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In Oceans Deep
Courage, Innovation, and Adventure Beneath the Waves
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O abyss! O eternal Godhead! O deep sea! What more could you have given me than the gift of your very self?
—Saint Catherine of Siena
So my message is, in whichever realm, be it going into space or going into the deep sea, you have to balance the yin and yang of caution and boldness, risk aversion and risk taking, fear and fearlessness.
—James Cameron, “Titanic and Other Reflections,” 2004
Every person on this earth depends on the sea in some way. My gosh, if only we could get folks interested in that part of our planet, the benefits could be unlimited. But first, someone has to notice.
—Bob Barth, U.S. Navy Sealab diver, 2000
This book is not a diving manual. Safe diving in all of its many forms requires training provided by internationally recognized organizations. Nothing in this volume should be construed as encouraging anyone to ignore widely accepted standards for education, equipment, depth limitations, experience, and other factors that minimize risks.
My father, who was my first diving partner well before I was old enough to drive, built his working life around running midsize businesses. But when I was barely out of high school and found my first job diving, he was more than supportive. He was enthusiastic. On several occasions, I overheard him bragging to friends and colleagues about his son the oil field diver, the kid making his living underwater with explosives and cutting torches, the young man assembling pipelines on the seabed.
Ten years later, when I walked away from a successful run as a diver to pursue a university degree, he was disappointed. This was a legitimate reaction. My work had taken me from the Gulf of Mexico to the South China Sea. It had provided an opportunity to dive while breathing exotic gases and to live at depth with three colleagues for monthlong stretches. My future looked far less exciting. And to this day, it seems at times that one of my biggest mistakes was turning my back on a career underwater.
On the other hand, I had suffered several diving injuries and survived a few close encounters with my own mortality. I had grown tired of the time I was spending at sea, as much as eight months during busy years. During quieter periods, the uncertainty of living from contract to contract and weathering lean seasons without a paycheck took its toll. And there were two supervisors I respected who quietly encouraged me to get out of the business while I was still young, to pursue an education, something that had eluded both of them despite their abundant intelligence and talent.
And so I went to college. I became a biologist and a writer. I ran research programs in Australia and Alaska. I continued to lead a reasonably interesting life. But it could never compete with what had come before. So whenever possible, I inserted myself into field studies that required diving or the use of underwater sampling gear, things such as dredges, grab samplers, nets, and even hydrophones that recorded the vocalizations of passing whales and the noises from ships. And I dived recreationally, usually with scuba gear, whenever and wherever I could. Diving remained, and will continue to be, an important part of my day-to-day existence.
Back to my father. When my book Cold was reviewed in his favorite magazine, the Economist, he urged me to write something about diving. Later, as Parkinson’s disease ravaged first his body and then his mind, he grew adamant.
I told him there were problems with such a book. Many great works had already covered the topic, but few had found a wide readership. And there was the question of whether my style of writing suited the subject. Most of what I had read on underwater exploration tended toward either personal exploits or something close to a textbook, but as an author I was partial to narratives shaped by science and history.
After several years of reflection, I realized that what I had to write could not be limited to diving in the conventional sense but instead would tackle what I came to think of as “humanity’s presence beneath the waves.” When friends asked about my work, I would repeat those exact words. And then I would explain myself, adding something like, “You know, diving, submarines, submersibles, and underwater robots.”
Even then, I had to consider how to capture the essence of my subject while also captivating readers. I had to figure out how to do justice to this amazing story. Well into the first year of research and interviews for what became In Oceans Deep, my approach remained undetermined, until one day, while I was free diving, something close to inspiration struck. Afterward, of course, the book continued to evolve, and very late in the process it went through a major change following an interview with the world’s most famous female diver and underwater conservationist, Dr. Sylvia Earle.
I never intended to write an unabridged treatise on humanity’s presence underwater. I meant instead to create the kind of book that would leave a lasting impression. I wanted readers to finish the last page with a newfound or rejuvenated motivation to free dive, to scuba dive, to consider passage in any one of the increasingly common tourist submersibles capable of reaching beyond one thousand feet, to watch undersea documentaries, to consider buying an underwater robot of their own, and to talk to marine scientists and submariners and the engineers whose work lies beneath the surface of the sea. In other words, I wanted readers to embrace the part of our world that is shrouded by depth.
