-By Chris Welsh
Putting it all in perspective:
There are few unexplored places left on Earth. The ocean depths below 25,000 feet/7000 meters encompass 2% of the ocean… an area larger than the state of Texas. While we have conquered space and the moon numerous times, the Deepest Place in the World Club has only had three members, with only one, Don Walsh, alive today. The other member, Piccard, passed away several years ago. The number of times these areas have been explored can be counted on two hands. Can you imagine a land area that large that we only knew from less than a dozen brief visits, each only seeing a kilometer or two of the landscape?
Last week, James Cameron achieved 8,000 meters, a huge accomplishment. A dozen people have visited the moon, and hundreds have been up on the Space Shuttle. The world has been circumnavigated and the seven summits conquered again and again. The headwaters of the Nile, the Amazon, and the Mississippi were explored long ago. It happens that the 8,000 meter mark is now a club of 12 people, just like those who have landed on the moon.
Jim’s journey is as amazing for where it began as to where it ended up. Jim grew up on the plains of Canada and is self made as a film director, writer, and submarine explorer. At age 15, inspired by Jacque Cousteau, Jim got is scuba license. He hasn’t looked back since.
Now Jim has added a bit more to our knowledge by visiting the deepest place in the ocean – the bottom of the Challenger Deep, 11,000 meters below the surface. Jim’s accomplishment is seven years in the making, and he is entitled to a healthy congratulation from everyone including Virgin Oceanic. It is a daunting task; as another party seeking to visit the true deep, we understand the magnitude of what he has done. Each visit is different. 51 years ago the Trieste pilots proved it was possible to go when they touched down. Jim has expanded that visit to include nearly a mile of nosing along, recording with vast video and sensor capabilities that were not available long ago. Virgin Oceanic looks forward to expanding these two visits with large scale exploratory dives covering 12-18 miles of trench floor in the deepest trench in each of the five ocean basins. And when all of this is done, we will only have seen a hundred mile visual swath of a much bigger area, meaning exploration of the deep is just beginning.
Jim’s dive is enviable. First solo to the deepest place. In the Ocean, this is a great accomplishment. It’s like a first solo landing on the Moon. While I take for granted that my mission to the Challenger Deep is also solo, it is tougher to be alone than accompanied. There is a comfort that comes from the presence of another human being. You can look to each other for mission technical support, knowledge, and redundancy, but there is something more basic as well: you are not alone, and that is a intangible.
This progression of deep sea craft is being matched by massive reductions in the size of support vessels needed. The Trieste had a US Navy destroyer as its mothership. Jim has moved to a 63 meter 1400 ton steel vessel, while Virgin Oceanic’s mothership is 40 meters and a mere 27 tons; the scale of mothership has a huge influence on the cost of exploration and the Cameron and Virgin subs show the evolution of how the cost will be brought down so these dives can be made.
Virgin Oceanic has had a very positive relationship with Jim’s effort. We shared the development of sonar for use in deep sea navigation. I was aboard with Jim’s team last week in Guam, and we both hope there will be a chance to dive the two subs together in the near future. The Virgin sub is excellent for large scale exploration and identifying areas worthy of more detailed examination, and Jim’s sub is perfect for detailed examination of those sites once found. We can achieve more through collaboration that just the sum of our efforts.
We look to build on what Walsh, Piccard, and Cameron have done by leagues, true leagues. The Virgin Oceanic Deep Challenger is capable of 12-15 miles of transit on the bottom. The previous trips have been lunar landers, fantastic for getting there at all, and expanding man’s knowledge of a foreign world logarithmically. Our sub will be like the later Apollo missions with the lunar rover – another geometrically greater level of exploration.
Like SpaceShipOne’s flights leading to Virgin Galactic, these exploratory dives help show the way forward to taking visits to the deep from something done every 50 years to the potential of routine dives, much like Virgin Galactic is changing space travel.
Photo taken in Guam several days before Jim’s dive – Virgin Chief Pilot/Partner Chris Welsh, Trieste Pilot Don Walsh, Deep Challenger Pilot Jim Cameron, and Mir Pilot Anatoly Sagalevich. The Past, Present & Future of deep sub work.