of the argonauts who preceded him into "the abyss." Ballard begins in 1930, when "the first humans entered the world of eternal darkness and returned alive"--Charles William Beebe and Otis Barton, who descended 1,426 feet in a bathysphere, basically a hollow steel ball let down via cable. Highlighting both the human drama and technical achievements of this and subsequent dives, Ballard takes the story through Auguste Piccard's bathyscaphe, which in 1960 carried Piccard's son, Jacques, to 35,800 feet in the Pacific's Challenger Deep--the bottom of the world--to the subsequent development of small, more maneuverable submersibles, particularly Alvin, within which Ballard explored the mid-ocean ridge and, in a project of great biological import, those smokers, undersea hot vents in which life may have first arisen on Earth; and on to the recent advent of remote-controlled "eyes" like Argo and Jason Junior, which have not only allowed for the surveying of the Titanic and other historic wrecks, reinvigorating the field of marine archeology, but which, linked to the Net, have also allowed scientists to explore the sea bottom from the safety of shore. Replete with personal anecdotes, this history gives an insider's savvy look at how science, commerce and military interests have combined to open up a new frontier of exploration. Ballard weighs the pros and cons of various means of descent, and acts always as a booster of his field. Scores of photographs highlight the steadily absorbing text; together, words and pictures present a vital and authoritative general history of humanity's adventures deep beneath the waves. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

While most of us have gazed skyward to distant extraterrestrial frontiers, few have wondered about the dark and deep ocean frontier close at hand, yet so inaccessible until recently. Ocean scientist Ballard offers a history of the human saga of opening the deep ocean frontier; the astounding advances in marine technology and capabilities involving no small risks; the astonishing surprises of new life forms and mineral springs; the location of the Titanic, Thresher, Bismarck, and other ships; and the motivational imperatives that drive the entire ocean exploration enterprise. The book is divided into three parts: "Depth," a history of the struggle against unknown odds to reach increasingly greater oceanic depths; "Discovery," the mid-ocean ridges, hydrothermal black-smoking vents, and exotic life; and "Detachment," sunken ships and archeological recoveries, and rationale for continuing deep-sea exploration. A bibliography of nearly a thousand references is included, and numerous photos enrich the lively text. This book takes the reader into the deep-sea realm along the discovery paths of famous deep-sea explorers as chronicled by the preeminent explorer of our time. Ballard's book will leave readers enlightened and concerned about the expanding role the oceans are playing as the future evolves. All levels. T. L. T. Grose; Colorado School of Mines

Booklist Review

Titanic discoverer Ballard begins his "personal history of deep-sea exploration" (the text's first-person pronouns refer only to Ballard) with the early efforts of Beebe and Barton in their bathyspheres and proceeds to provide a more complete history of Piccard's bathyscaphe than most readers will have encountered, one that includes its perilous descent to the bottom of the Mindanao Deep. The pace quickens when Ballard arrives at the first generation of submersibles (e.g., Cousteau's diving saucer) and later the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Alvin, which once retrieved an H-bomb, and the ancestors of today's remote-controlled probes. Ballard played a large role in developing the remote-controlled craft and is accordingly present as an actor in his account of them. He is, as usual, contentious but gives credit where it is due and handily summarizes a technology unfamiliar to many readers. Ballard has published popular books about his recovery of other famous sunken ships besides the movie's namesake, which adds cachet to this more scholarly work. --Roland Green

Library Journal Review

Doing science is exciting! This is the main message of Ballard's fascinating combination memoir and history of deep ocean science. Best known for finding the remains of the Titanic, Ballard has also been involved in many of the recent scientific discoveries in the deep sea, which have changed the way we understand biology, geophysics, and the origins of life on earth. He blends his personal experiences exploring hydrothermal vents and shipwrecks with stories of earlier deep-sea pioneers, focusing especially on the technology. This discussion is counterbalanced by an extensive "Further Reading" section (not seen), which concentrates on the scientific discoveries made possible by the vehicles and people covered in the text. While there are similar books, such as Victoria A. Kaharl's Water Baby: The Story of Alvin (LJ 10/15/90) and Susan Schlee's The Edge of an Unfamiliar World: A History of Oceanography (1973. o.p.), Ballard's volume is easy to read and will be an excellent addition to collections at all levels on oceanography, history of science, and exploration.--Margaret A. Rioux, MBL/WHOI Lib., Woods Hole, MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



