In 1968, the astronauts on their way to the moon took a stunning photograph of the Earth.
That photograph revealed the vastness of the oceans: 97 percent of the volume of space in which life exists lies deep beneath the water’s surface — a world devoid of light, a realm of eternal darkness.
Robert Ballard has written a gripping account of the history of deep-sea exploration, which has been republished with a new preface.
Deep-sea exploration began on June 11, 1930, when Charles William Beebe and Otis Barton descended 1,426 feet in a diving chamber known as a bathysphere. It measured 4 feet, 9 inches in diameter and would take in only two passengers who entered head first through a 15-inch circular opening. The interior was bare except for two small oxygen tanks, which kept the air sweet for eight hours.
Apparently, Beebe and Barton used palm-leaf fans to circulate the air during their first dives. The bathysphere attached to a 3,500-foot long steel cable was lifted and lowered by a steam-powered winch.
During the first attempt, Beebe felt totally crushed in the small capsule, but he remembered Houdini’s relaxation technique. He regulated his breathing and spoke in low tones – this calmed him down. When they reached a depth of 400 feet, Beebe noticed some water trickling beneath the door but he knew that the door was solid enough. He realized that higher pressure outside the bathysphere would only seal it more tightly and instead of canceling the dive, he ordered a quicker descent. At a depth of 600 feet, the water took a shade of blue, which Beebe described as “the blueness of the blue” and seemed to penetrate, materially through the eye, into our beings.”
On that first dive, they finally reached a depth of 1,426 feet. When Beebe and Barton ended their dives in 1934, they had achieved a depth of 3,028 feet. William Beebe later wrote: “When once it has been seen (the deep ocean), it will remain forever the most vivid memory in life.”
Twenty years would pass before a loss of momentum gave way to a renewed interest in the exploration of the deep abyss. Venturing at such great depths required a different kind of diving craft. It needed to be stronger and heavier to withstand greater pressure, and also easier to lift back to the surface.
In 1937, during a reception he was attending, the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard told King Leopold III of Belgium that he was planning to build a bathyscaph to reach the bottom of the sea. The king was interested and asked for more information. The following day, Piccard met with his assistants. “I told the king yesterday that we are going to build a bathyscaph. We have no choice now but to do it.” While Picard was building “Trieste,” the French were also creating their own version of a bathyscaph. A race had begun. In 1948, both the French and Piccard’s bathyscaphs had reached a depth of more than two miles.
The Americans decided then to join Auguste and Jacques Piccard’s team and take part in the race. The US was already competing against the Soviet Union for the conquest of space and also wanted to dominate the race to the deepest spot in the world – Challenger Deep, 35,800 feet below the ocean surface. Challenger Deep was considered the Mount Everest of the ocean and a descent into the dark depths of the Mariana Trench was the ultimate goal within the small group of deep-sea explorers.
To make sure “Trieste” would be ready to reach the bottom of Challenger Deep, Jacques Piccard decided to build a new pressure sphere for the bathyscaph, which should be able to withstand up to nine tons of pressure per square inch. The day of the big dive had been set for Jan. 23, 1960. At 8 a.m. Piccard and his American co-passenger boarded the Trieste but they discovered that during the tow, pounding waves had washed away part of a surface telephone making it impossible to communicate with the support team once the two men were sealed inside. There was no time to repair because the return was planned before dark.
If they surfaced at night, the support crew might not locate them. At 8:23 a.m. the descent began. When they reached a depth of 36,000 feet, the “abyssal cold had penetrated the bathyscaph’s heavy Krupp steel, chilling everything. Tension rose inside the tiny capsule, which now seemed more like a spherical coffin dripping with water,” wrote Ballard. At last, the depth gauge showed 37,800 feet.
However, later Piccard and Walsh discovered that the gauge had been calibrated in Switzerland, in fresh water. Their real depth was 35,800 feet. Lying on the bottom, Piccard saw a flat fish resembling a sole, and that made him extremely happy. Life exists at such a depth. Piccard and Walsh shook hands. They had succeeded. They began their ascent and reached the surface at 4:56 p.m. The race to the bottom of the ocean had come to an end and deep-sea exploration could begin.
In the 1960s, Jacques Cousteau, a writer, scientist, inventor, researcher and filmmaker would familiarize the world with deep-sea exploration thanks to an amazing diving saucer. Cousteau got the idea for this diving machine during a meeting in his ship’s mess.
While he was talking to the members of his team, he picked up two soup plates and held them together, explaining that a saucer with enough space for one or two people would be easy to maneuver, and it would also be light enough to be carried on board Calypso.
“Pay no attention to speed,” Cousteau said. “It isn’t needed in an exploring submarine. We want agility, perfect trim, tight turns and hovering ability. Let the men look out with their eyes and make them more comfortable than the awkward kneeling attitude in the bathyscaph.”
The “Soucoupe” took several years to make but it would become the prototype of all modern submersibles. It resembled no other vehicle on earth. It didn’t have any propellers, rudder or planes to drive the hull through water. This strange looking saucer was able to climb and dive at near-vertical angles unlike most deep submersibles to follow.
Cousteau was also a talented photographer.
He had known for a long time that it was necessary to separate the camera from its light source and this enabled him to produce some superb documents like “The Silent World,” which won a Palm d’Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Cousteau also produced a famous series of documentaries, “The Odyssey of the Cousteau Team.”
By the early 1980s, the majority of scientists in the oceanographic community had never been in a submersible. Thanks to a high-capacity fiber optic tether a large network of scientists can participate in deep-sea operations from shore-based satellite receiving centers simultaneously with the team in the control center aboard the research ship.
“Right now, in the deep sea, two eras overlap. Robots are sending views from the bottom with laser-light pulses through fibers of glass while humans are still descending in hard little spheres, surrounded by syntactic foam.
In the long run, those submersibles may be doomed, but I see no reason to rush them into early retirement,” concluded Ballard.
To this day, more than 95 percent of the world’s oceans remain unexplored, and less than 1 percent of all the seafloor has been observed. Yet a better understanding of the ocean is vital to ensure our survival.
The “Eternal Darkness, a Personal History of Deep Sea Exploration” is told by Robert Ballard who found the Titanic and ventured in the mid-Atlantic ridge. He has done more than any other person to shed light on the ocean depths.
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