Into the Submarine Fairyland: How Scientific Artist Else Bostelmann Invited the Terrestrial Imagination into the Wonder-World of the Deep Sea
By Maria Popova
“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore,” the poetic marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote as she reckoned with the ocean and the meaning of life, “we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp… the ultimate mystery of Life itself.” Fifteen years earlier, she had invited the human imagination into the wonders of the underwater world — a world then more mysterious than the Moon — in an unexampled essay that later bloomed into her 1951 book The Sea Around Us, which won her the National Book Award and rendered her the most venerated science writer on the landmass.
Carson dedicated the book to the pioneering explorer, marine biologist, ornithologist, and Wildlife Conservation Society naturalist William Beebe, who had gone deeper than any human had gone before in his epoch-making 1930s dives in the Bathysphere — the spherical submersible Beebe dreamt up with the deep-sea diver and engineer Otis Barton, his sole companion inside the miniature globe reaching for the bottom of the world.
It had only been a generation since the German oceanographer Carl Chun’s pioneering Valdiva expedition had emerged with stunningly illustrated evidence defying humanity’s shallow imagination, which had long deemed life below 300 fathoms impossible. But for all the wonders the Valdiva saw, it could not escape the blind spots of its epoch — the creatures it discovered were abducted from their underwater homes and dredged up for the scientists to study on the surface, lifeless.
The Bathysphere reined in a new era of closer and more compassionate study, making Beebe the first scientist to observe deep-sea wildlife in their habitat, unharmed in their alien aliveness, moving silent and splendid amid a world he saw as “stranger than any imagination could have conceived,” irradiated by an “indefinable translucent blue quite unlike anything” known in the upper world.
Upon returning from his first dive in the Bathysphere in 1930, Beebe exulted on the pages of the New York Zoological Society Bulletin:
Here, under a pressure which, if loosened, in a fraction of a second would make amorphous tissue of a human being, breathing our own homemade atmosphere, sending a few comforting words chasing up and down a string of hose, here I was privileged to sit and try to crystallize something of value, seeing through inadequate eyes and interpreting by a mind wholly unequal to the task.
Despite his lyrical gift with language, Beebe knew that words could only reach so far in conveying the complexity and wonder of the undersea world to humans whose eyes would never see it and whose imagination had not begun to fathom it.
“Adequate presentation of what I saw on these dives is one of the most difficult things I ever attempted,” he reflected, likening the splendid irreducibility of it all to that of asking a foreigner who has spent a few hours in New York City to describe America.
A century after Walt Whitman imagined the “wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths” of the unimaginable “world below the brine,” what opened the terrestrial imagination to the realities of that unseen and unfathomed world was the artwork of Else Bolstelmann (1882–1961) — some of it preserved in the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wonderful digital collections and featured in a Drawing Center exhibition; some, along with her surviving papers, brought to light by oceanographer Edith Widder in her heroic resuscitation of Bostelmann’s forgotten story; some hunted down and restored in my own dives into out-of-print publications and antiquarian collections.
Born in Germany, where she was already an established artist before marrying an American cellist and emigrating to New York in her late twenties, Bostelmann was approaching fifty when she heard that the National Geographic Society was sponsoring a trailblazing oceanographic expedition to explore the wonders of the deep, launching from Beebe’s research station off the coast of Bermuda’s marvelously named Nonsuch Island.
A single mother widowed for nearly a decade, keen to put her artistic gift of beauty in the service of our search for scientific truth, she got a hold of Beebe via the New York Zoological Society at the Bronx Zoo, offering her time and talent to his endeavor. Beebe — who believed in the power of the fine arts to render the mysteries of nature and the abstractions of science real — was instantly taken with her exuberant precision, with the striking colors emanating from an unfaltering fidelity to form, and hired her as scientific artist for the expedition.
In Bermuda, Else Bostelmann went on to create more than three hundred stunning plates of marine creatures, many of them previously unseen by human eyes. Two centuries after a Dutch engraver and atlas-maker gave the world the half-imagined fantastical fishes of the first marine encyclopedia illustrated in color, Bostelmann brought to life the whimsy of reality.
Astonishingly, Bostelmann never submerged in the Bathysphere herself — she later recalled that because she was the single mother of a teenage daughter, Beebe could not bring himself to put her in danger. (Not an unreasonable worry, given that on one of the unpeopled test submersions, something went awry and the Bathysphere filled with water, certain to have vanquished any human life therein.)
