January 23 – Anniversary of a Record-Setting Dive

Posted on January 23, 2016

On this date in 1960, humans set a depth record by using the bathyscaphe USS Trieste to descend to 35,797 feet (almost 11 thousand meters!) in the Pacific Ocean.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard went to the bottom of “Challenger Deep,” the deepest part of the deepest trench in the ocean. It took them nearly five hours to get there, and the two men spent twenty minutes down there at the bottommost part of the ocean.

Fifty years later, in 2010, Don Walsh was amazed that nobody had ever repeated the feat of going to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. He pointed out that almost a thousand people have been to the top of Everest, hundreds of people have been in outer space, and twelve people have walked on the moon (and even more people have been out as far as the moon, without actually landing on it).

But in fifty years, it was still just two guys who had been to the bottom of the ocean. Nobody else had even attempted it!

Now, though, there has been a third person who's done the deed: In 2012 James Cameron, the movie director of smash hits Titanic and Avatar, partnered with National Geographic to take a submersible down to bottom of the Mariana Trench. 

When he arrived at the bottom, he typed out the words “All systems OK.”

I guess in those 52 years, technology had improved; Cameron's trip took about two and a half hours to reach the bottom. He was able to spend three hours collecting samples for biologists and geologists to study, and the sub had sophisticated 3-D cameras employed. The ascent took a bit less time than the descent had. (By the way, the submarine had the ability to sustain life for 56 hours, so there was plenty of air and power to spare!)

Did you know...?

  • The Trieste encountered a bit of a problem: At a depth of about 30,000 feet, one of the outer Plexiglas window panes cracked, and the entire vessel shook. Yi-i-ikes! Walsh explained that, since the window was not on a pressure boundary, they thought it was all right to carry on to the bottom.

  • What do you do at the bottom of the ocean? The Trieste crew saw a glimpse of some fish, probably sole, flounder, or halibut, and discovered that the bottom was made up of diatomaceous ooze. They couldn't see a lot, because their ship had kicked up a lot of stuff (sand? ooze?). They ate chocolate bars, because their trip had already taken a long time, and they still had more than three hours to go back to the surface.

  • Even though the journey was a project of the U.S. Navy, the submersible was designed by Swiss designer Auguste Piccard (father of the aquanaut Jacques Piccard), and it was built by an Italian company.

  • Even though the feat got little attention, compared to ascents to Everest, treks to the North and South Poles, and journeys into space, Star Trek did pay homage to Trieste. First, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the ship's captain Jean-Luc Picard was said to have been named after either Auguste or Jacques Piccard. Second, one of the starships was called the U.S.S. Trieste.

  • Some may wonder why a movie director is daring to go to the bottommost point of the ocean. Actually, James Cameron was quite the ocean explorer. He had been interested in oceanography since he was a child, and he has made over 70 deep-sea submersible dives. Actually, 33 of those dives were to the wreckage of the Titanic, the subject of one of Cameron's hits!

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