I continue to hope that In Oceans Deep will bring attention to one of the most important yet under-discussed topics of our time. Past accomplishments and the feats being attempted today are barely known to the general public. Even among those who work underwater, knowledge is far too compartmentalized. For example, champion free divers may know nothing about submersibles, and submersible pilots might know very little about the strange gas mixtures that allow divers to breathe below one thousand feet. And the link between the ways in which humans access the underwater world and the struggle to protect our troubled oceans deserves far more consideration than it receives.
While my father passed away before I even began to write this book, I was able to finish it only because of him. The reality that he is not here to appreciate the result is among the tragedies of my life. But for those who see value in these pages, please know that at least half the credit goes to my late father. Without his occasionally nagging encouragement, In Oceans Deep never would have come to be.
Early on January 23, 1960, a thirty-seven-year-old Italian engineer named Giuseppe Buono looked out at the Pacific and worried.
After two days of towing the ungainly submersible Trieste onto location above the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the waves were growing. Here, 220 miles from the western Pacific island of Guam, floating far above the deepest point in the world’s oceans, wave heights exceeded five feet. While seas of that size are mere ripples to an oceangoing surface ship, Trieste was built for calmer waters. On the surface, she was a fragile vessel.
Buono had prepared Trieste for her sixty-four previous dives, and on this day he did not like what he saw. Trieste’s deck was awash. The shallow-water telephone, used by Trieste’s pilots to communicate with her support crew at the beginning of each dive, had been swept away. The sea had also destroyed an instrument that measured speed of descent and ascent. And Trieste’s vertical current meter hung from its mount, dangling from wires, swinging through the air as the vessel bobbed up and down.
From his vantage point aboard the support ship, Buono did not know what else might be broken or lost. The waves and the damage they had already caused did not bode well for a record-setting dive to the ocean’s deepest floor, seven vertical miles down and—if all went well and catastrophe did not prevail—seven vertical miles back up.
According to written accounts describing the day’s events, on that morning in 1960 Buono was “taut with anxiety.” But Buono was not calling the shots. U.S. Navy lieutenant Don Walsh was the Navy’s officer in charge, a formal title meaning that he was in command. Civilian Jacques Piccard, who had worked with Trieste long before the Navy acquired her, offered important advice. Buono was the engineer, but Walsh and Piccard were the two men who would be aboard Trieste for her historic journey. They were the test pilots, and they were not the sort of men who succumbed to anxiety.
If Trieste was to dive, the crew had to act quickly. The descent would require around five hours, and the ascent would need an additional three hours. The plan also called for thirty minutes on the seabed itself. Walsh and Piccard, though hardly risk averse, did not relish the prospect of surfacing after dark in heavy seas. And they did not want anyone to have to attach the one-inch-thick towing cable to Trieste after dusk, a tricky job that required a swimmer in the water.
“I am going to check the main electric circuits in the sphere,” Piccard told Buono. “Then, if everything is in order, we shall dive immediately.”
What he called the sphere was the personnel capsule attached to the bottom of Trieste. It was a hollow ball of steel that would protect him and Walsh from the almost unthinkable pressures found below.
* * *
In 2016, I meet Don Walsh—the deepest man alive—in person, at his home in rural Oregon. He lives with his wife on a property well inland from the coast. Not counting a son who resides in a separate house on the same property, his nearest neighbor is a mile away.
Don is eighty-four years old, but his upright posture, the surety of his gaze, his pleasure at the sight of a black bear climbing an apple tree at the edge of his long driveway, and his energy of engagement with me—a stranger—all suggest someone far younger.
I am very pleased to meet him. It means something to me to stand next to him in the flesh, while time allows.
Fifty-six years earlier, the year before I was born, Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard descended to the deepest known point in the world’s oceans, seven miles below the surface. No one would repeat this feat until 2012, when filmmaker and explorer James Cameron would follow in their footsteps, taking his submersible Deepsea Challenger to a depth just slightly shy of that reached by Trieste. To this day, only three human beings and two robots have visited the Challenger Deep. In contrast, twelve people have been to the moon and well over five hundred have traveled in space.
