Jacques Piccard and the Descent to Challenger Deep
Story 7 in the nonfiction serial, Into Danger with the Adventurers - Twelve Epic Lives of the Twentieth Century
Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh sat on tiny stools inside the cramped metal sphere. They were thousands of metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean in a bathyscaphe called the Trieste. A bathyscaphe is a sort of submarine, but it is no ordinary submarine. It is designed to withstand thousands of tonnes of pressure found at the greatest depths of the ocean. Above them on the surface a tugboat and a US navy destroyer were waiting. They would have a long wait. It would take about five hours to descend and about four hours to come back up.
They looked through the porthole. It was pitch black outside. They had a small light inside the sphere, but they kept the outside searchlights switched off so that they could see the natural glow of any bioluminescence, but the sea was completely dark. It was quiet too. The only sounds they could hear were the reassuring hiss of oxygen moving through the pipes and the hum of electronic instruments.
Inside the sphere there was plenty to do. They monitored their speed of descent to make sure they were not going too fast or too slow. They recorded the temperature of the sea and the temperature inside the sphere. They also recorded the temperature of the gasoline which would help them float to the surface. And they regularly checked the levels of carbon dioxide and humidity. There was no cable linking them with the ships above, but they could keep regular contact with a sonic telephone system. But there was nothing much to report. All seemed to be going well.
They passed 8000 metres, then 9000 metres. Deeper and deeper they went. As their depth increased so did the pressure which squeezed the sphere. Machines which crush scrap cars use nearly 200 tonnes of pressure. But Jacques and Walsh were surrounded by thousands and thousands of tonnes of pressure pressing in from every direction. They were in the ultimate crushing machine.
They reached 9,200 metres and switched on the searchlight and the sonic depth finder. They knew they must be getting near the bottom. It must be less than 2,000 metres to go, but they could not be sure. They reduced the descent rate to thirty centimetres per second as they did not want to be going too fast when they reached the bottom. The depth finder had still not detected anything and outside there was just the immensity of the water. Down and down they went. The pressure was building all the time. Could the sphere withstand it? They reached 9,800 metres. There was still no sign of the bottom.
But then, at 9,900 metres, a cracking sound echoed through the sphere. At the same time it began to shake. Had they hit the bottom? They looked through the porthole, but they could not see any rock or silt. The sonic depth finder had not detected anything solid. And the instruments said they were still descending. Jacques and Walsh exchanged nervous glances. Was the sphere beginning to break up? They kept descending as the pressure continued to increase.
Jacques Piccard was born in 1922 in Brussels in the country of Belgium. However, his parents were Swiss and he too had Swiss nationality. He went to school in Lausanne, Switzerland. His father, Auguste Piccard, was a professor of physics at the university in Brussels. As Jacques grew up he took a great interest in the work of his father. The professor wanted to study the upper atmosphere by going up in a balloon. But if he used a basket to stand in he would have to wear a pressure suit because the air is so thin at high altitudes. Instead he designed a pressurized gondola to sit in. This was a metal sphere with oxygen tanks. He made over twenty flights in this balloon and in 1932 reached a record height of 23,000 metres.
Jacques’ uncle, Jean (pronounced like ‘John’ but with a soft J), the twin brother of Auguste, was also very interested in balloons. He worked as a scientist in Chicago in America and made many inventions for use when flying high altitude balloons. We can imagine Jacques being captivated by the spirit of adventure and exploration in his family.
Then the professor had another idea. Why not use a pressurized sphere attached underneath a float to explore under the sea? The deeper you go under the sea the greater the pressure. A normal submarine would be crushed if it went too deep. He knew a strong metal sphere would be able to withstand the high pressure. People had already used spheres to explore underwater. These were suspended on chains and lowered into the sea from a ship. They were called bathyspheres. The word bathysphere means ‘deep sphere’. But Jacques’ father had a better idea. If the sphere was attached to a float the sphere could return to the surface without the need to be pulled up by a chain. But how could the sphere and float sink in the first place? He devised an ingenious solution.
Large, open tubs would be attached to the bottom of the machine. These would be suspended upside down. They would contain iron pellets held in place by an electromagnet. Their weight would make the machine sink. When the electricity to the magnets was switched off the iron pellets would fall out and the machine would rise to the surface. The floats would be filled, not with gas, but with gasoline, otherwise known as petrol. Petrol is lighter than water and does not compress under pressure.
Jacques’ father drew plans for this machine. He called it the bathyscaphe. This word means ‘deep ship’. In 1937 he started to build the bathyscaphe, but two years later the Second World War started and the work was halted
When Jacques left school he went to the University of Geneva in Switzerland to study economics. He took a year off to fight with the French First Army during the final year of the war. Afterwards he returned to the university. He completed his course in 1946. He then began work as a teacher. But what Jacques really wanted to do was to work with his father. Deep sea diving is much more exciting than teaching.
