Going deep in a new breed of submersible Oliver Steeds descends beneath the waves to discover the latest developments in submarine exploration

“Top-side. We have landed and found Jesus. Do you copy?”
“Copy that.”
“Are you ready for my readings?”
“Ready.”
“Oxygen: two zero decimal nine. C, O, two: zero decimal two one. Internal pressure: one zero zero seven. Depth: three eight. Heading: one nine nine. Twenty-four volts: nine five per cent. Main oxygen: one seven zero.”


We are 38 metres down, half a kilometre off the coast of Malta, diving in a new breed of submersible, the C-Explorer – holding three people, depth capacity of 300 metres and built by the Dutch company U-Boat Worx. Five metres in front of us stands a 10-metre statue of Jesus Christ, arms raised aloft to the surface. Time for an unexpected tick on the bucket list: a selfie with JC.

Jacques Cousteau (the other JC), and others, pioneered the developments of scuba in the 1950s and 60s to open up the oceans’ sunlit zone – the first 100 metres; these new submersibles are enabling the next step down, from 100 metres to 1,000 metres, into the twilight zone. This transformative breakthrough has been brought about by the use of transparent spherical pressure hulls. It’s like diving into the abyss in a fishbowl. While the wide field of view ensures you don’t feel claustrophobic, you do still feel exposed.

“Have sharks or giant squid ever attacked the submersibles?” I asked our pilot, Lex van Rijswijk.

“Not yet, but you never know.” With only 6 months diving experience, Lex was a relative newcomer to the salty depths. “There aren’t many of these subs and we are the pioneers. A few months ago, I dived with dolphins. I’ve never seen a confused dolphin before. Perhaps they were just curious.”

Their goal was seven miles down, the nadir of the Earth, the deepest place in the oceans – a place never visited by another human being.

This is exploration at its purest. Observation is the first step in the scientific process that brings discovery, knowledge and understanding, expanding our horizons to answer questions we have not yet even imagined. Covering 71 per cent of our pla-net, with an average depth of 4,270 metres, the oceans’ three-dimensional liquid living space is the largest, most ecologically significant part of our planet, containing at least 95 per cent of the biosphere. Our ocean regulates our climate, absorbs most of our waste CO2, provides half the oxygen we breathe and feeds over 1.5 billion of us. It is a medicine cabinet, an employer of 3 billion people and a source of clean energy.

In short, it’s our planet’s life support system. With only 0.05 per cent of the seabed plotted in great detail, we now have better maps of Venus and Mars than we do of our own planet’s heart. We don’t need Einstein to tell us that this is not very sensible. “Top-side, do you copy?” Sub-commander Lex sparks up.

“Copy.” The acoustic communications system momentarily breaks the tranquility of our abyssal bubble as we contemplate the messiah. “Depth: four zero. Heading: two five nine. We are off to find the wreck.”

We leave Jesus behind and start navigating through a mini canyon, with 20-metre walls rising on either side. Trucking along at a top subsurface speed of 8 knots, with 30-metre visibility, the hulk of the sunken ship appears within minutes.

The wreck is an old ferry, lowered in the 1980s by the Maltese government, for divers. Today we are the only ones here.

Our very own Captain Nemo slows the sub, approaches gradually and then hovers in front of the bow. Shoals of fish swim idly by, nonplussed by our presence. The colour spectrum had diminished as we descended; red was the first to go, and blue the last. Descent is a journey through shades of blue. We hit the lights and 20,000 lumens put the colour back, transforming flat blue-and-grey fish into a rainbow array.

The configuration of six thrusters on the C-Explorer ensures Lex can manoeuvre the submersible in any direction – up and down, forwards and backwards and, critical for wreck exploration, sideways. We glide effortlessly around the wreck, maintaining our perfect forward perspective from the comfort of leather seats in an air-conditioned pressure hull. Although the shipwreck itself was nothing special, the visual exper-ience was a tantalising looking glass into what is possible. The idea of humans travelling to extreme environments, to explore the unknown and overcome technical and engineering obstacles, has often been associated with astronauts and space exploration. But now, from outer space to inner space, from astronauts to aquanauts, a new odyssey for mankind is beginning.

On January 23rd 1960, under a cloud of Cold War secrecy, two men, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, climbed from the mothership USS Wandank onto the Bathyscaphe Trieste. They discovered that it had been damaged, but knowing there may not be another chance, decided to try to dive anyway. Their goal was seven miles down, the nadir of the Earth, the deepest place in the oceans – a place never visited by another human being.

Señor Salme illustrates Nekton

The expedition, codenamed ‘Project Nekton’ by the US navy, marked one of the greatest feats of exploration in the mechanical age, and has largely been forgotten. They were pioneers in the truest sense. Step by step, fathom by fathom, they pushed back the frontier and helped open up a new world.

Twelve people have walked on the moon, nearly 5,000 have summited Everest, thousands have reached the poles, but it was only in 2012 that a third person, the film director James Cameron, journeyed to the oceans’ greatest abyss.

After having been submerged for an hour, it was time to return to the surface. Lex blew air into the tanks to give our ship positive buoyancy and we began to ascend. At 20 metres, the sunlight returned to warm our faces and brighten the waters from dark to turquoise blue.

“Top-side. C-Explorer. At one zero metres, requesting permission to surface.”

“Copy that. Surface is clear.”

Breaking the surface felt like a return to the safety of our world; but there’s the rub. The sea’s surface remains a frontier separating our world from the realm of inner space. We peer at the shimmering surface and only see the distorted reflection of the sky, a constant blue horizon that we believe will never change. The deep ocean is out of sight and out of mind.

With a price tag starting at £1.5 million, submersibles like the C-Explorer, Triton’s 3300/3 or SEAmagine’s Aurora are largely the toys of the multimillionaire club and their fleets of superyachts. However, they can and are being adapted for scientific research, exploration and filmmaking. There is hope that they will inspire the need to explore the deep and take the next giant leap for mankind.

The deep ocean has become humanity’s most critical frontier. Our life support system is under threat. Anthropogenic climate change, overfishing, pollution, resource exploitation and acidification are causing the oceans to suffer their most extreme disruption for at least 300 million years. Thirteen of our 15 biggest cities are threatened by sea level rise. At current rates of decline, oceanic fish will be off the menu by 2040. Forty per cent of corals have already been lost. Marine biodiversity has slumped by 39 per cent and extractive industries are damaging pristine habitats. Only three per cent of the ocean is protected, compared to 15 per cent of land. We are threatening to destroy its ability to support life.

A new race is on. We are already destroying the ocean faster than we can discover it. On the plus side, if we can find them before it’s too late, there are hundreds of thousands of species awaiting discovery. We are already using chemicals and biological materials from a handful of marine organisms to produce anti-cancer drugs, and others to fight TB, HIV and malaria. Imagine how these unknown species can advance medical microbiology, clinical virology, genetics and biotechnology.

Exploration has always driven progression. Our exploration – our progress – begins with a dream, a quest for the unknown. It’s part of the human condition. We need the unknown. It inspires us to go beyond, it gives us a sense of mystery that can expand our minds, our view of the world and how we understand who we are. The oceans of Earth are fathoms deep in folklore and fantasy, but none of those stories will be as strange or compelling as the reality these amazing diving machines will uncover.


Oliver Steeds is mission director for Nekton, a new marine institute to explore the deep ocean in manned submersibles.

Words: Oliver Steeds
Illustration: Señor Salme

 

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