Like a hungry animal, the ocean water sweeps up over the elongated metal contraption as it sinks beneath the waves. The rays of the sun warp and quiver along the surface of the water as the vessel begins its trip to the bottom. The two men inside are set to make history on this day.
For the first few hundred feet, the descent is rough. The turbulent waters thrash the vessel back and forth like a toy, making its two occupants feel anything but relaxed. But gradually, the ride smooths out. Everything stops shaking and a strange calm takes over. Gasoline is released from a storage tank at intervals to combat the sudden temperature changes which halt their descent. They could wait for the gasoline to cool down enough but after weighing the risks they decide to go with the faster option.
1,500 feet. The darkness is now absolute. The two men sometimes catch trails of luminescence, possibly thrown off by creatures who’ve adapted to the frigid and cold world they inhabit. But the disturbance of the vessel entering their domain has likely scared most creatures away, so the two men see very little on their way down.
5,000 feet. The men have a brief telephone chat with the ship above. The descent is slow, the vessel going only a few feet per second.
10,000 feet. Another phone call.
Hours pass with almost nothing. But then, at roughly 32,500 feet, something happens. A sudden, dull cracking fills the cabin, causing their eyes to dart about in alarm. The cabin abruptly trembles for a moment before returning to normal.
The aftermath is tense. The two men look at each other. They could stop now, but the idea of being the first weighs on them heavily. So they decide to continue, despite the possible danger.
Finally, nearly five hours after they had slunk beneath the waves, their sonar begins to ping. The bottom is approaching. The two men carefully maneuver the vessel downward, stopping it mere feet from the ground. A feeling of awe overtakes them as they look out at the nearly pitch black bottom, barely lit by their lights. They have done it. They are the first manned expedition to make it down this far.
The date? January 23rd, 1960.
Their names? Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh.
Their location? The Mariana Trench, roughly 35,814 feet (or 10,916 meters) below the ocean’s surface.
Welcome to the bottom of the world.
It is said that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about what lies in the deepest depths of the ocean. The Mariana Trench is proof of this. It houses the deepest point in Earth’s oceans, named “Challenger Deep” after the British naval vessel that first recorded its depth. To date, only four expeditions have ever reached the Challenger Deep, and only two of those were manned.
The first manned expedition was in the Bathyscaphe Trieste, manned by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh.
They descended to the bottom of the Mariana Trench on January 23rd, 1960, a trip that took almost five hours (you can actually read Piccard’s account of the dive here if you wish). Despite the time it took them to get all the way down, they were only able to spend twenty minutes at the bottom which, as you can imagine, doesn’t leave much time to record observations or data. They reported seeing a small fish swim by as well as a shrimp, but since they were unable to take any pictures this has never been officially confirmed as far as I can tell. After their twenty minutes were up, they began their trip back to the surface.
The next two expeditions that followed theirs would be unmanned vehicles, one in 1996 and the other in 2009.
The fourth expedition came when acclaimed movie director James Cameron apparently decided “hey you know what would be cool? Descending to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in a one-man vehicle.”
Because he’s James Goddamn Cameron and he can do whatever the hell he wants.
He descended in a vehicle appropriately named the “Deepsea Challenger” and reached the bottom on March 26, 2012. His descent was nearly twice as fast as that of the Trieste, taking just a little over two and a half hours.
“My feeling was one of complete isolation from all of humanity,” he reportedly said after he returned.
Not a whole lot was found on his trip. He spent around three hours staring out into the barren deep but all he saw in terms of creatures were small, voracious shrimp. And before he was able to collect any samples, there was a hydraulic malfunction that rendered him unable to grab anything.
Now, some of you might be wondering why any of this is even important. “Why do I care about what might live in a seven-mile deep trench in the ocean,” you might ask. Well it helps us learn more about our planet and how life adapts. You see, down in the depths of the ocean organisms are subject to something known as “deep-sea gigantism”, which means that creatures down that far are of larger size than their shallower water relatives. It is not entirely known if this phenomenon is a result of adaptation to scarce food, pressure, or some other factor. But that’s something we could learn by going down there and studying these things isn’t it?
But more than learning, it’s about proving that we can do it. It’s about pushing the boundaries to discover all we humans are capable of. And in pushing these boundaries we could make large breakthroughs in technology. Like I said in another post, you’d be surprised what technological advances came about simply because NASA wanted to put people and equipment up in space.
While researching information for this post, I discovered that James Cameron has expressed frustration with the lack of funding for ventures like his (he put forth about ten million dollars of his own money to build Deepsea Challenger). And I’m inclined to agree with his frustration. The desire to explore is one of humanity’s better aspects. Now, I’m not saying go out and fund every little crackpot venture. Pragmatism needs to play a role here as well. But pragmatism also shouldn’t hold us back. Denying that drive, that desire to seek out the unknown strikes me as foolish. In our modern world we seem to be too reluctant to attempt something unless we know for sure it will have beneficial results.
But I don’t think that’s how progress always works. Oftentimes, we discover something by complete accident. There have been advances simply because someone was trying to do one thing and ended up with a completely different outcome. Just because we don’t know if something will turn up with results doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try right?
We need to get out there and be humans. So, you know, insert clichéd phrase about how risks are meant to be taken.
Well that’s all I have for this time. Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.
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Also here is a short Youtube video on the Mariana Trench if you are still interested.