For perspective, if Mount Everest were somehow magically relocated to the deepest known point in the world’s oceans, the summit would be submerged, its peak standing some six thousand feet beneath the surface.
For further perspective, 1960 was one year after the YMCA began offering scuba diving instruction in the United States, four years before the Navy’s Sealab experiments kept divers at depth for days at a time using a technique that would become known as saturation diving, a decade before rapidly changing economies and technologies would push the world’s search for oil and gas far out of sight of land, twenty years before tethered robots would revolutionize underwater work and exploration, and fifty-five years before untethered robots relying on artificial intelligence would begin to proliferate in the world’s oceans.
Standing in the entryway to his house, I fill Don in on my own background underwater and on my current life living aboard a cruising sailboat with my marine biologist wife, sailing from place to place to better understand, firsthand, the oceans. I also tell him of my desire to write a book that will resonate with anyone who has ever looked out from a beach or over the side of a boat, and wondered, What’s under those waves?
I am too old to admit to having heroes, but standing there, still in his entryway, I tell Don Walsh that he is and has been, for as long as I can remember, one of my heroes.
“Aw, shucks,” he replies, timed and toned so as to sound not only anachronistic but also self-effacing and amused. Then he leads me through his home and up a flight of stairs to his office, a wonderfully large, open space designed by his wife, Joan, lined in lightly stained bookshelves holding eight thousand volumes—books on naval history, philosophy, submarines, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. And there we sit talking for four hours without a break.
* * *
Trieste, named after the Italian town where she was built, was not exactly a submarine. She was, in some ways, more akin to the kind of sealed diving bell used by the likes of William Beebe to reach a depth of 3,028 feet on August 15, 1934, twenty-six years before the Challenger Deep expedition. But diving bells are winched up and down from the depths as they hang ignominiously from the end of a long wire tether, rendering them unwieldy and subject to currents. Sealed diving bells protect their occupants from the pressure, but they are incapable of reaching the bottom of the Challenger Deep.
The pressure-proof sphere just big enough for two men that hung from Trieste’s underside had some things in common with a diving bell, but Trieste suffered neither the indignity nor the limitations imposed by a cable. She explored the depths unencumbered by surface connections.
Trieste’s inventor, the remarkable scientist Auguste Piccard—who also happened to be Jacques Piccard’s father—was known for his use of balloons in high-altitude research, and the U.S. Navy described Trieste as “the underwater equivalent of a lighter-than-air craft, much like a blimp operating in reverse.” She was a diving bell attached to an oblong balloon designed to fly through the sea.
In a true dirigible, hydrogen or its less explosive cousin helium, both lighter than air, provides the buoyancy that allows flight. The pilot can gain altitude by adding gas to buoyancy chambers. The gas displaces air, and the dirigible floats upward. To return to earth, the pilot dumps gas from the chambers.
For Trieste, meant to fly at the deepest of depths, gas was not an option for buoyancy control. The abyss comes with great pressures. Every 33 feet of depth in seawater adds 14.7 pounds per square inch of pressure, the equivalent of the pressure generated by the earth’s atmosphere at sea level. At 66 feet beneath the surface of the ocean, the pressure is equivalent to that generated by three of the earth’s atmospheres at sea level, or about 44 pounds per square inch. At 297 feet down, the pressure increases to ten times that found at sea level, or about 147 pounds per square inch. Trieste was headed far deeper. At the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the equivalent of 1,100 of the earth’s atmospheres would press against Trieste’s sphere with a force of about 16,883 pounds per square inch.
To understand what this might mean, consider that a typical scuba tank is filled with ordinary air at 3,000 pounds per square inch. Under rare circumstances, a scuba tank can explode, its compressed contents suddenly ripping through its metal walls, releasing about the same amount of energy that would come from the simultaneous detonation of two hand grenades. An exploding scuba tank, suddenly releasing its contents, would destroy everything around it. But a full scuba tank dropped into the Challenger Deep would not explode. Instead, it would be crushed long before it reached the bottom.
