Jacques Piccard and the odyssey to the depths of the Earth

Published on Wednesday, 28 July of 2021

The Trieste being transported to the Marianas by the US Navy. Photo Credit: Keystone  / Str

“But once it was under way , the deepest dive in human history was actually a bit boring” said Don Walsh, who at 28, as a lieutenant in the United States Navy, piloted the Trieste alongside with the Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard on his journey to the depths of the world.

Born on July 28, 1922 in Brussels, Piccard was known for developing underwater vehicles throughout his life to discover and explore the seabed around the globe.

His greatest achievement was the construction of Trieste along his father, Auguste Piccard, partner of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, who was the engineer and physicist in charge of the invention of the first stratospheric balloon that he used as a base for the development and construction of submarines that he called bathyscafos (boat of the depths in Greek), being one of these the Trieste, baptized like this because it was created in 1953 and financed, in part, in the Italian city of that name.

For financial reasons and sold for $ 250,000, the Trieste was delivered to the US Navy in 1958, which was interested in such technology for the purpose of “demonstrating that the United States now has the capacity for human exploration of the seafloor in its deepest parts”, and explore the depths of the sea to discover a lifeless area in which to deposit nuclear waste, starting the Nekton Project in order to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

The descent was carried out on the morning of January 23, 1960, the objective of which was to reach the Challenger Deep, a 10902 meter (35800 foot) depression at the southern tip of the Marianas, 320 kilometers southwest of Guam. A hollow so deep that it exceeds Mount Everest in height, which measures 8929 meters.

The Trieste crew consisted of Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard on their descent that lasted approximately five hours. Walsh added that the boredom of the trip was interrupted by “a moment of pure terror” in which, at a depth of approximately 9000 meters, the hull of the bathyscaphe shook and made a loud noise. Piccard recounts that he exchanged glances with Walsh and they decided to continue the journey, reaching the bottom 40 minutes later “It was just a crash, like an explosion, and then nothing,” says Walsh “It did not represent any danger of death, at least not immediate ”. They later find out that an exterior Plexiglas window had cracked from the pressure.

Jacques Piccard (behind) and Lieutenant Don Walsh in the cabin of the Trieste. Photo Credit: Keystone  / Str

After five hours of descent, they finally reached the ocean floor, at a depth of 10916 meters, which would later be determined that the real value had been 10,911 meters.

The voyage of the Trieste was more than a record trip to the depths of the ocean. With it, Piccard and Walsh opened a scientific window to the deepest ocean, which was considered devoid of life. Upon landing, they used mercury vapor lamps to inspect the completely black environment that surrounded them. “At best, the most interesting find and that we were immensely lucky to see, was right in the middle of the circle of light that was projected by one of our reflectors, a flatfish lurking on the ocean floor “Piccard later said” We were surprised to find and discover forms of marine life down there. ”

After 20 minutes on the seabed, they began to return to the surface with a fractured window, a journey that lasted about three hours and 15 minutes. Piccard and Walsh spent nearly nine hours exploring the abyss.

When it was known that there were forms of life inhabiting so deep, the dumping of nuclear waste in the ocean trenches was prohibited. Unfortunately, they were unable to take photos or samples of any kind.

The Trieste has returned to the surface, breaking the diving record. Photo Credit: Keystone  / Str

Today, scientists continue to study the remarkably complex ecosystems of the ocean’s abyssal depths, with life forms that make up more than half of living matter and, in turn, the lowest link in the ocean food chain.

In the mud of the Challenger Abyss, the scientific community has found more than 400 species, whose DNA samples resemble some of the oldest life forms on Earth.

Don Walsh became a submarine captain in the North American Navy and Jacques Piccard, apart from breaking all diving records off with the Trieste, spent the rest of his life exploring the underwater kingdom of which he pioneered, later building the Mésoscaphe (submarines of medium depth) and the first tourist submarine that carried up to 33000 passengers in the depths of Lake Geneva. Piccard passed away in 2008, not before having left his mark on the world.

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