Sat, Jan 22, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Back into the abyss

Only once before has anyone made the 11km descent into the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on earth. Filmmaker James Cameron wants to repeat that incredible journey for his ‘Avatar’ sequel

By Ian Sample  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Constance Chou

In the grim-gray light before sunrise on Jan. 23, 1960, a stick of TNT exploded somewhere beneath the waves in the western Pacific and shot a plume of white water high into the sky with a shuddering ker-ump.

The crew aboard the USS Lewis, a Navy destroyer, had spent the past few days lobbing more than 800 charges overboard and were using the blasts to sound the ocean depths. The echo from the latest detonation took a full 14 seconds to bounce off the seabed and back to the ship. The vessel was 320km off the coast of Guam and directly above the deepest chasm in the world’s deepest ocean.

As daylight broke, US sailors tossed buoyant flares into the water to mark the spot where Captain Don Walsh, a US Navy submariner, and Jacques Piccard, a Swiss engineer, would embark on their descent into “Challenger Deep,” the name of the deepest fissure in the Pacific’s Mariana Trench.

Inside their steel submersible, the Trieste, the two men, sitting on two little stools, descended for five hours into the gloom, unsure of what they would find and uncertain of whether they would return. A small bulb inside cast enough light to read the depth gauge, a thermometer and dials that monitored the water currents, but the powerful mercury vapor lamps on the submarine’s hull were switched off most of the time. Any marine life that happened by might have seen a gentle glow in the darkness as the dimly lit hulk plunged deeper into the abyss.

As a tale of naval derring-do, Walsh and Piccard’s journey to the deepest spot in the world’s deepest ocean is all the more nerve-racking for the half-century old technology they relied on. Despite great leaps in underwater exploration, so far no one has attempted to repeat the descent. However, that is about to change.

Film director James Cameron — the man behind Avatar, Alien and aptly, The Abyss — has gathered a team of engineers and given them the job of building a submersible capable of returning to the Mariana Trench. Cameron, who has filmed on the wreck of the Titanic, has said he plans to use his new submersible to gather footage for a sequel to Avatar. The vessel is being assembled in Australia and tests on the hull are already completed. Insiders say a trial dive could be on the cards later this year.

The prospect of a return to the Mariana Trench comes as scientists are just beginning to understand the importance of the deepest realms of the oceans. These are habitats with extraordinary and unique lifeforms; places that behave like deepwater stores for the carbon locked up in marine life when that life comes to an end and gravity drags them down.

Cameron’s engineers will have pored over the details of Walsh and Piccard’s descent in the hope of avoiding the kinds of glitches and heart-stopping moments that put the mission somewhere on a line between bravery and bravado.

Less than an hour into the descent, at a depth of 1,280m, a dribble of water appeared and meandered down the wall of the vessel. It soon stopped. At 5,400m the vessel sprang another leak but it too sealed itself again. At 9,800m, which is deeper than Mount Everest is high, there was a dull crack and the Trieste’s cabin shook hard. For a few minutes, Walsh and Piccard stopped everything on board that made a noise. Tiny cracking sounds came from all around, but the submersible seemed OK. The echo sounder used to locate the bottom of the ocean revealed nothing but more water beneath.

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