So BP thinks the Macondo wellhead is deep at 5,000 ft from the surface and technically challenging due to the depth at which they have to operate? Well they are no doubt right, we wouldn’t make light of the challenges or of the consequences but an interesting article in Red Bull’s magazine RedBulletin.com suggests maybe we have not come as far as we thought in terms of operating at very deep sea limits.
Fifty years ago a Swiss economist Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh a US Navy lieutenant set a world record that has not been matched let alone exceeded since. In a bathysphere designed and built by Piccard the two of them descended on Saturday January 23 1960 to the floor of the Mariana Trench, a depth of 10,916 meters or a mind boggling 35,813 ft 6.78 miles below the surface.
Nor was it Piccard’s first descent in his vessel. He had taken it down to progressively deeper depths over 64 previous dives since it was built in 1953. Originally funded by a Belgian research body and later by the US Navy keen to chalk up some prestige during the years of the cold war, Piccard’s craft was far from the product of a major development team relying almost solely on the ingenuity of Piccard and his father, also a noted scientific explorer.
The bathysphere was built in Trieste (and subsequently named after that city) but the engineers turned to Essen and German steel for the construction of the hull. To withstand pressures of 7.82 metric tons per square inch steel plate 12 cms nearly 5 – thick was used but the Perspex portholes were the first to show signs of strain when tiny cracks began to form at nearly 10,000 meter depth. The vessel was designed to withstand pressures found at a theoretical 20,000 meters and with absolute faith in the laws of physics, Piccard is said to have never doubted the Trieste’s ability to return him safely to the surface. Buoyancy was achieved by a taking in sea-water and petrol while ballast was provided by two silos each holding 8 tons of steel scrap that was left behind when the vessel needed to return to the surface. Inside the 65ft craft was a space just 3 ft wide for the two-man crew to operate.
So what did he find when the Trieste finally settled on the bed of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on the ocean floor? The seabed looked bright and clear, a desert full of cinnamon colored silt he described as diatomaceous ooze. Lights illuminated this small section of what is known as the Hadel zone (after Hades or Hell) the very lowest oceanic zone, for the first and last time in eternity.
In the end Navy support for deep diving waned and scientific interest was insufficient to fund further exploration but Piccard’s record stands as a testimony to his courage and ingenuity over half a century ago.