A SIMPLE TETHERED SPHERE When once it has been seen, [the deep ocean] will remain forever the most vivid memory in life. - William Beebe On June 11, 1930, the first humans entered the world of eternal darkness and returned alive. Off the island of Bermuda, two men, Charles William Beebe and Otis Barton, descended 1,426 feet, nearly three times deeper than any previous diver. Their mode of transport resembled the stuff of legend: in the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great had supposedly reached deep waters in a glass barrel lowered by chains. Beebe and Barton's remarkably similar craft, made of steel rather than glass, dangled just as precariously on a cable. A crew on a surface ship lowered the two men deep into the Atlantic, then hauled them back toward sunlight and air. The ancient Greeks, given access to modern industrial tools and steel, might have managed the feat in much the same way. William Beebe was a fascinating mixture of scientist, poet, showman, and explorer. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1877, he seems never to have lost the curiosity of an excited child-a quality he was to combine later in life with the bravery of a confident professional. Instead of completing his final year at Columbia University, Beebe went to work full time in 1899 as assistant curator at the New York Zoological Park. He was soon tracking rare birds in Mexico, Trinidad, and Venezuela and studying wild pheasants in the Far East. On a trip to the Galápagos Islands, Beebe hiked up an erupting volcano. In the 1920s he began diving in the ocean, using a helmet, and he said that someday he hoped to go deeper in a new kind of diving vessel. His popular writings bubbled over with enthusiasm, encouraging readers to enter his newly discovered underwater paradise. "Don't die," he advised them, "without having borrowed, stolen, or made a helmet of sorts, to glimpse for yourself this new world." Years before those words appeared in print, a teenage boy named Otis Barton had done precisely what Beebe suggested: he had made his own helmet, a crude wooden box with glass windows. In 1917, wearing his new headgear, he weighed himself down with rocks and sandbags and explored the harbor bottom at Cotuit, Massachusetts, breathing air forced down from the surface by means of a bicycle pump. Barton also dreamed of exploring the deep sea. However, unlike Beebe, he directed his passion toward the means of diving as well as the ends: he studied both engineering and natural science at Columbia. Yet Barton never held a job. Having inherited a large amount of money, he spent most of his life in pursuit of fantastic creatures-prehistoric fossils, rare wild animals, and "titans of the deep," such as sharks, octopuses, and giant squid. He was, altogether, a mysterious individual. During the years he worked with Beebe, we must rely for information chiefly on pictures of him toiling over his diving apparatus, or occasional comments that Beebe published indicating his confidence in Barton's engineering talents. - The Bathysphere In 1926 Barton read about Beebe's quest to explore the deep ocean. He wrote to the famous scientist/author, but Beebe never replied-having been inundated, it turned out, with all kinds of suggestions from crackpot designers of deep-sea vessels. Barton finally arranged a meeting through a mutual acquaintance in December 1928. Having done the necessary calculations and drawn up blueprints, he showed Beebe his idea for a diving craft. It was little more than a hollow sphere. Barton explained that a sphere would be the shape best suited to withstand the crushing deep-ocean pressure, which bears down equally from all directions. Beebe liked the design and agreed to test such a craft. He christened their diving chamber a bathysphere , joining the Greek word for deep to sphere . Barton volunteered to pay for the craft's construction. Later, the New York Zoological Society and the National Geographic Society would fund the explorers' diving expeditions. Barton's first steel chamber, cast in one piece at a foundry in New Jersey, weighed five tons-making it too heavy for the barge, Ready , that would lower and raise it. The next version weighed half as much, but its small interior-only four feet nine inches in diameter-would barely accommodate two men. Had Barton made the hollow space larger, he would have needed a thicker, heavier hull. As it was, the steel wall measured one and a half inches thick-sufficient, Barton figured, to survive a descent to a depth of 4,500 feet. A small, fifteen-inch circular opening in one side of the sphere allowed squirming passengers to enter head first. Around this entryway-a potential weak spot-ten large steel bolts protruded from the sphere. A 400-pound door fit over the bolts. After crew members had hoisted the door up and wrestled it into position, they screwed ten huge nuts onto the bolts. Then one last large bolt, held in place by a giant wing nut, plugged a small central opening in the door. (This allowed quick access, in case