Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth - Trevor Norton (2010)

Into the Abyss

‘The abyss below becomes a pleasant walk. A little further – why not. And then suddenly comes the end, without one even being aware of it’ – Hans Hass

Much of my early career was spent underwater. Not in search of sharks, but studying the ecology of coastal communities. The deepest I ever needed to go was fifty metres. Deep down in an Irish sea lough the water was an eerie luminescent green, as if lit for the entrance of the Demon King. And it was absolutely calm. I was used to being jostled by waves and found the stillness unnerving.

For eight thousand years silt had washed in from the surrounding land and accumulated. The bottom sediment was already twenty-one metres thick, some of it so soft that I just sank in as if there were nothing there. As the black cloud enveloped me and closed over my head, I tried not to panic. But which way was up? Which way was out?

Nothing much happened down here, except for death. By autumn, the bottom dwellers had used up all the oxygen and everything died. Tiny tubular worm coffins bristled from the mud and abandoned burrows gaped like mouths gasping for air. I was suddenly aware of the air escaping from my regulator and realised that I was the only living thing in the landscape. So why did I have this feeling that someone – or something – was following me?

Above me trembling medusae of air rose, expanding towards the surface. I became aware that there was more beauty in the rippling rainbows of liberated bubbles than in all the paintings in all the art galleries of the world.

Perhaps I was falling under the influence of nitrogen narcosis, an inebriation caused by breathing nitrogen under pressure. A diver using compressed air has no choice. Seventy-eight per cent of air is nitrogen. It causes another problem: decompression illness. Underwater the pressure causes greater amounts of the air that a diver breathes to dissolve in the body’s tissues. On the return to the surface the pressure is relieved and the diver must allow sufficient time for the excess nitrogen to be respired away safely. If he ascends too rapidly, the gas comes out of solution and the blood may fizz like deadly champagne. Bubbles of nitrogen can lodge in the joints and block blood vessels. The result is the bends. Peter Throckmorton described the symptoms suffered by sponge divers: ‘You can be paralysed in your sleep, so that you wake up to find yourself a cripple for life. It can choke you to death, kill you instantly, or twist you into a screaming lump of agony with awful pains in your joints. You might get off with only a headache or an itching rash.’

Nitrogen was the major obstacle to deep-diving operations. A young Swedish engineer thought he knew how to solve the problem. Arne Zetterström devised specialist diving equipment. His large water-jet device was used to excavate tunnels beneath the wreck of the seventeenth-century warship Vasa, once the pride of the Swedish navy. Steel hawsers were passed through the tunnels to form a lifting cradle. The vast ship is now displayed in a custom-built museum in Stockholm.

For his military service in 1943 Zetterström was drafted into the navy’s diving branch. He puzzled over the problems of rescuing sailors trapped in a disabled submarine. How could a diver get down to the depths at which submarines operated?

Air was too dangerous so he would have to breathe something else. The nitrogen had to be replaced. Dense gases were no use because under pressure they became so viscous that breathing was difficult. Among the lighter gases only helium and hydrogen were suitable. Helium was expensive and unavailable in Sweden. So it had to be hydrogen, which Zetterström could make himself.

The drawback was that a combination of oxygen and hydrogen is explosive. However, Jack Haldane had shown that the mixture is safe if the oxygen doesn’t exceed four per cent of the total. Oxygen constitutes twenty-one per cent of the air we breathe. How can a diver survive on only four per cent? At depth there is no problem because, although the ratio of the gases in the mix remains the same, they are ‘concentrated’ by the pressure so at only thirty metres down each breath provides the diver with four times more oxygen than at the surface.

Zetterström’s plan was to breathe compressed air down to thirty metres, then switch to his mix of low oxygen with hydrogen. He realised that this could not be done with a simple changeover, since at the juncture where air and hydrogen combine the mixture becomes explosive. But ‘by ventilating the air out with a mixture of four per cent oxygen and the rest of it nitrogen, the risk of explosion is completely eliminated’. So a brief sojourn on a low oxygen/high nitrogen supply enabled him to use up the excess oxygen in his lungs. It was an ingenious solution.

Zetterström was to be the experimental diver in a series of trials from a naval vessel to test his theory. On a freezing winter’s day in the Baltic, despite rough seas and a snowstorm, he descended to 110 metres. On his return he suffered a mild bend in his arm and felt dizzy and nauseous for a couple of days. This did not discourage him from attempting a further dive to 160 metres.

