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The Sea Was Boiling With Lights

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

Else Bostlemann was an early member of the Society of Woman Geographers who enjoyed a fascinating job. Trained as an artist, she worked with William Beebe and several other members of the Society (Gloria Hollister and Jocelyn Crane) in Bermuda. At the time, Beebe was researching the depths of the ocean using diving helmets and a submersible called the bathysphere.

To paint fish in their natural habitat, Else contrived a way to paint twenty-five-feet underwater with oil paints. She would climb down a boat ladder. Once she was in the water, the boat crew would lower the sixty-pound copper diving helmet onto her head. She descended thirty-six feet below the water's surface. Painting the coral reefs was one of her favorite tasks. It was “her own underwater ‘fairyland.’” Else recalled:

After I descended, my painting outfit was lowered by ropes from the boat. Generally, I used an iron music stand for an easel on which was tied my frame covered with stretched canvas. My palette was weighed with lead and on it were squeezed gobs of color in all the rainbow hues. The use of wet colors under water in this way might at first strike one as impossible, unbelievable. But oil colors have never yet mixed with water. My brushes were securely tied to the palette and, as one can imagine, floated with their wooden handles upright, tugging lightly at their strings and bobbing in the gentle current.

Else Bostelmann Painting Her Underwater "Fairyland"

In the 1930s, Will Beebe began to view the deep from the bathysphere, an “ungainly ball that looked rather like an enormous inflated and slightly cockeyed bullfrog.” The bathysphere was a metal diving globe lowered into the water by a cable.

It would have been enormously helpful if Else had descended in the bathysphere to see the fish that Beebe asked her to paint. But he refused to let Else descend. She explained to a reporter, “Doctor Beebe would not take me in the Bathysphere because I had a teenaged daughter and he didn’t want me to be in danger.” Beebe began a new practice: when he returned from a bathysphere dive he would review his telephoned notes. Often, Else Bostelmann would record the telephone log. They would review the log and go “into an artistic huddle.” Will would scrawl some pictures of fish, and Else would make tentative sketches, and then he would make changes. He called the fish that no one saw but he and Otis, “brain fish” because they seemed to exist only in their brains. “Little by little,” he recalled, under Else’s brush, “my brain fish materialized, its proportions, size, color, lights, finally interdigitated with those of my memory.”

Else’s pictures were like a porthole into another world. Beebe said, “Else Bostelmann gave her best in the colored paintings of deep-sea creatures, and when there is only my memory to assist and check, the artist must indeed be good.” Her paintings were striking, colorful, and bold. She “dazzled Will and everyone else with her renditions of the strange creatures of the abyss. She had a gift for visualizing the dead or living specimens that were her subjects as though they were swimming in the deep ocean. Their anatomies signaled motion and vitality to Bostelmann, and her interpretations of them leaped from her easel.”

Else Bostlemann, Saber-toothed Viper Fish

Numerous scientists challenged Beebe’s claims that he had seen unusual fish from the bathysphere 2,500 feet deep. And, indeed, some of the fish were bizarre. These fish were bioluminescent and some had “headlights,” which made it seem as though the “waters were boiling with light.” In 1934, Beebe was the first person to dive so deep. He said the fish were like ”stars in a dark sky twisting around crazily, as if they had suddenly gone mad.”

Else Bostelmann. Deep-sea Creatures Swim Around Bathysphere

Carl L. Hubb challenged the bioluminescent fish that Will called the Bathysphaera intacta because no one other than Beebe had ever seen a bioluminescent fish. He speculated that Will had seen a photophosphorescent fish “whose lights were beautified by halation in passing through a misty film breathed onto the quartz window by Mr. Beebe’s eagerly apressed face.” Even Otis Barton, the inventor of the bathysphere, suspected that Will invented the Bathysphaera intacta: “His description sounds a little fishy to me. I’m not calling him a liar; he had a better view than me. But this species hadn’t been seen before and I don’t think since.” He was wrong: in 1964, the Bathysphaera intacta was validated, two years after Beebes death. It probably didn’t help that, without Beebe’s consent, Barton released a horror film called Titans of the Deep, and claimed that Beebe and Gloria Hollister participated in the making of the film. Beebe vehemently denied any connection to the movie, although the movie included images of him and his crew, which Barton filmed while he was working with Beebe.

Additional information on Bostlemann and the bathysphere dives, including reproductions of her paintings are available in an amazing book that accompanied an exhibition at The Drawing Center curated by Mark Dion, Katherine McLeod, and Madeleine Thompson. Another excellent source is an article in Oceanography by Edith Widder, who discovered a long-lost treasure trove of Bostlemann's work.

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