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.
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.
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.
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
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.