of emergency, to let out water or foul air.) A crewman then pounded the wing nut tight. Beebe referred to this moment as the most painful part of a dive. Ear-shattering reverberations bounced off the steel hull. Perhaps, at such moments, Barton's earlier name for the vessel seemed more apt: he had called it, simply but unpoetically, "the tank." On the side opposite the door, three circular windows made of fused quartz, each eight inches in diameter and three inches thick, fit into "cannon-like projections"-short tubes that stuck out from the sphere like stubby telescopes to accommodate the extra thickness of the quartz viewing panes. Pieces from any of those windows would indeed shoot through the tubes like cannonballs-straight into the sphere toward the occupants-if some unseen flaw were to cause a window to crack and yield under pressure. Of the five quartz pieces initially made, only two passed all fitting and pressure tests, so Barton had to insert a steel plug into one of the three window openings for their first dives. The interior of the bathysphere contained only the barest of necessities. Two small oxygen tanks, placed on either side of the windows, would keep the air sweet for eight hours, Barton estimated. One wire mesh tray above the windows contained soda lime to absorb exhaled carbon dioxide; another tray contained calcium chloride to absorb moisture. Believe it or not, on their first dives Beebe and Barton used small palm-leaf fans to circulate the air. When underwater, the bathysphere hung from a 3,500-foot-long, seven-eighths-inch steel cable, raised and lowered by a steam-powered winch. Extra strands of cable, woven around the central core, were supposed to ensure that the sphere would not rotate. As the cable descended into the ocean, a solid rubber hose snaked down alongside it. Crewmen played out this hose by hand; it contained two wire conductors for a telephone and two for an electric light. Since the advent of underwater lighting technology was still many years away, Beebe and Barton simply mounted a 250-watt spotlight inside their sphere and aimed it out through a window. After submerging, Beebe or Barton, wearing headphones, communicated via the telephone link with Gloria Hollister, an assistant. During many of those conversations, Beebe made observations and Hollister transcribed his words. Every second counted, since the air supply was limited and observation time was short. On the positive side, the cramped occupants of the bathysphere had little to do but observe. They wasted no time fiddling with controls because there were none. They had no ability to maneuver their craft and no depth gauge. When the sphere approached the bottom, crew members on the support barge made depth measurements every few minutes, using a line attached to a small lead anchor. - Light First Shines in the Eternal Night The first series of deep-water dives took place in June 1930 near Bermuda, where Beebe had been studying marine animals. He had cast nets into the ocean and examined what they brought up, but he could not be sure how many creatures had eluded his nets, Opinions differed on this matter. Folktales suggested that strange, unknown kinds of life inhabited the deep sea. Alexander the Great, during his legendary dive, had supposedly seen a fish so large that it took three days to swim past his glass barrel, and tales of other deep-dwelling monsters had been passed down through the ages. Many contemporary researchers, on the other hand, believed that the ocean depths were too cold and dark to support any significant amount of life. Beebe had no idea what might await him below. The first deep test of the bathysphere, conducted on June 3, nearly ended in disaster. After lowering the empty sphere to 2,000 feet, the crew could not haul it back; the steel cable and rubber hose had become so tangled that the cable would not rewind on its reel. Foot by foot, with great effort, crew members pushed the snarled hose down the length of the cable, which they gradually winched up and rewound. When they finally got the sphere back on deck, they found that the "non-twisting" steel cable had turned some forty-five times, twisting the rubber hose tightly around itself as it turned. The rubber looked chafed and stretched-would the wires inside it be broken? Fortunately they were not, and the twisting forces seemed to have played themselves out with this lowering. Several other tests followed. Finally, on June 6, with all the problems apparently fixed, the bathysphere was ready to take human passengers down into the eternal darkness. Beebe later described the first attempt: "I ... crawled painfully over the steel bolts, fell inside and curled up on the cold, hard bottom of the sphere.... Otis Barton climbed in after me, and we disentangled our legs and got set." Crew members lifted the heavy door and carefully slid it over the projecting bolts; then they screwed on the huge nuts. Although his vision was limited, Beebe could see the launch crew scurrying about the deck. Feeling trapped inside the small capsule and wanting to calm his nerves, he followed Houdini's technique of regulating his breathing and conversing in low tones. It