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Krulwich Wonders: When James Cameron Hits Bottom, We Will Hear Him

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 - 01:02 PM


You are the first, the first person to reach the moon, climb Everest, cross the ocean, reach the Pole, the first person ever. You have just done a dangerous, remarkable deed, and now that you've done it, what do you do?

You say something.

"One small step..." Something to mark the moment. Any hour now, the movie director Jim Cameron will attempt, by himself, to sink to the deepest spot on our planet, an ocean trench 6.78 miles below sea level, not too far from Guam. Only one living person has been there before him. And when that guy arrived where no human had ever been, what he said was...

Well, nothing.

"I'm afraid we didn't have any profound words that could be written down somewhere," U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh told the BBC. "It was a quiet moment. And then when we realized that we weren't going to see anything, we called topside, and told them that we were coming up and started our way back to the surface."

A frame from Explorer Recounts Deepest-Ever Ocean Expedition


Exploring The Quiet Way

Before webcams, satellites, 24-hour cable, before the world was relentlessly wired, explorers made their discoveries alone. No one expected a speech. Or a quote. And if there wasn't much to say, they didn't say much. When Jim Cameron, standing upright in his vertical capsule, called the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, (spelled with capital letters), hits sea bottom — and I hope he does — he will, no doubt, have lots to say, and whatever he says, we will hear it. That's how it goes these days.

But back 52 years ago, in 1960, it was different.

Lt. Walsh Takes The Plunge

Lieutenant Walsh was a submarine officer in 1958. The Navy asked him to join what they called The Bathyscaphe Program. "I knew it was deep diving," he told the BBC, "going deeper than I had ever gone. And then it was sort of revealed to me that the long range goal...[was] to dive to the deepest place in the world's ocean. Well, the first, uh, I think the first reaction was, "What? What do you mean? Why didn't you tell me this before I volunteered?"

Was he nervous? A little. Mostly, he was cramped. Walsh made the dive in a narrow, Swiss designed whale-shaped vehicle with a glass orb at the bottom. He had a companion, Swiss engineer/explorer, Jacques Piccard.

"The inside was pretty, pretty small," Walsh said. "Jacques Piccard, I think, was six-foot-two or something like that, tall guy. I'm not so tall, but we kind of curled up inside this thing. Some people characterized it as about the size, this working space for two people, as a large household refrigerator, and temperature not far off."

When their submersible, The Trieste, hit 30,000 feet, they heard a "great bang." Walsh went to a window and saw that the glass had cracked. The water pressure was intense, something like 8 tons to the square inch, but the crack was minor, not a danger, so they kept going.

A frame from Explorer Recounts Deepest-Ever Ocean Expedition


Very near the bottom — and this is still a mystery — Walsh and Piccard say they saw a fish. "We spotted a flatfish, like a small halibut, or sole, about a foot long, I guess." Tim Shank, a deep sea biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told Nature Magazine, it's hard to imagine a flatfish living at such depths. Worms, sea cucumbers, the occasional crustacean, certainly, but a fish?

Problem was, it was very dark down there. The Trieste had a searchlight, but when Walsh and Piccard reached the deepest spot on the planet, they kicked up sediment. "We had just had this cloud of white stuff come up," Walsh said. So they sat there for 20 minutes, staring at a fog of ocean dust. "It was like looking at a bowl of milk."

They couldn't take photographs because there was nothing to see. Since there was nothing to see, they had nothing to say. This extraordinary achievement, the first trip by man to the bottom of the earth, passed in quiet, reverential silence.

There are some spellbinding accounts of Piccard and Walsh's journey. My favorite is a BBC interactive graphic, which allows you to descend from the ocean surface all the way down, making little video stops along the way. One of those videos is the charming interview with Don Walsh quoted here.

And for visual beauty, nothing beats this video, from animator Roman Wolter:


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Comments [7]

Karl from Here

Worst site ever.
Can't zoom out, can't see the page, it's waaaaay too big,
You know, in the year 2012, we can zoom in and out.
This is my all time favorite podcast and show and I can't hat the site on iPhone.
There's no "m" so I assume it's worse on a big screen.
Just give us a website and leave the zoom to us.
We're not stupid, we can use our fingertips.

Jun. 22 2012 09:25 PM
Mike Garrett from Adelaide, Australia

Only two living people, not one, had been there before him - as you say later in your article.

Apr. 13 2012 02:02 AM
John from Indiana

@Krlyman "What better shape to tolerate the extreme pressures than being flat"

Not correct. The best shape to withstand pressure is a sphere, which is why the pressure vessel (where the two human occupants stayed) held under the Trieste was spherical. But Krulwich's description of this as a "glass orb" is also incorrect. Glass could never take the pressure. It was a metal sphere with a single very thick plexiglas window.

A fish living at the bottom of the ocean does not experience the pressure anymore than we feel the 14 lbs/sq inch pressure living at the bottom of an "ocean" of gas called the atmosphere, since that pressure is both on the inside and outside of our bodies. It is only when a container needs to be kept at a different pressure than its surroundings that pressure matters. The upper portion of the Trieste, which contained the machinery and ballast for the dive, did not need to be kept at "sea level" pressure, so it did not matter that it wasn't spherical.

Apr. 02 2012 03:05 AM
Tit_Smitten from Columbus, OH

This is incredible! I had no idea that someone has achieved this feat. It's a shame it hasn't gained more publicity.

Mar. 27 2012 08:32 PM

What better shape to tolerate the extreme pressures than being flat. Why has this feat fallen to the side? The gain to the world is the same as it was traveling to the moon, it seems.

Mar. 25 2012 05:29 PM
Patrick from Venice, CA

Always love your writing and reporting. I'd love to read a follow-up on the scientist who hypothesized that the amount of heartbeats an animal has in its lifetime is consistent over different species. Every logic-minded person I share this story with calls it bunk.

Mar. 25 2012 11:12 AM
Bishwo Shrestha from Kathmandu

Is there no comment here because of the nature of the post.
What disappears when you say its name.

Mar. 23 2012 01:36 AM

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