After the war his father began working again on the construction of a bathyscaphe. It looked at first glance like a short, fat, submarine with a conning tower on top. But unlike a submarine it had a metal sphere which was attached underneath. Behind this sphere was a tube which went straight up through the body of the bathyscaphe to the conning tower. The main body of the bathyscaphe contained the gasoline. To get into the sphere you had to climb down a ladder in the tube. Then you had to crawl across into the sphere through a small hatch. In his spare time Jacques helped his father and the bathyscaphe was completed in 1948. But they ran out of money and they sold the bathyscaphe to the French navy.
His father began work on the design of a new bathyscaphe. It was built in Italy and was called the Trieste. In August 1953 Jacques went with his father for a dive in the Trieste. The dive took place in the Mediterranean near the Italian island of Ponza. They reached a depth of 3,099 metres. In 1955 Jacques gave up his job as a teacher to work with his father fulltime on deep sea diving. Jacques went to America to see if he could get money to pay for their work. In 1958 the United States Navy bought the Trieste for 250,000 dollars. But not only that, they asked Jacques to work with them as a consultant. This meant he would give them help and advice about diving in the Trieste, including making some alterations to make it go deeper. It was truly a dream job for Jacques.
In late 1959 Project Nekton began. This was a series of dives by the Trieste in the Western Pacific. Jacques knew this would be a much bigger test for the Trieste because the Pacific is a lot deeper than the Mediterranean. The project was called Nekton because nekton is the name given to living things in water, such as fish, which can move of their own accord without relying on currents. But some creatures, such as plankton, can only drift with the currents. A bathyscaphe has propellers and can move backwards or forwards, like nekton.
The project was based in the island of Guam. It began with some shallow dives in a harbour and then they moved out into the open sea and descended to much greater depths. By this time, Lieutenant Don Walsh had been appointed to work on the project and was accompanying Jacques in the Trieste on the dives. Walsh had enlisted in the US navy in 1948. He had been serving on submarines for the previous two years, but had recently been given a desk job as an aide to a commodore. But all he really wanted to do was to be at sea. So when he heard about the Trieste he volunteered to serve as the officer in charge of the vessel.
After seven dives they were ready to attempt the ultimate dive. Jacques and Walsh would try and descend to the bottom of Challenger Deep. This is located 10,900 metres below the surface and is the deepest place in all of the world’s oceans. It is in a vast depression called the Mariana Trench. It is named after HMS Challenger, a British ship which measured its depth in the nineteenth century. No one had ever been this deep before.
The tugboat towing the Trieste and a navy destroyer arrived at the dive site 330 kilometres southwest of Guam, in the early morning of 23 January 1960. It had been a rough voyage and the waves were getting worse. It was so rough that some of the external instruments on the Trieste had been damaged. The surface telephone, which enabled Piccard to communicate with the ship before he submerged, had been washed away. The tachometer, which showed how fast they were descending or ascending was broken, as was the meter which measured vertical currents. Perhaps they should abandon the descent? But Jacques decided it was safe to go.
Jacques and Walsh clambered down the entrance tube and crawled into the sphere. Jacques checked the electrical systems then climbed back up the entrance tube for final instructions to the engineer who was still on the deck of the Trieste. Then the engineer transferred to the tugboat and Jacques went back down the ladder. When he was back in the sphere he closed the hatch. It had a tiny window in it so they could see into the tube. The tube had a strong plastic window at the back giving a view of the sea beyond. The main viewing port was the other side of the sphere looking in the forward direction of the bathyscaphe.
The moment had come. A valve was opened and water began flooding into the entrance tube. The Trieste started to sink. At 8.23 a.m. the descent had begun. They travelled slowly at first, taking ten minutes to reach a depth of ninety metres. Layers of colder water were making the gasoline more buoyant. To increase speed they released some of the gasoline, but not too much as they would need enough to bring them back to the surface. When they reached about 200 metres the descent rate increased to just under a metre per second. They had been wearing light clothes which had got drenched when they had been on the deck of the Trieste. At 450 metres they changed into dry and warmer clothing which had been stowed onboard. At 1,700 metres, after an hour and a quarter, they received a call via the sonic telephone system from the engineer on the surface to check on their status. They reported that everything was going well. The descent continued smoothly. Everything was indeed going well. But then they heard an ominous crack and felt the Trieste shudder.
Jacques checked the gauges to see if they were leaking gasoline. The levels were not falling, which meant the tanks containing the gasoline could not have cracked open. There was no sign of water leaking into the sphere either. But something must be wrong. What should they do? There was no more shaking so Jacques and Walsh decided to keep going. The Trieste continued to descend according to plan.