In ordinary submarines, pressurized air is used to control buoyancy. Submariners can flood ballast tanks to submerge and then force air into those same tanks to surface. But available high-pressure gas bottles, the kind that hold the air used for buoyancy control in submarines, would be of no use at the bottom of the Challenger Deep. Even if they were not destroyed by the crushing weight of extreme depths, when opened they would simply fill with water, providing no buoyancy whatsoever.
Trieste adhered to the principles of dirigibles, but she filled her balloon—what Piccard and others called her “float”—with liquid gasoline. Unlike gases, liquids are not easily compressed. In response to the very high pressures of the depths, along with the colder temperatures, gasoline would lose only seventeen percent of its volume. And it is lighter than water. It floats. Even under the tremendous pressures found on Trieste’s itinerary, gasoline would retain most of its volume and therefore most of its buoyancy.
Trieste’s float was fifty feet long and twelve feet wide, not much bigger than a typical sailing yacht. It was divided into twelve compartments, two that could be filled with compressed air for use on or near the surface and ten for the gasoline.
But how did she descend? She carried sixteen tons of iron shot as ballast. Initially, near the surface, she released air from two compartments in her float. She also could release a portion of the gasoline from her float. Crew members—including the engineer Giuseppe Buono—sometimes stood on her deck to add extra weight for those first few feet departing from the surface. Ultimately, the weight of her ballast, her sixteen tons of iron shot, pulled her downward. Later, when the time came to ascend, she dropped iron shot.
Why iron shot? Why not lead? Because iron shot could be controlled magnetically. If things went wrong, electromagnets would shut down and the iron shot would fall away. Trieste, free of her ballast, would ascend. Even if the power failed, whether the two men inside were conscious or unconscious, alive or dead, Trieste would carry them back to the surface.
She was a strange contraption, a hybrid, neither a submarine nor a diving bell, nothing more than a gasoline-filled float carrying a sphere with a diameter of less than seven feet. If all went as planned, the sphere would protect Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard from the mind-boggling pressures that are the very essence of the Challenger Deep. Its walls were five inches thick. Two acrylic viewports, cone-shaped and six inches thick, were all that allowed Trieste’s occupants to look outside, to see the wonders of the depths. But the high pressures necessitated the smallest of ports; they were a mere four inches across inside the sphere. The view for Trieste’s test pilots would be something like the view through a narrow tunnel.
* * *
Trieste’s inventor and those who used her called her a bathyscaphe—“bathy” for deep and “scaphe” for hull or for vessel, boat, or ship. While she looked nothing like a surface ship, this undersea dirigible—carrying about 34,200 gallons of gasoline, sixteen tons of iron shot ballast, and her tiny sphere just big enough to hold two very cramped men—was indeed a ship of the depths.
And while not exactly a death trap, neither was she what anyone would call inherently safe. She would not come close to meeting modern safety standards. But this was a time when individuals had more say regarding their own risk tolerance.
Fifty-six years later, in Don’s office, I ask about their contingency plan. What would they have done, all those years ago, if Trieste had, for example, become stuck in the mud seven miles beneath the waves, held in place even after dropping her iron ballast? Don smiles. Becoming stuck in the mud, he recalls, was a real possibility. It would have been one of many ways to die in Trieste. He and his surface support crew joked about a bouquet of flowers kept in a freezer for just such an occasion. The crew had strict instructions to spread the flowers on the sea if Trieste failed to surface.
Everything about Trieste exhibited the sort of innovative risk-tolerant thinking required to touch down on the bottom of the Challenger Deep. It was the same sort of thinking that had led to the development of diving helmets, scuba gear, and submarines; of what came to be known as saturation diving and atmospheric diving suits; of submersibles—including some homemade models—that could not dive as deep as Trieste but that were far more mobile. And it was a move away from this risk tolerance, but not from innovation, that led to a world in which undersea robots, controlled from the surface or working autonomously, now play an ever-greater role in exploration of the depths.
As I sit talking to Don Walsh, thinking of what I know and guessing about what I have yet to learn, I think about the story at hand. If only Walsh and Piccard had waited their turn, if only humanity had taken one small step at a time into the abyss, building one depth record on top of another, the story would be simple. I could start at the top and work down, if only that were how it had happened.
