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Friday, September 28, 2012


On May 25th, today’s date, in 1876, The HMS Challenger tied up to the dock near Portsmouth, England. She had just returned from 713 days at sea circumnavigating the globe in the world’s first oceanographic expedition. Four years earlier, the Royal Society of London had acquired the use of the ship from the Royal Navy to be used as a research vessel. Little was known about the oceans except what could be seen at a depth of a few meters. Scientists knew almost nothing about the ocean’s depths.

The Challenger’s guns were removed to clear the top deck for scientific and dredging equipment; and laboratories and extra storage were constructed below decks. A crew of 237 plus a large contingent of scientific people sailed from Portsmouth on December 21, 1872. During the next three years, the Challenger logged 68,890 nautical miles. Her crew charted the coastlines of every continent (except Antarctica), catalogued more than 4,000 previously unknown species of marine life, and collected sediment from the sea floor using its 180 miles of line. She took almost 500 deep sea soundings to measure the depth of the oceans. Reports by the expedition filled 50 volumes of academic studies.

The Challenger expedition’s greatest legacy may be the discovery of a deep trench near the Mariana Islands in the south Pacific. The first recording of its depth was made by the ship’s crew. Today this area is called the Mariana Trench and its deepest point is named the “Challenger Deep” after the expedition’s ship. It’s the deepest known point on the Earth’s sea floor at 35,814 feet (almost 7 miles), nearly three times the depth of the Titanic wreck.

Fast forward eighty years to 1960. The U.S. Navy decides to use its deep sea submersible, the bathyscaphe Trieste, to send a manned expedition down to the Challenger Deep. This is the first attempt ever made to reach such a depth. A two-man team consisting of Jacques Piccard, the civilian co-designer of the Trieste, and USN Lieutenant Don Walsh take the spherical vessel below the waves on January 23rd . Their descent takes almost five hours. No pictures were taken as the floating silt on the bottom reduced visibility. Due to concern about a crack in the outer window, caused by temperature changes during the descent, the Navy orders the divers to return to the surface after spending only 20 minutes on the sea floor. In spite of this, it was a technological triumph.

In 1995, the Japanese unmanned robotic deep-sea probe called Kaiko worked its way to the Challenger Deep confirming the depth. In 2009, the U.S. sent the Nereus, a remotely operated unmanned vehicle to the Deep. Unlike the Kaiko, it did not need to be powered or controlled by a cable connected to a surface ship. It was heralded as a new start to ocean exploration.

Over the past five years, an Australian research company, in partnership with the National Geographic Society, has been building a new deep submersible in secret. The craft is named the “Deepsea Challenger.” It is outfitted with scientific equipment plus 180 onboard systems including batteries, thrusters, life support, LED lighting, and 3D cameras. It would be used in the first attempt in 52 years (since the Trieste) to take a human crew to the forbidding Challenger Deep. By the way, that human crew can consist of only a single person - a brave one.

A deep sea dive with lighting and cameras? That suggests only one person - filmmaker James Cameron, creator of “The Abyss” and “Titanic.” And that’s exactly who was designated to pilot the Deepsea Challenger. Cameron is a veteran of many deep submersible dives, routinely descending to the wreck site of the Titanic while making his movie.

The Deepsea Challenger is a tight fit for its pilot, with the occupant sphere only 1.1 meter in diameter. Cameron would be required to keep his knees pulled up and not be able to extend his arms during the entire eight to nine hour journey. The craft is only one tenth the weight of the 1960 Trieste but carries much more scientific equipment and is capable to descending to the Challenger Deep in about two hours. Test dives began in January of this year where it was kept just below the surface for three hours. In February, it was put through three deep water tests, two at 3,300’ and one at a 12,100’ depth (about the same depth as the Titanic). There were some problems with the life support system and power fluctuations. After adjustments, Cameron piloted the vessel to 23,820’ in the New Britain Trench off New Guinea on March 4th and to 26,972’ at the same location several days later. 

On March 26, 2012, James Cameron was bolted into the craft and released to descend to the Challenger Deep. The trip down took 2 hours and 36 minutes. The Deepsea Challenger touched down at a depth of 35,756’. “I landed on a very soft, almost gelatinous flat plain. Once I got my bearings, I drove it for quite a distance . . . and finally worked my way up a slope,” Cameron said. He planned to spend about six hours exploring the bottom but there was a fluid leak in a hydraulic line which obscured visibility and a power loss on the starboard thrusters. He decided to ascend after only 2 hours and 34 minutes. He had his vessel back at the surface in just over an hour.

His accomplishment was extraordinary. James Cameron dived to the deepest place in the ocean; deeper than any other person in history, and he did it all alone.

(A theatrical 3D documentary of the expedition is planned for release later this year or early 2013)

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