While covering the Big Rock Marlin Tournament this week and dealing with those who seek to know more about life in ocean depths, some as fishermen, others as scientists, it brings to mind in my own life the artistry that exists there and those who bring it to the surface. I am fortunate to be a descendant of that artistry and would like to share it here.
The mysteries of the deep sea are not so mysterious now thanks to a surge of documentaries that capture largely unexplored oceans.
This wasn’t always the case, however. Before 4K underwater cameras, before mega-funded expeditions and before filmmaker James Cameron plunged 6.8 miles deep in the the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep, there was only one way for people to see the bizarre oddities of the ocean deep – an artist had to draw them.
I recently discovered my great-great-grandmother Elsa Bostelmann was one of those artists. Long hidden away in the corners and cupboards of her daughter’s Manhattan apartment, Bostelmann’s journals and art depicted a world that was otherwise unknown when it was observed in 1929.
Bostelmann, a German-born classically trained artist, was part of a groundbreaking expedition aboard the Arcturus to Bermuda with Dr. William Beebe of the New York-based Department of Tropical Research. She provided the imagery for an iconic series of deep-sea dives in the Bathysphere, a cast iron ball-sized vehicle designed for two people for ocean exploration.
Those deep-sea dives were the first of their kind, an avant-garde marriage of science and art probing a world largely unexplored. Beebe and his engineer Otis Barton reached a previously unheard of 700 feet on their first dive. By 1934, they had reached 3,028 feet, a record that wouldn’t be broken until 1949.
In his 1934 book, “Half Mile Down,” Beebe described that first experience: “Ever since the beginning of human history, when first the Phoenicians dared to sail the open sea, thousands upon thousands of human beings had reached the depth at which we were now suspended, and had passed on to lower levels. But all of these were dead, drowned victims of war, tempest, or other acts of God. We were the first living men to look out at the strange illumination: And it was stranger than any imagination could have conceived.”
With Barton on the controls, Beebe’s job during those deep-sea dives was to relay what he saw through a small telephone to ichthyologist Gloria Hollister and Bostelmann on the Arcturus. Bostelmann would then furiously scribble and paint with oils, watercolor, gouache and pencil what Beebe described. The descriptions and subsequent paintings were incredibly detailed, right down to the correct number of fin rays and size and shape of every small feature.
Here’s an example of one of those descriptions pulled from one of Beebe’s National Geographic articles: “Along the sides of the body were five unbelievably beautiful lines of light, one equatorial, with two curved ones above and two below. Each line was composed of a series of large pale-yellow lights, and every one of these was surrounded by a semicircle of very small but intensely purple photophores ... In my memory it will live throughout the rest of my life as one of the loveliest things I have ever seen.”
Other times, Bostelmann would don a steel helmet and descend 35-foot depths with a zinc engraver’s plate and a steel pin to sketch what she saw. On later occasions, she would take with her a stretched canvas and oil paints tied to a weighted music stand, as described in articles printed in the Christian Science Monitor. Once there, she drew her paintbrush across the canvas until it revealed the splendor of the exotic underwater locale. Sadly, many of her colors were muted as certain color spectrums are not available at those depths.
Bostelmann described her initial forays underwater in an interview in Country Life, saying, “I had descended to fairyland, six fathoms below the surface. Spellbound, I feasted my eyes on fantastic coral formations which, only a short distance away, faded into blue shadowy silhouettes, building themselves up into columns and castles of unknown architecture. Bridges, as I approached them, proved to be bent-over-sea plumes; slender corals reared in the near distance like phantom towers. Everywhere absolute stillness – yet ceaseless activity.”
Through publications in National Geographic and renowned events such as the 1929 Salvador Dali-designed World’s Fair, Bostelmann brought the mysteries of a distant world to the common people. She showed them viper fish with frighteningly long teeth and fish with menacing jaws and lamps dangling in front of their faces, welcome distractions from one of the country’s biggest financial disasters.
The expeditions to Nonsuch Island in Bermuda with Beebe and his team proved life-changing for Bostelmann, whose work was featured in various magazines and oceanography publications for decades to come. In May 1962, her daughter held a showing of her life’s work in a retrospective show from Bostelmann’s Old Stone House Studio in Darien, Conn. Bostelmann also wrote and published 14 children’s books, eventually settling in Connecticut where her work focused on exotic flowers.
Bostelmann née M. Von Roeder immigrated to the United States in 1909 after marrying American cellist Monroe Bostelmann. The two lived in New York for a period before oddly uprooting to Mexia, Texas to pursue cotton farming. Bostelmann’s husband died mysteriously in 1920, likely from heat exhaustion, prompting Bostelmann to relocate to New York with her teenage daughter.
In 1929, Bostelmann joined up with Beebe as representatives of the New York Zoological Society at the Bronx Zoo. According to an interview with the Darien Review in Connecticut, Bostelmann had taken the last 10 years away from art to study natural science. Her partnership with the crew on the Arcturus was a match made in heaven.
Bostelmann was one of many talented female scientists and artists aboard the boat, incredibly uncommon for its time. Beebe, according to his book, faced constant criticism for the inclusion of Bostelmann and the others. Other oceanographers at the time forbade women from the research camps as a way to legitimize their research over Beebe’s.
The Arcturus included scientists such as fiddler crab expert Jocelyn Crane, naturalist Gloria Hollister and other artists Anna Taylor, Isabelle Cooper and Helen Tee-Van.
Bostelmann also later worked with and formed a friendship with famed marine biologist Rachel Carson, for which the island across Taylor’s Creek in Beaufort is named. Carson dedicated her 1951 book “The Sea Around Us” to Beebe, her friend and mentor.
Here’s the crazy part. Two generations later, my grandfather packed my mother and her two younger siblings into a 12-foot sailboat and sailed south from their hometown of Salisbury, Md. He was headed to Florida but made a stopover in sleepy Beaufort, where they eventually stayed.
With little money and no permanent residence, my grandfather and his three kids slept for a time on the cramped sailboat before purchasing a large tent and setting up a temporary home on Carrot Island across from the Beaufort waterfront. Carrot Island is part of a small chain of islands known officially as the Rachel Carson Reserve, named for Bostelmann’s friend and colleague.
I think Bostelmann would have been happy to know her family ended up in a place that has championed marine biology over the last century. I grew up knowing more about ocean life than most people simply from proximity. Little did I know before access to the ocean deep was so readily available, it was people like my great-great-grandmother who gave that gift to the world.
(Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @zacknally)