Saturday, March 10, 2012

Going For The Deepest: submersibles prepare to return to the Marianas Trench

More than 50 years ago, two men reached the deepest point in the ocean: the Pacific Ocean's Marianas Trench at 35,800 feet. Crammed into a small sphere suspended underneath the large bathyscaphe Trieste, marine scientist Jacque Piccard and then Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh spent a short time on the bottom (according to Walsh, the bathyscaphe stirred up the bottom on its final approach and visibility was minimal, but some small sealife was detected). A feat accomplished, a record achieved.

And that was it.

Mankind has never returned to those extreme depths; instead, turning its attention skyward in a political race to the moon. A race that I was caught up in like many others and with few complaints; the spin-off technologies from the space program have brought us countless benefits. But there was an incredible amount of technology and potential knowledge left behind, waiting just below the waves.

As Richard Branson described it in 2011,
"What if I were to tell you about a planet, inhabited by 'intelligent' beings that had, in the 21st century, physically explored zero percent of its deepest points and mapped only 3 percent of its oceans by unmanned craft, when 70 percent of that planet's surface was made up of water. Then I tried to convince you that only 10 percent of the life forms inhabiting that unknown world are known to those on the surface--you'd think I'd fallen asleep watching the latest sci-fi blockbuster. Then you discover that planet is Earth."

It seems, though, that things are about to change. A new race is shaping up and this time it is not motivated by political one-upsmanship but by a desire for mankind to turn its attention inward, to learn more about the oceans that cover the majority of this planet. In so doing, we may learn of new bounties for our benefit or may understand more about how the oceans function and what is happening due to our activities topside, from pollution to climate change.

While presidential candidates talk of bases on the moon, four organizations involved in the design and building of deep sea submersibles are looking downward, hoping to return once again to the Marinas Trench. And the first attempt in over a half century may take place in the next few weeks.

The four groups - Triton Submarines, DOER Marine, Virgin Oceanic, and film director James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge - have submersibles in various stages of design, construction or actual operation. But the two leading contenders at the moment are Richard Branson's Virgin Oceanic - working in conjunction with Hawkes Ocean Technologies - and Cameron's Deepsea Challenge, working in conjunction with the National Geographic.

All of these groups have the technological expertise to design submersibles that can withstand the extreme pressures of the Marianas Trench, a bone-crushing 15,750 psi, but what probably distinguishes the two leaders is the deep financial pockets at their disposal to make it a reality.

Based in Northern California, Graham Hawkes' Hawkes Ocean Technology produces a fascinating fleet of submersibles that look more like stubby-wing fighter jets. They are designed to fly through the water. I had a moment to speak with Hawkes at the 2010 BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Ocean Summit and, seeing that the design was quite different from your typical research submersible, I asked him what they were designed for. "For chasing after whales," he joked.

Hawkes had designed his Deep Flight Challenger to explore depths as deep as the Marianas Trench and was preparing to make the attempt with pilot Steve Fossett at the controls. Unfortunately, Fossett was killed in a small plane crash but a new pilot stepped in, Chris Welsh, along with the support of Richard Branson's Virgin Group. The overall plan for Virgin Oceanic is to send the Deep Flight Challenger on five of the deepest dives locations on the planet, which includes the Marinas Trench. The long-range goal is not just to reach the deepest point in the ocean - although that would undoubtedly bring the most attention - but to show that extreme deep sea exploration is viable. This is not a stunt; it is an attempt to show that man can and should be turning his attention to exploring the deep recesses of this planet as there is much to learn, and even gain materially, in the process.

James Cameron has melded technology and entertainment into many of his films (blockbusters like Titanic, Avatar, and the early Terminator films), but he has proven himself to be much more than an armchair science explorer and deep sea exploration became a particular area of serious interest and financial investment. Working with National Geographic (Cameron is an Explorer-in-Residence there) and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, among others, the Deepsea Challenger submersible was built and has already completed a five-mile dive to the New Britain Trench near the Solomon Islands.

The Deepsea Challenger is more utilitarian than elegant in appearance - a lime green cylinder, positioned vertically, with an array of lights midway and a spherical compartment at the lower end that has room for one pilot with a viewing window. Cameron intends to be the pilot, as he was on the recent deep dive, and though exact schedules are being kept under wraps, it has been said it might only be a matter of weeks before the Deepsea Challenger makes its attempt to return to the Marianas Trench.

"This quest was not driven by the need to set records, but by the same force that drives all science and exploration … curiosity. So little is known about these deep places that I knew I would see things no human has ever seen. Every dive teaches us more, and we are continuing to improve the sub and its systems daily, as we move through our sea trials,” says Cameron on the Deepsea Challenge website.

In the end, whoever gets there first, the Marianas Trench will once again be visited by terrestrial beings and, if it is to truly have any meaning and value, it must be seen in the context of exploring the vast oceans to better understand this crucial aquatic lifeblood that is key to the planet's survival. Whether it is finding new mineral resources, or new species, or better understanding the processes that make the oceans function - and therefore understanding how best to conserve and protect them - deep sea exploration is a pursuit that is within our reach and makes more sense in today's world.

We're not ready to pack up and move to another planet, so we best understand and protect the one we have now.

Deep Flight Submersibles
National Geographic/Deepsea Challenge

1 comment:

Hawkes Ocean Technologies said...

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