Going only by Beebe’s verbal descriptions, dictated from the underwater wonderland via a telephone line inside the hose by which the Bathysphere dangled from the ship, she became the marine biologist’s prosthetic eye, a human periscope in reverse, bringing to life the strange and wondrous creatures of the deep — flying snails and whiskered shrimp and saber-toothed fish — in watercolor, gouache, and pencil.
Upon his return to the surface, Beebe recalled that the two of them would go into an “artistic huddle” and slowly refine the “proportions, size, color, lights,” and other details of his “brain fish,” integrating his memory of the sight with the artwork, until a “splendid finished painting” emerged.
Spiked and tentacled and bioluminescent, monstrous and magical with their prehistoric jaws and their otherworldly colors, Bostelmann and Beebe’s co-created creatures peer out of her paintings with their perpetually wonder-stricken lidless eyes and ever-hungry mouths. She gave them titles like Big Bad Wolves of an Abyssal Chamber of Horrors and grew especially enchanted by the saber-toothed viper fish. She delighted in their strangeness, in their marvelous monstrosity, in her role as imagist of the deep sublime.
Illustrating Beebe’s books and essays for the general public, and paying for her daughter’s education, Bostelmann’s artwork made its way into magazines and museums, into National Geographic and the New York Academy of Sciences, inspiring generations of scientists and awakening millions of ordinary people to the otherworldly enchantments of our home planet.
In an era when women — including trained scientists like Carson — were still not allowed on government research vessels, Bostelmann was one of several female artists and scientific collaborators who accompanied Beebe on his expeditions. That Beebe — widely remembered as a man of warmhearted sincerity and generosity of spirit — put women in leadership positions no doubt speaks to his values, an epoch ahead of his era. But he was also a pragmatist — in assembling his team, he sought “adaptable scientific students” willing to go along with his daring ideas and he found that women often had those qualities. When Theodore Roosevelt visited Beebe’s “little party of naturalists,” he found them partaking of that “rare combination of working had at a task in which their souls delighted, and also taking part in a thrilling kind of picnic.” Science, at its best, is indeed just that — a feast of knowledge on a flying picnic-blanket of wonder.
But as much as Bostelmann cherished her rare access to the world’s unseen wonders, she could not reconcile this reverie for the grandeur of life with the cruelties of science, as commonly practiced in her day. The animals she drew from “specimens” ranged from smaller than a pea to longer than a foot — each a “mythic creature drawn up from the murky, unexplored depths of the ocean,” each revealing “a new world of undreamt beauty” under the microscope, yet each robbed of life on the way to her desk. As she watched them emerge from the rose-tinted waters in the trawl nets at sunset, she sorrowed for the “little captives” and eulogized their lot with uncommon compassion. More than half a century before Thomas Nagel’s classic What Is It Like to Be a Bat? challenged our human consciousness — and conscience — to imagine the creaturely experience of creatures radically unlike us but also aglow with sentience and sensitivity, Bostelmann wrote:
The fish have made a long journey up to my table and, far from their home in eternal night, they have found here an unsought destiny. For hours, perhaps, they had been pulled along in one of the long silk nets trailing behind the stern of a sea going tug. From the net there was no way of escape, nor from the Mason jar fastened at the very end of the net. Thus, from the depths of an everlasting night — about 1000 fathoms — and an ice cold temperature, through an enormous change of pressure, they had been drawn up into a sun-flooded world where they could not possibly adjust themselves. For these reasons they lay lifeless before me.
And so she decided to draw from life, at the bottom of the ocean where life dwelled.
Although Bostelmann never submerged in the Bathysphere, she took dives of her own closer to the surface, clad in sneakers, a red bathing suit, and the era’s cutting-edge aquanaut equipment, which a mere century later appears to us as a specimen from the Atlantis of time, as exotic as Lancelot’s armor. (Being an artist above all else, she actually preferred the shallower waters, as she found that below 25 feet the world lost much of its color, particularly the fiery reds and oranges she so loved — those longer-wavelength colors easiest for water molecules to absorb and snatch from human eyes, leaving only glimmers of the shortest-wave blues and purples in the deep ocean.)
