Seven Miles Below
By Mike Stevens
Based on the 1960 dive of the submersible Trieste
Jacques Piccard sat at the controls of The Trieste on January 23, 1960, a specially-built submersible designed by his father, Auguste Piccard, himself twice besting the record for ascent in a hot air balloon, ultimately reaching a height of 23,000 feet in his self-designed balloon that could withstand the low pressures of the upper atmosphere. In fact, Auguste had developed The Trieste, after realizing that his invention for high altitude could be adapted for great depths. He invented a submersible called the bathyscaphe which was capable of withstanding the crushing pressure of the deep ocean. Over the years, its design was slowly improved, with Jacques help, until it was eventually bought by the U.S. Navy, who was interested in developing a deep-water submersible for underwater research.
Jacques had travelled to the U.S. with the bathyscaph, now renamed The Trieste, and the navy was suitably impressed. They realized the strategic value in a deep-water submarine to be used in rescue and salvage, they began testing, and hired Jacques as a consultant.
Now, as The Trieste was slowly lowered into the water from the base ship, Jacques thought of his father; and the fact his invention would soon be put to the ultimate test. So far, The Trieste had only been tested a depth of 24,000 feet, but Jacques wanted to go much deeper. He wanted to go down to the Marianas Trench, located in the North Pacific, to a place known as Challenger Deep. He and his colleagues had meticulously planned out this dive. It would be a dive down to 35,797 feet, or roughly 7 miles. People said he was crazy to attempt a dive to that depth, but as they’d already taken The Trieste down 24,000 feet, Jacques was anxious to take it down as far as it could go.
The descent began, and at first light from the surface poured in through the window of The Trieste, but as the gasoline in the tanks used for buoyancy was replaced by the weight of tanks of sea water, and the craft sank lower, the darkness grew worse and worse, until finally the outside lights took effect, and cast eerie shadows on the interior of the submersible. With him was Don Walsh, a submarine officer, and together, the two men gazed out upon the yawing chasm, which extended roughly 7 miles below them.
The craft was approaching 24,000 feet, and from here on out, The Trieste was untested. Both men felt their anxiety growing. What if something went wrong? Of course, if it did, they’d never know it. They’d be instantly crushed. And, even if they somehow weren’t, they were riding in the only craft that could go this deep, and they were about to sink even farther down. As the gauge registered 24,000, and they kept on sinking, the men exchanged nervous glances. Everything would be unknown from now, until they touched down at the 35,797 foot level.
Everything so far had gone without incident. Jacques glanced at the depth gauge. They were just about to drop past the 30,000 foot mark. Only 5,797 feet to go. He was nervously thinking they were going to make it with no problems, when the air inside The Trieste was filled with a loud ‘bang’, and the two men glanced at each other, and suddenly the interior of The Trieste seemed tiny to both men. Jacques didn’t suffer from claustrophobia, but suddenly he had a vision of himself being turned to pulp by the tons of pressurized sea water which were just outside the 12.7 inch thick walls of The Trieste, doing their best to find a way in and instantly crush them.Jacques fought the urge to call off the decent and head back to the surface, roughly 7 miles through the water above them. He nervously glanced around the cabin, and saw nothing amiss, and asked Don Walsh what he thought, and when he, too, was in favor of continuing, Jacques decided they should continue on.
As the craft settled into the featureless muck at the bottom of The Marianas Trench, the absence of descending felt strange. Both men gazed out on an alien world unseen by any other human eyes. They saw a completely flat fish, and a previously-unknown type of shrimp.
After only 20 minutes on the bottom, Jacques discovered tiny cracks around the viewing window, and reluctantly call a halt to the planned dive, which was scheduled to last much longer, but Jacques was afraid to subject the craft to anymore of the crushing weight of the 7 mile-deep sea water. As the Trieste carried no photographic or scientific equipment, the descent had been made simply to prove it could be done, and no experiments would be left undone. When he’s informed Don Shaw of his decision to end the dive prematurely, he looked disappointed, but agreed with the decision. Jacques reluctantly began preparations for the ascent.
As the specially-built weight holders slowly started dropping weights, and the started to ascend, both men fully expected to be instantly crushed out of existence at any second, but as they ascended slowly back towards the world, they relaxed a little, and the remaining ascent passed without incident. As they broke the surface back into the real world, both men hugged each other. They had just survived a voyage to the bottom of the sea; no other human beings had even come close!
In the weeks that followed, they had their claims of what they had witnessed on the sea floor doubted by marine biologists, who scoffed at the notion of any fish being able to survive the crushing weight of 17,000 psi. But both of the men who had made the dive in The Trieste knew what they’d witnessed.
Jacques Piccard tried to recreate all they had witnessed and experienced, in Seven Miles Down, a book detailing the adventure, but how do you put down on paper exactly the emotions you experienced, in person, to a reader who may be reading it in the comfort of their home? Still, he was fairly pleased with the outcome.
Jacques Piccard was depressed; his plan to return to the depths were not going to be realized. Craft such as The Trieste were expensive; so expensive in fact, that he couldn’t raise the money for a new one. He’d have to be content with his memories of when they’d descended 7 miles below.