helped. At precisely 1:00 in the afternoon, Ready 's captain signaled with his hand to the crew chief. The cable attached to the top of the bathysphere suddenly went taut; the capsule rose quickly into the air and then began to drop. "I sensed the weight and sturdy resistance of the bathysphere more at this moment than at any other time," Beebe wrote. "We were lowered gently but we struck the surface with a splash which would have crushed a rowboat like an eggshell. Yet within we hardly noticed the impact, until a froth of foam and bubbles surged up over the glass." As the bathysphere began to sink deeper, Beebe saw the familiar outline of the support ship's keel. He watched it grow smaller and fainter until it blended into the greenish glow of the surface. With its disappearance passed the last visible link to human beings in the upper world. From then on, their only reassurance that those on the surface had not lost control at their end of the tether would be the soft voice of Gloria Hollister relaying depth, speed, or information on surface weather conditions. At 200 feet the bathysphere stopped. As it hesitated in midwater, crewmen clamped the steel cable and rubber hose together, giving the rubber more support so that it would not break under its own weight. (They would repeat this procedure every 200 feet.) Beebe and Barton's journey into the abyss then resumed. For long stretches, their only sense of motion was the constant movement of small organic detritus, "marine snow," falling not downward but upward as the diving craft dropped through it. Before they reached their next scheduled pause at 400 feet, Barton startled Beebe with a sharp exclamation. Turning quickly, Beebe saw a trickle of water meandering down the wall beneath the door. For a moment they watched this little stream in horror, but then Beebe began to relax. "I knew the door was solid enough," he wrote, and he realized that higher pressure outside the sphere would only seal it more tightly. Rather than cancel the dive, he asked for a quicker descent. At 400 feet the bathysphere plunged through the lower limit that submarines could reach in those days. Beebe and Barton soon passed 525 feet, the greatest depth any person had reached alive in an armored suit. At 600 feet the water took on a shade of blue no conscious human had ever seen. Beebe described the luminous color as pouring into the sphere through the viewports-a confusing otherworldly glow that seemed constantly bright as his eyes adjusted. "The blueness of the blue" became almost mystical: it seemed to pass "materially through the eye," Beebe remarked, "into our very beings." As the twilight deepened, "we still spoke of its brilliance," he continued. "It seemed to me that it must be like the last terrific upflare of a flame before it is quenched." On a hunch, Beebe called for a halt of several minutes at 800 feet. The leak seemed no worse, the oxygen was flowing, and yet he decided that the dive should end. "Some mental warning," he wrote "which I have had at half a dozen critical times in my life-spelled bottom for this trip." The bathysphere returned to the deck of Ready only an hour after it had plunged into the water. Its two occupants untangled themselves, crawled stiffly out, and noticed right away the unbelievable yellow hue that suffuses our sunlit world. Later, Barton packed soft lead into a groove around the door's edges, hoping that it would form a watertight seal on future dives. The expedition put to sea once again on June 10. After being lowered empty to 2,000 feet, the bathysphere returned with no evident leaks. Beebe and Barton then climbed in, ready to make another attempt to reach total darkness. At 150 feet, however, the telephone began to crackle, and at 250 feet Barton cried out that the line was dead. Beebe also felt alarmed. "The leak on our other trip," he wrote, had been "annoying but not terrifying." Suddenly he understood why. All along, he knew he could quickly relay an urgent request to anyone in the twenty-six-person surface crew-especially to the man controlling the seven-ton winch. Down below, nothing seemed more reassuring than the sound of a human voice. Beebe blinked the spotlight for all he was worth. This caused a bulb on Ready 's deck, wired into the same circuit, to flicker, which, by prearranged signal, meant trouble down below-bring us back! By the time the sphere resurfaced, the worried crew was showing considerable strain. Continues... Excerpted from THE ETERNAL DARKNESS by Robert D. Ballard with Will Hively Copyright © 2000 by Princeton University Press Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. 3
Part I Depth
1 A Simple Tethered Spherep. 13
2 Bathyscaphs Race to the Bottomp. 33
3 The Tragic Dawn of the Modern Deep Submersiblep. 58
Part II Discovery
4 Scientists Begin Exploring the Deepp. 93
5 The Midocean Ridge: Womb of the Earthp. 117
6 Hydrothermal Vents: Exotic Oasesp. 157
7 Black Smokers: Recipe for a Salty Oceanp. 187
Part III Detachment
8 A Tethered Eyeball Races to Find the Titanicp. 217
9 Recovering Our Past by Remote Controlp. 255
10 Should Humans Continue to Dive? Two Paradigmsp. 299
A Note on Sourcesp. 313
Further Readingp. 315
Indexp. 375