On 7 August 1945 the ship was cluttered with senior naval officers, including Zetterström’s father who was a commodore. With so many chiefs around it was difficult to know who was in charge of the operation. Zetterström was dismayed to note that the experienced ship’s crew had been replaced by new recruits. He had reservations and an officer suggested they should call off the attempt. Apparently Zetterström’s father wouldn’t consider a cancellation.

Zetterström used the standard hard-hat diving suit although, as the oxygen/hydrogen mix was not just explosive but also inflammable, he also wore fire-resistant underwear made from fibreglass.

He climbed onto the diver’s cradle in which he would be lowered over the side. The cradle was just a wooden platform held on stays. It carried large cylinders containing the three gas mixtures. Zetterström would be responsible for changing from one mixture to another during the descent and ascent and would instruct the boat party to take the cradle to the appropriate depths. During the earlier trials they had found that breathing hydrogen gave his voice such a high nasal pitch that the boat party had had difficulty understanding what he said. He replaced the telephone with a telegraph key. It was vital that the communication was clear to ensure that the change of gases took place at the correct depth.

All went well on the descent to 160 metres, double the world record. On the return he halted at the agreed fifty-metre mark to decompress and then change the gas mixture. Although the main winch had stopped, the cradle began to tilt and rise. An additional line had been attached to the cradle to keep it stable in the strong current and this line was still being pulled in. The cradle’s platform tilted alarmingly and Zetterström was hanging on as best he could. The cradle continued to rise to almost ten metres. At this depth he was breathing far too little oxygen to keep him alive and was in no position to change his gas supply.

Those on the surface noticed that something was wrong and rescue divers were sent down. They secured him while the platform was lowered to sixty metres to restore the pressure and allow him to decompress slowly. It was too late. Zetterström died of asphyxiation and a severe bend caused by rapid decompression. He was only twenty-eight years old. His technique was proven, but with his death it was stillborn.

In 2004 a contingent of members from both the Swedish and British Historical Diving Societies visited Arne Zetterström’s grave in the family plot near Nynäshamn. His headstone bears a diving helmet embraced by a wreath. They cleaned the stone and laid flowers in memory of a man who, in the words of a naval surgeon who worked with him, ‘never hesitated in staking his own security in pursuing a task’.

A Royal Navy diver called George Wookey had descended to 180 metres in standard diving gear, breathing a mixture of oxygen and helium. This avoided nitrogen narcosis, but not decompression. He took only twelve minutes to descend but needed six hours and twenty-one minutes to return safely to the surface. Clearly this was another inconvenience of deep diving.

In the early 1960s two Austrians decided they could alleviate this problem. Hannes Keller, a mathematician and a keen sports diver, enlisted Albert Bühlmann, a lung physiologist at Zurich University, to collaborate on a deep-diving project. He believed that with the right mix of gases decompression times could be greatly reduced.

They had access to a large new computer at the university and used it to calculate the decompression times required for different gas mixtures. With little technical support and only an empty oil drum for a diving bell, they tested different mixtures beneath Swiss lakes. On one trial Keller used so many different gases that he had four cylinders on his back and four strapped to his chest. He eventually reached a depth of 229 metres and returned to the surface in an astonishing thirty-four minutes.

This attracted the interest of the US Navy and Shell Oil. With substantial funding and support, and their secret mixture of gases, the two Austrians were ready to shatter the world depth record. Bühlmann would be the team doctor on the surface and Keller would lead the diving party. He needed a fellow diver.

Peter Small was a journalist specialising in medicine and science. He was one of the founders of New Scientist, Britain’s premier popular-science magazine. He was also a diver and co-founder of the British Sub-Aqua Club, which, thanks to his suggestion of forming regional branches, became the biggest diving club in the world.

Small was adventurous. Reputedly the youngest captain in the British Army, he joined Vivian Fuchs’s polar party. He also paddled across the English Channel in a canoe to test a theory about the currents, and bobbed about in the River Thames for hours testing a survival suit that he had designed.

Small was a visionary who believed that diving should have a serious purpose. He had spent a couple of years as a commercial diver in the Persian Gulf inspecting oil rigs. In the first issue of the British Sub-Aqua Club’s magazine in 1955 he wrote, ‘The real excitement lies in the opening up of the undersea frontiers.’ He looked forward to ‘a prospect of exploration and science of staggering proportions’. If we could dive down to 300 metres the entire continental shelf and all its riches of oil and minerals would be readily accessible. No wonder he wanted to play his part. Keller warmed to Small’s enthusiasm and quiet charm. After a diving audition he was on board.