Writing with ravishing poetry of sentiment, in a language not her native, Bostelmann described her rapturous first encounter with what she called the “submarine fairyland,” into which she descended from a rickety forty-foot metal ladder with a sixteen-pound copper diving helmet pressing down on her shoulders:
I felt suddenly suspended in a maze of turquoise-green color as I swayed uncertainly back and forth on the ladder… Through the glass window of the helmet, I still saw the coastline with its white sand, its leaning cedars, and its little houses among which was my island home. But all were now distorted in a very unnatural way by the surface ripples. Hesitantly, step by step, I went downward, thrilled with the expectancy of the vast unknown.
At around ten feet below, a sudden pain pierced her ears, making it unthinkable to go a step further. But as she looked around, the wonder of it all — “a magnificent valley with peaks of tall coral reefs, swaying sea-plumes, slender gorgonians, purple sea-fans” — dissolved any awareness of the pain, and down she went, until her feet touched “the softest, whitest sand imaginable in which the gentle current had designed symmetrical ripples.”
She had arrived. The surface shimmered six fathoms above her, only about the height of a two-story house, yet a world apart. Hers was the magical realism of reality’s magic, the origami of time, folding past and future into a single form of absolute aliveness:
I had descended to fairyland… I felt as though I were viewing a grand stage setting. Vertical sunbeams broke through the absolute brightness of these levels. Spellbound, I feasted my eyes on fantastic coral formations which, only a short distance way, aded 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. For all these formations are colonies of tiny living creatures which, during untold years, have been building their coral dwellings one upon another, the new upon the old.
There, Else Bostelmann set about drawing from life.
On her first dive, she took a small zinc engraver’s plate with a steel pencil attached to it, hoping to record the rough contours of the life-forms she saw. This quickly proved a doomed endeavor — she could barely bend her head without losing her air supply, and the underwater pressure made her hands move at glacial speed as she attempted to drag the pencil over the plate.
Next, with the science-informed confidence that oil paint would retain both its consistency and its brilliancy because it couldn’t mix with water, she tried taking real paint and brushes down below — tying her paintbrushes to one handle of a wash-tub, squeezing paint colors on its bottom as if it were a palette, and tying a string to the other handle to drag the entire contraption behind her as she dove with the canvas under her other arm.
This, too, ended up “quite amusing” a flop: First, she realized she could only paint by laying her supplies onto the ocean floor and awkwardly kneeling over them; then, reaching for the blue paint but dipping her paint in the green, she realized that her human eyes were not adapted to judging even these most proximate distances accurately underwater; finally, upon reaching back to the palette for the correct color, she realized that in her discombobulation, she had forgotten to tie it and the current had carried it away.
But she persisted. After many dives and much experimentation, she finally arrived at her proper underwater studio setup: Using a music stand as an easel, she tied a stretched canvas onto it and had another crew member lower it by rope from the boat after her descent. To her palette, filled with the colors of the rainbow and weighed down with lead, she tied her paintbrushes and delighted in watching their wooden handles float felicitously upright, bobbing in the gentle current.
With this improbable and inventive system, Bostelmann captured the essential form and color of what she saw, which she then developed in finer detail at her surface studio, managing thus to “record correct colors of unbelievable charm from some of Nature’s grandest compositions.” Nothing like it had been attempted before, and nothing like it has been accomplished since.
By the end of the 1930s — a decade that marked a Copernican revolution in our understanding of life in the bluest regions of our pale blue dot — Bostelmann wrote of the submarine fairyland she had rendered real and rapturous for the oversea world:
All this artistic beauty of the wonder world of the shallow waters, as well as of the mysterious realms of the deep ocean, has existed for aeons of time all unknown to us. But now we can utilize it, bring it within reach of our modern life, enjoy it as part of our daily existence.
Nothing in the upper world can compare with the luxury of this nether realm of the sea, with its colors, its atmosphere of mystery, of poise, and tranquility. No modern adventure can surpass the supreme joy of exploring its unique grandeur.
Complement with the daring life and art of pioneering plant ecologist Edith Clements, who a generation earlier did for mountain flowers what Bostelmann did for undersea fauna, then revisit the story of how the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel turned his personal tragedy into transcendent art in his otherworldly visual studies of jellyfish, in the course of which he coined the word ecology.
Published January 14, 2022