What can be possibly found on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean? Will humanity ever reach its deepest point?
No human has ever reached the bottommost point of all five oceans or even tried. And only one person—film director and ocean fanboy James Cameron—had touched the absolute nadir, Challenger Deep in the western Pacific’s Mariana Trench, since Lt. Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard first reached the spot way back on January 23, 1960. That's how, on December 2018, Vescovo found himself off Puerto Rico aboard Pressure Drop, a repurposed U.S. Navy ship, preparing to take Limiting Factor, the deep-diving submersible he'd commissioned, to the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, 8,376 meters down. (Meters are standard in the nautical world; that's 27,480 feet or just over 5 miles.)
Inside Five Deeps’ record-setting quest to reach the bottom of each ocean
After Victor Vescovo climbed the Seven Summits—the highest mountain on each continent—he skied to both the North and South poles. Only 66 people have accomplished this dual feat of human performance, dubbed the Explorers' Grand Slam. When Vescovo finished, in 2017, he certainly could have hung up his gear and felt pretty good about his place in the annals of adventure. But the 53-year-old private equity investor from Texas was not done.
Vescovo had been considering what, after Everest and Antarctica, he could possibly tackle that would feel big enough. Outer space wasn’t really an option yet. Then he came up with the perfect quest. It would be, in a sense, the inverse of the Seven Summits. He called it the Five Deeps. Limiting Factor is the unique creation of Triton Submarines, and the company's president, Patrick Lahey, wasn't thrilled that this unicorn of a customer—the rich guy who called up and ordered a full-ocean-depth sub—was determined to go it alone. Lahey urged Vescovo to dive with a copilot. But this was always a nonstarter.
Vescovo flies planes and helicopters, and he was determined to fly this craft too. “he told Patrick from the very beginning: ‘he wants to take a submarine to the bottom of all five oceans by myself,’” Vescovo explained. As an introvert, he prefers being alone. Also, he said, “when you do something solo, it is materially different. And it’s more rewarding.” Vescovo has a calm, almost Zen way about him. The Dallas native wears his greying blond hair long, and speaks softly, even when excited. But he seemed especially relaxed at the pre-dive meeting that December morning. He accepted a folded and bagged flag from the Explorers Club, a society of adventurers focused on promoting field study. The banner would go with him to the bottom of the Atlantic and then, if all went well, to the next four deeps, before returning to the club’s headquarters in New York City
Overall, though, the mood in the room was tense. It was the sixth and final day they would be able to dive in the Puerto Rico Trench before Vescovo had to get back to business in Texas. Twice, he had gone for trial runs and aborted. Once, the hatch leaked. Then, the sub's lone mechanical arm, which would pick up objects of scientific interest from the seafloor, fell off. Water had also shorted a circuit, causing a malfunction in the variable ballast system, which allows the pilot to dump small amounts of weight during a dive. "It's just entropy that can happen when you're dealing with complex systems," Vescovo said. Satellites take shape in clean rooms to minimize this effect; Limiting Factor was built in a 10,000-square-foot industrial space in Vero Beach, Florida.
Small but Mighty
Just 48 hours before this meeting, it had seemed likely the Puerto Rico dive would get scrapped and rescheduled, throwing the plan to do all five deeps in a year into chaos. But the issues turned out to be fixable, and Triton’s onboard team—the same engineers and technicians who built the sub had toiled furiously for 36 hours to get it ready. Vescovo assured the room that he was comfortable. Limiting Factor might be missing its mechanical arm, and the ballast system wasn't working as precisely as he'd like, but the core features—its ability to go to the bottom and come back, its life-support functions—were all A-OK. "I feel that the vessel is safe enough to try," he said. "It's a calculated risk, but I've taken greater risks. So this is reasonable."
Limiting Factor's core is a titanium sphere flanked by specialized foam cladding. To test the strength of this 3.5-inch-thick hull—to make sure it would not implode at depth and kill Lahey's golden ticket—Triton sent it to Russia's Krylov Institute, which has the only full-ocean-depth pressure chamber on Earth large enough to fit it. "It was kind of scraping down the sides as you lowered it in," Ramsay said. Krylov squeezed the submersible at nearly 1,400 atmospheres, pressure equivalent to more than 20,000 pounds per square inch. Electronics were another key concern for the battery-operated craft since a malfunction could result in a disastrous fire. To minimize the number of holes in the hull, electrical engineer Tom Blades set most of the circuitry outside the vessel. (Doing so also helped keep the craft small.) Only a few mission-critical controls, such as the ballast dropped to start the sub’s ascent, are hard-wired to a switch through small openings in its shell.
Putting electronics on the exterior, though, required each piece to have vast pressure tolerances: They had to work whether at sea level or 11,000 meters. Microchips, which manufacturers test for specifications such as temperature, aren’t pressure-rated. And there was no such thing as a full-ocean-depth battery. “You have to design everything to operate in 1 atmosphere and 1,100,” Vescovo explained. “Imagine carrying a pound, and now imagine carrying 1,100 pounds. Engineering-wise, it’s kind of what you’re doing.” Triton collaborated with speciality suppliers to modify existing parts and run intensive checks. “It is very much a research and development project with a lot of testing still going on in the field,” Blades said.
