Willard Bascom has been described as an ocean engineer, diver, and ocean adventurer. He had wide-ranging interests, demonstrated extreme independence, had impatience with orthodox viewpoints. He has been described as a maverick innovator, passionate about art and science. He studied poetry, music, painting (an avid oil painter, with an affinity for seascapes and landscapes), photography, cinematography, and underwater archaeology.
Willard Bascom was born in New York City (Bronxville) in 1916 by a single mother. In his teens worked as a ‘mucker’ on the Delaware Aqueduct tunnel during the Great Depression. He studied mining at the Colorado School of Mines, where a disagreement with the school president prompted him to leave before graduating. He worked as an engineer in mines in Arizona, Idaho, and Colorado.
Willard Bascom’s career in ocean science began in 1945 when he joined John Isaacs to work as a research engineer, conducting studies of waves and beaches first at Berkeley and later at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). He lived in Monterey after the war, friends included John Steinbeck (who he had befriended while at UC Berkeley) and Ed Ricketts. He was a member of John Isaacs’ scientific party during the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test. Willard Bascom joined SIO in 1951, and was chief scientist on two ships of Capricorn Expedition, an eight-month geophysical exploration of the bottom of the equatorial Pacific. This study yielded information about the thickness of the earth’s crust which led to the plate theory of tectonics. He pioneered use of SCUBA for scientific diving on SIO’s Capricorn Expedition.
During the expedition, Willard was diagnosed with bone cancer. As a result, he took unreasonable risks as the ships dredged the seafloor. Subjecting himself to the largest amount of radiation ever given a person, he completely recovered after about four years.
In 1954, Willard joined the staff at the National Science Foundation, where he organized and directed the first phase of Project Mohole (involving SIO and other institutions), the first effort to drill in deep water through the earth’s crust. Drilling was conducted in 1961 at depths of 11,700 ft near Guadalupe I., Mex. (the previous depth record was 400 ft). It collected samples of earth’s ‘second layer’ and measured the temperature increase 600 ft below the bottom of the seafloor. His involvement in this project resulted in book (see below) and Steinbeck wrote an article about it for Life magazine. The project was abandoned in 1966 because the ever-increasing costs failed to gain congressional approval. However, the Mohole Project laid the foundations for the Deep-sea Drilling Project, which incorporated Project Mohole’s ship positioning and design as well as its drilling technology.
In 1962, Willard Bascom founded Ocean Science and Engineering, Inc., and became its president. He pioneered undersea exploration for diamonds, discovering about 20 million carats of gem diamonds for De Beers diamond company in underwater areas off the coasts of South Africa and Namibia. He also found lost objects and ships on the seafloor. His company developed an arm attached to a ship Alcoa Seaprobe which could retrieve sunken vessels to 1000 ft beneath the sea, developed a manned-underwater dredge to replace beach sand, and developed a ship with on-board mechanical processing of scallops for commercial use. It also salvaged airplane parts and bodies from depths of the ocean from two jet plane crashes off Los Angeles in the early 1970s.
While at Ocean Science and Engineering, Willard Bascom founded Seafinders, Inc., in 1972 and discovered an long lost wreck of a Spanish galleon, Nuestra Señora de la Maravillas.
Willard Bascom was the director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) from 1973-1984. During this period he helped establish SCCWRP as an ocean research organization, with a focus on marine pollution problems of southern California. He added photographic and cinematographic technology to SCCWRP’s capabilities and used this for exploring the southern California marine environment and assessing pollution problems. He also initiated special scientific studies to study marine pollution problems and sponsored early regional assessments of the southern California marine environment. He started the SCCWRP Annual Report, an annual/biennial series with articles and papers describing the results of SCCWRP research projects.
In 1980 he received the Explorer’s Club (New York) Medal for his work in deep water archaeology and ocean geophysics. He was also an adjunct professor at SIO.
After leaving SCCWRP in 1985, Willard resumed his undersea search ventures in Greece, finding a wreck off Cape Artemision which yielded three high-quality bronze statues for the Greek National Museum. In 1992 was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Genoa on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first landing in the America’s. In 1996, he was involved in the successful search and recovery of gold treasure from Brother Jonathan, a Civil-war era side-wheel paddle-wheel steamer that sank off the northern California coast more than 134 years ago
Willard Bascom was the author of several books and many scientific papers (including many in Scientific American). Some of his books include Waves and beaches, A hole in the bottom of the sea (1961) (describing the Mohole Project he directed), Great sea poetry (included works by Rudyard Kipling and others), Deepsea archaeology, Deepsea salvaging, The crest of the wave (1988), The gold of Brother Jonathan (about his recovery of gold from a Civil-war era sidepaddle steamer which sunk off northern California.
SIO. 2000. In memoriam. SIO Log, 37(38), Sept. 29
Williams, Jack. 2000. Willard Bascom, 83; maverick oceanographer, deep-sea explorer. San Diego Tribune, Sep. 21(?), 2000.
Additional information from SCCWRP staff recollections