As it was, Trieste jumped ahead. But there is more to the story of the deep sea than putting two men on the bottom within the confines of a pressure-proof sphere.
* * *
I am not the only person in recent years to interview Don Walsh about Trieste, but I am one of only a few. Another was Chris Wright, who talked to Don for No More Worlds to Conquer, a book that explores the lives of people who have done something extraordinary and then faded from the limelight.
Wright asked Don about his life after Trieste. “Well,” Don reportedly answered, “a lot of people think I died.”
But of course he did not die. He served in the Vietnam War, commanded a military submarine, earned three graduate degrees, worked as deputy director of Navy Laboratories, dived on the Titanic and the Bismarck, started and ran the Institute for Marine and Coastal Studies at the University of Southern California, and founded a consulting company. Now—and bear in mind that he is eighty-four years old—he has just returned from promoting personal submersibles to a client base of billionaire megayacht owners in Monaco. Not long before that, he was in Switzerland helping Rolex with a documentary. And before that, he was at sea for several weeks.
When we talk, his answers tend to wander comfortably through memories, multifaceted but entirely coherent, reflecting the complexity of the life he has led and continues to lead.
I have one burning question for Don Walsh: What happened? Not with the dive itself, which is well documented, or with his own life, which is described in various articles and in Chris Wright’s book. Instead, what happened with the exploration of the deep sea? After the Trieste dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, no one went back until 2012. And the 2012 expedition was itself an isolated event, not part of a national quest. It was as if Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind and then the United States turned its back on the moon.
“One thing,” he says, “is NASA. The space program overshadowed the government’s undersea program. NASA had flames and good photography and cool space suits. What we did with Trieste was very hard to convey to people. It’s dark down there. There are no stunning vistas. Just two guys huddled in a tiny sphere.”
- "A broad-spectrum examination of underwater adventuring...Mr. Streever's writing is lucid on subjects ranging from gas chemistry to dredging to underwater robotics."—Wall Street Journal
- "A fascinating...journey for readers into a little-known world."—Anchorage Daily News
- "A fine writer with genuine sea credentials...Streever's book makes clear that the deep, though much closer to us, is still tantalizingly distant."—Natural History Magazine
- "In this homage-cum-history of human endeavor in the ocean depths, biologist, writer and diver Bill Streever brings to light a region less explored than the Moon."—Nature Magazine
- "With a real knack for storytelling, Streever evocatively puts the reader in the helmets, flippers, and submersibles of sea explorers throughout history...Streever crafts a book to be enjoyed by divers and general readers alike."— Publishers Weekly
"Ultimately, this timely and richly told story became something the author did not intend: an invaluable survey of how much damage has
been done and how much we will lose if we don't protect the seas."—Booklist
- "A buoyant, at times thrilling, account of the deep sea experience, perfect for divers and other lovers of life beneath the waves."— Kirkus Review
- "Streever tells a story that captures human fascination with the ocean, and encourages readers to become more interested in what lies beneath the waves."—Shelf Awareness
- Bill Streever has written a gripping and important book about the sea, its science, and the technologies we've invented to begin to experience it, but also about our own humanity-and our future. I loved following him on this extraordinary deep dive into the largest and still most mysterious realm of this incredible planet we all share—JuliBerwald, author of Spineless
- In Oceans Deep combines painstaking research with narrative flair and a genuine love for the subject...It is both an education and a terrific read—ChrisWright journalist and author of No MoreWorlds to Conquer
- A beautifully written and thrilling exploration of humanity's place in the depths by a master interpreter who has spent a lifetime face-to-face with the shipwrecks, animals, machines, daring souls, and enduring mysteries that populate this gorgeous, hidden world."—RobertKurson, New York Times bestselling author of Shadow Divers and Rocket Men
- Exquisitely researched and written, I highly recommend In Oceans Deep—Jonathan White, author of Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean
- Bill Streever takes us on an entertaining and richly informative journey into the marine frontier. I recommend this book to anyone who may wish to be awed, and perhaps disturbed, by the depths to which humans will go to explore it."—JonathanBalcombe, author of What a Fish Knows
- On Sale
- Jun 9, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Back Bay Books