To avoid regulatory headaches, Triton worked closely with Jonathan Struwe, an engineer from Norway's DNV-GL, one of only a few companies that certify submersibles. Without its clearance, Limiting Factor couldn't get insurance or dive commercially. Struwe now calls the vessel "the best-tested submersible in the world. Any single component has been tested to a much higher pressure than the sub would ever see." By August 2018—after 26 months and about $30 million—Triton was ready for ocean testing, and Vescovo took his first dives, to nearly 5,000 meters. He urged Lahey not to rush things if it meant sacrificing safety, but by fall, everyone seemed confident enough in the vessel to go forward. “A small team of really dedicated engineers working 24/7 can accomplish extraordinary things,” Vescovo said.
Exploring the DeepsA new species of sea squirt in Java Trench. Courtesy Five Deeps Expedition
Meanwhile, he needed a ship to tote the submersible around the globe. Following the advice of expedition leader Rob McCallum and skipper Stuart Buckle—who had captained James Cameron's support ship on the Challenger Deep expedition—Vescovo bought and refit a retired Navy sub-hunting vessel (originally, USNS Indomitable) to serve as a roving base. They added a crane to raise and lower Limiting Factor, equipped wet and dry labs for the science, and updated the onboard control room for sonar and other electronics (plus some comfort upgrades for the crew). Vescovo named the 224-foot-long ship Pressure Drop, another Banks-inspired moniker.
With both crafts secured, the team turned to the most complicated parts of the process: sub launch and recovery. Fred McLaren, a retired U.S. Navy submarine captain who was part of the mission teams that went to Titanic and Bismarck, remembers surface activity as the worst part. Unless the ocean is completely calm, which it rarely is, the process of getting a submersible under the water can be white-knuckle. On the Mir, McLaren said, "even a little sea state felt like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel."
For the Puerto Rico dives, this process was very much a work in progress. Weight limitations on Pressure Drop's crane meant the team had to lower Limiting Factor into the water without Vescovo inside. He travelled out to the sub in a Zodiac and then—with the assistance of a diver straddling the top of the bucking craft as if riding a bronco—climbed into the hatch. “It’s the riskiest part of the operation,” Vescovo said. As one scientist said after a particularly hairy recovery, “he feels like he watching a rescue every time.”
A few afternoons before Vescovo's first official dive in the Caribbean, as camera operators captured every conceivable angle for a five-part Discovery Channel series that will document the quest, Vescovo, chief scientist Alan Jamieson, and Paul Henry Nargeolet, a retired French navy submersible pilot, sat at a table in Pressure Drop's control room. On the wall in front of them, a large flat-screen displayed a 3D map of the Puerto Rico Trench.
The area is a subduction zone, a geologic spot where two tectonic plates collide. Humankind discovered it in 1876 when Great Britain's HMS Challenger measured the depth of more than 7,000 meters by lowering a hemp line until it went slack. In 1939, the USS Milwaukee identified the deepest part, on the west end—which is why that place is called the Milwaukee Deep. But more-modern bathymetry (nautical speak for depth finding) from surveys done by remote operating vehicles has rewritten that history—a bit. According to Jamieson, their science team identified a slightly lower point, just east of the area. No human had been in the trench since the French submersible Archimede dived it in 1964. The crew reached 7,300 meters by accident. The story goes that they weren't looking for the deepest point; they'd wanted to study escarpments, where the terrain juts steeply upward, at the trench's edge, and missed their landing spot.
When Vescovo passed 8,200 meters in the Puerto Rico Trench on December 20, 2018, Limiting Factor officially became the deepest-diving operational submersible on the planet. Two months later, Vescovo became the first person ever to dive the Southern Ocean's South Sandwich Trench, which sits in the nether region between Argentina and Antarctica. "We know more about Mars than we know about the South Sandwich Trench," he said.
hat leg required a full month aboard Pressure Drop. And the weather, cold and blustery, was a concern the whole way. The crew had to pick up an ice pilot to navigate the ship around icebergs. But luck broke the right way. On the day of the dive, the conditions were perfect: clear weather, calm ocean. As a significant part of the ocean responds to the rising temperatures of the today’s world, the deep, dark waters at the base of the Pacific Ocean seem, by all accounts, to be doing the exact inverse.
A pair of scientists- one from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the other Harvard University, has found evidence of deep ocean cooling that is likely due to the Little Ice Age. Earlier research has proposed that it requires a long time for water in the Pacific Ocean to flow down to its lowest depths. This is because it is renewed just from the south, which implies it takes a long time for water at first glance to advance toward the base—may be up to a few hundred years.
Now, the international team that sponsors the Chikyu is endeavouring to top all previous records. The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program has been in operation since 2003 and is mainly funded by the Japan Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the U.S. National Science Foundation. Also lending support: the European Consortium of Ocean Research Drilling, the People's Republic of China, the Republic of Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, and the Federal Republic of Brazil.
The effort is expected to take many, if not dozens, of years, and may require $1 billion. Chikyu is capable of carrying up to 6 miles of drill pipes at a time. But the drill bits have a limited lifespan, and high temperatures can deform bits and pipes, not to mention creating a mess out of the borehole. Temperatures can hit 1,600 F where the crust meets the mantle, and as high as 4,000 degrees at the bottom of the mantle. Drilling to such massive depths requires mapping and seismology studies, but even with those guides, “occasionally we hit a surprise,” said Andrews. Ultimately, it’s a journey of discovery. “Part of why you’re drilling is because you want to find out what’s down there,” he said. Smithsonian researcher, What's The Deepest Hole We Can Possibly Dig, American engineers, drilled through the Pacific Ocean floor off Guadalupe, Mexico, Kola hole, seismic plates and encountered temperatures, Chikyu, seismology studies, geology, Oceanography, German Continental Deep Drilling Program in Bavaria,