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Thursday January 31, 2013

Under the sea

The Deepsea Challenger submersible, equipped with state-of-the-art technology, brings us one step
closer to understanding the mysteries of the deep. The Deepsea Challenger submersible, equipped with state-of-the-art technology, brings us one step closer to understanding the mysteries of the deep.

WHEN US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard descended into the mysterious depths of the ocean in 1960, they set a world record for the only dive into the deepest-known point in the ocean.

They were not alone; attached to the exterior of the Swiss-designed, Italian-built 150-tonne bathyscaphe (“deep boat”) Trieste was an experimental Rolex Deep Sea Special wristwatch that accompanied the two men on their journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, reaching a depth of 10,916m.

After the Trieste surfaced from that historic dive, a cable was sent to the Rolex headquarters, “Happy to announce to you your watch as precise at 11,000 metres as on surface. Best regards Jacques Piccard”.

The brevity of the message belied the weight of what had just happened.

Over the next few decades, several unmanned vessels would take the plunge into the Challenger Deep (the deepest point of the Mariana Trench is named after the 1875 British Royal Navy Ship HMS Challenger, the first vessel to sound the depths of the trench). But the next manned descent was to happen only 52 years later with Canadian filmmaker James Cameron onboard the DSV Deepsea Challenger in 2012.

“After we made that dive in 1960, Jacques and I wondered how long it would be before someone else came back. We guessed that in about two years the next expedition would be out here. But we were out by about half a century,” says Walsh, during a chat in Singapore where the Rolex Deepsea Challenge exhibition was held for the first time in South-East Asia.

Currently based in Oregon, the 81-year-old retired US Navy Captain was disarmingly candid about the experience.

“Did the dive change me in any way? Yeah, I used to be seven feet tall,” he jokes, before saying, “I was a junior naval officer and in navigating ships, you don’t worry about how deep the water is as long as it is deeper than the bottom of your ship.

“At that time I didn’t even know how to pronounce the word bathyscaphe, much less what it meant. It was a big difference going from 122m shallow diving in a submarine to 10,916m in a bathyscaphe. And all of a sudden Jacques and I had set a world record.”

The 18m Trieste had a float chamber filled with gasoline for buoyancy, with a separate pressure sphere that provided just enough room for two people. There was a glass orb at the bottom, oxygen was provided from pressure cylinders and power was provided by batteries.

In another interview, Walsh describes the space as “pretty small” and says that it was like “a large household refrigerator, and temperature not far off”.

The dive took nine hours in total, with just 20 minutes spent on the ocean floor.

“Being in a submersible is a pretty intense experience. Time seems to pass faster, it goes by so quickly, I can’t explain it. We had done around seven or eight dives before making the deepest one, so when people ask me what it was like making that deepest dive, I say it felt like a longer day at the office.

“The pre-dive manipulations and the post-dive manipulations are exactly the same, whether you are diving seven miles or 300 feet, so the only thing that made a longer day was the depth, the time of the journey,” he explains.

Having “painted and washed and scrubbed every corner” of the bathyscaphe, Walsh says that he was comfortable with the fact that he knew how every system should work if everything was going well.

“You think about what could go wrong, and you practise in your mind what you should do. You have to be alert on your game, always prepared mentally. And you need skill, yes, but you also need good luck,” he says.

During the descent and ascent, Walsh and Piccard saw lots of bioluminescent creatures.

“It was fascinating, kind of like a light show. And just before we landed we looked out the window and saw a flatfish, almost like a Halibut or a Sole. We caught just a glimpse of it before we landed and stirred up a whole lot of sediment on the sea floor, and everything became white outside. It was like someone had painted our window white,” Walsh says.

After 20 minutes and no sign that the cloud would clear any time soon, they made their way back up to the surface.

Marine biologists later disputed their observations, claiming that no fish could survive the pressure at such depths.

“They say that it’s impossible that there were fish down there, but hey, I think we knew what we saw down there. If you see one fish, you know that there are many more. I think if I could relive the dive, I think I would have worked it so that we could stay longer on the bottom,” Walsh concludes.

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