Deeper and deeper they went. Then, at 12.56 p.m. the depth finder detected the bottom, ninety metres below them. Ten minutes later they landed with a gentle bump. Jacques and Walsh shook hands. They had reached the deepest point, Challenger Deep, 10,900 metres below the surface.
Once on the bottom they made various scientific measurements with their onboard instruments. For example, they tried to detect any sign of currents in the water, but the water seemed perfectly still. They also managed to make a call using the sonic telephone to the ships on the surface. When they looked out the porthole they saw an amazing sight. A fish, which looked like a sole, was swimming by. Even at those great depths, a fish could survive. They even saw a red shrimp. Walsh then asked Jacques to switch on the rear searchlight so he could see through the tiny window in the hatch. It was then that they realized what had been causing the cracking sound.
When Walsh looked through the rear porthole he saw that the window of the entrance tube had several cracks. There was no immediate danger, but it could cause a problem when they surfaced. The tube was designed to be full of water during the descent, but it must be pumped out when they got to the surface so they could climb back up the ladder. If the window was no longer watertight then they would have to wait in the sphere on the surface while divers replaced it with a new window. Jacques knew the divers would need daylight to work in. They must get back to the surface as soon as possible.
After only twenty minutes, they released the iron pellets and the Trieste began to ascend. For the next three and a half hours they journeyed upwards. The ascent was smooth and uneventful. Then, at last, the glow of daylight began to shine on them through the water and at 4.56 p.m. they reached the surface. Now it was time to pump out the entrance tube. Normally, this would take no more than three minutes. But they released the compressed air slowly as they did not want to shatter the window. After fifteen minutes the water had been pumped out and the window had held. They opened the hatch and climbed up the tube, and opened the hatch at the top of the conning tower. Overhead, navy jets flew past and dipped their wings in salute. In the distance they could see the tugboat and navy destroyer steaming towards them. They took deep breaths of fresh, Pacific air. They had made it.
Jacques was keen to plan another dive to the same location. However, he did not have enough support. The Trieste required a lot of funding both to take it on dives and to maintain it. Also, it was not possible to collect any samples from either the water or from the sea bed. Nor did it have any cameras on the outside. The only data would come from the observations of the men inside. The Trieste was taken out of service in 1961 and was never used again.
After his expedition in the Trieste Jacques started work on a new project. Together with his father he invented a new type of submersible called a mesocaphe, which means ‘middle ship’. This was a type of submarine which would remain at the same depth and drift with the currents. It was a middle ship because it would only go to medium depths and not very deep like a bathyscaphe. The first mesoscaphe could carry forty passengers. It was based on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. In 1964 and 1965 it made thousands of trips taking people down to depths of about 90 metres.
Jacques then designed a smaller mesoscaphe which would carry six people. This was for an expedition to investigate the Gulf Stream. This is a fast, warm current which moves northwards all the way up the east coast of the United States. Besides Jacques the crew consisted of an assistant pilot, two men from the U.S. Navy and an expert on underwater acoustics from the British Royal Navy. The sixth member of the crew was from NASA, the American space organisation. His job was to investigate the effects of living in a confined space, cut-off from the outside world. They set off in July 1969 from Florida and took just over four weeks to drift, at a depth of 300 metres, to Nova Scotia, a voyage of more than 2000 kilometres.
From the 1970s onwards, Jacques devoted more and more time to warning people about the dangers of pollution. Until his voyage to Challenger Deep people had assumed it was safe to dump dangerous waste in the lowest parts of the oceans. But the fish and shrimps which Jacques and Walsh had seen at the bottom of the ocean proved that there are living things even at the lowest depths. He argued that there is nowhere in the oceans where dangerous materials can be dumped without causing harm to life. To make people more aware of the dangers of pollution he established an organisation, based in the Swiss town of Cully, called the Foundation for the Study and Protection of Seas and Lakes. He was one of the first people to warn about the dangers of global warming.
Jacques had acquired his sense of adventure and exploration from his father. He passed the same interests to his son, Bertrand. In 1999 his son and another adventurer called Brian Jones were the first people to fly non-stop around the world in a balloon.
Jacques died in 2008 in Switzerland. With the help of his father he had designed several innovative submersibles and warned people about the dangers of pollution. But he will always be remembered for that day in 1960 when he descended to Challenger Deep, the deepest place in the Pacific Ocean.
A particularly helpful source was:
Dietz, R.S. (2000) Dives of the Bathyscaph Trieste, 1958-1963: Transcriptions of sixty-one dictabelt recordings in the Robert Sinclair Dietz Papers, 1905-1994 in Archives of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography University of California (San Diego La Jolla: University of California) available at: