In this post we are venturing out to sea on the steamer ship Arcturus to explore the Sargasso Sea and the Galapogas with William Beebe. Setting off from New York 10th Feb 1925 and spending six months at sea, Beebe and his team of scientists were investigating the Sargasso Sea hoping to learn about the seaweed it is named after and the Humboldt Current. The ship was well equipped with a laboratory full of water tanks and microscopes and a dark room for processing motion picture film, photos and looking at glowing creatures from the depth of the ocean. The ship was fitted with various walkways hanging off the side and a cage like structure called the Pulpit that hung off the front of the ship. These allowed the sea to be dredged and specimens collected.
The chapters in The Arcturus Adventure: An account of the New York Zoological Society’s first Oceanographic expedition were written by Beebe or Ruth Rose or a joint effort. (Ruth Rose goes on to be a screenwriter in Hollywood and is famous for writing the original King Kong). The book is very descriptive, and you can see why Beebe’s books were best sellers in popular science:
I swam rapidly away for fifty yards and then turned and gave myself up to a realization of my position in relation to old Mother Earth……I seemed for a long time to be floating at the bottom of a gigantic ultramarine cone, then slowly and gently to rise-high,high, higher-until I dominated the Arcturus and seemed to approach the drifting clouds overhead. (pg. 35)
There are more scientific sections in the book too. There is a ships log giving dates and description of what activities took place on that day. It also tells us what the weather was like and their position at noon giving the latitude and longitude. There then follows an appendix which lists the species they encountered.
Along with all the scientists, the ship had a pet, a small Panamanian moneky called chiriqui who is “…the indispensable mascot of three expeditions of the … Society. He is a much travelled and thoroughly spoiled person, and in his more destructive moments is known as Rasputin the Demon Monk.”
One of exciting parts of the expedition is the visit to an active volcano. Beebe and another scientist go for a closer look and are almost overcome by the toxic gases it is releasing. The voyage also makes use of a bathysphere and Beebe becomes well known for his deep sea diving. While on another adventure off Nonsuch Island in 1934 he dives 3,028 feet and its takes a 15 years before anyone dives deeper.
Beebe is considered to be one of the founders of field ecology and a supporter of conservation. He tries to justify capturing and killing animals for science in this book by stating:
However, one can be tender-hearted without being sentimental and if I need the facts for science, to complete the life-history of a whole species, I will shoot a dove on her eggs without compunction. (pg. 88)
Beebe wrote many book and papers. He was very popular with the general public, and here is an example of how his writing would have connected with them:
When I first saw albatrosses at their breeding ground I experienced a slight feeling of embarrassment, as if I were peeking through the blinds……. I feel much the same when, in the rotogravure section of the Sunday paper, I see a photograph of some famous prima donna making apple pie in her kitchenette. (pg.105)
However, Sterling says the scientific community were a bit less favourable as they thought he lacked formal credentials and didn’t like the fact that he wrote popular natural history books. Beebe died in 1962 after a life full of adventures researching a field he was obviously very passionate about.
Grant Gould, C. The remarkable life of William Beebe: explorer and naturalist Washington: Island Press, 2004 (Accessed Online)
Sterling, K.B. Beebe, William. In American National Biography. (Accessed Online)
The book can be accessed via Internet Archive