Before Small set off to California to join the team a friend asked, ‘What mix of gases will you be breathing?’

‘No idea,’ he replied. ‘I leave that to Hannes.’

The friend thought he was foolish: who would risk his life without knowing what he was doing? How could he assess the level of risk?

Keller and Bühlmann kept their recipe of gases secret for years after the dive because it was a valuable commodity. Clearly the nitrogen had been replaced with helium and pure oxygen was being used prior to the dive and in the final stages when the divers were back in the shallows. But no one knew for certain what was in the cylinders.

Peter Small married Mary Miles on 12 October 1962 and in less than two weeks they were in California aboard a ship off Catalina Island where the record-breaking attempt would take place. Some believed that Peter was having second thoughts, but Mary was thrilled with the heroic exploits of her new husband. He also had a lucrative contract from a magazine to write his personal account of the adventure. He couldn’t back out now even if he’d wanted to.

Keller had commissioned a diving bell with a lockable hatch on the bottom so that it became a sealed chamber in which the divers would make the descent. The plan was that they would descend to 305 metres (over 1,000 feet) in the chamber, then pop outside for five minutes to plant the Austrian and American flags. There were closed-circuit TV cameras on the chamber to record the ceremony for the sponsors and the press.

The descent took place on December 3rd and went according to plan. They opened the hatch and dropped out onto the sea floor a metre or so below. Keller got tangled in the large flags and couldn’t see a thing. It took him minutes to get free and plant the flags. Because of the extreme pressure at this depth their breathing apparatus only gave them four minutes’ breathing time outside the chamber. They returned hastily through the open hatch. It was only the pressure of the gas inside the chamber that kept the water at bay.

What they should have done immediately was to have topped up their breathing apparatus from the cylinders of gas, but instead they struggled to close the hatch and purge the water out of the chamber. No sooner was this achieved than Keller collapsed. Small was in a daze. He was instructed by Bühlmann above to take off his mask as the oxygen supply in the apparatus must be very low. But he froze and eventually he too fell unconscious.

There was another problem. The chamber was losing pressure. It was raised to sixty metres and two divers were sent down to locate the leak. Dick Anderson was a very experienced deep diver who had been technical consultant on Disney’s epic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The other diver was Chris Whittaker, a British student at UCLA who was hoping to go on to graduate studies in marine biology.

They couldn’t find the leak and returned to the surface. Whittaker had a problem with his life jacket that brought him up too fast and he had a nosebleed. The pressure in the chamber was still dropping. This was serious for the occupants. Anderson decided to have another look at the chamber. Against advice, Whittaker insisted on going down with him. ‘Peter is my friend,’ he said, ‘I must go.’ His life jacket would not deflate so he slashed it with a knife. He would no longer have the security of a passive lift to the surface should anything go wrong.

This time Anderson spotted a small gap at the edge of the hatch. He heaved against it with his back and eventually it closed. But he couldn’t find Whittaker. He had simply vanished. He was nineteen years old.

Inside the chamber both Keller and Small came round. The chamber couldn’t be opened until the men inside had decompressed. This took four and a half hours. Small fell asleep again and never awoke. A prolonged shortage of oxygen had impaired his circulation so his body had been unable to eliminate nitrogen efficiently. He died of the bends.

There was an inquiry and neither the Sheriff’s Office nor the Chief Medical Examiner was satisfied with Keller’s testimony, which was at odds with that of Bühlmann. A committee of experts was set up to assess the evidence. They could not decide whether Keller was confused or was ‘evading issues to protect his interests’. Within the team Keller’s previous successes had fuelled a feeling of euphoria. They were sharing in the glory of a much-publicised record-breaking dive. Making the first 1,000-foot dive became a magical prize, like breaking the sound barrier.

Later Keller revised his account of what had happened and admitted to mistakes. Prior to the dive he had discovered that there was a leak in one of the tanks of gas in the chamber. It was only half full, which greatly reduced their safety margin should anything go wrong.

He confided to Hans Hass why he had decided to continue with the attempt and risk the flag-planting ceremony: ‘This was the situation: barely enough gas in the equipment carried on the back. On the other hand, the team in top form, weather perfect. Personally, a strong fear that it might all be called off. Knowing that one never has perfect conditions … I decided to make the attempt.’ What began as a demonstration of a new technique for exploring the ocean became a record-breaking attempt to impress the sponsors and the public, with all the additional pressures that brings.

Mary Small had been married for just three weeks when she saw on the TV monitor her husband’s collapse. Perhaps she also saw the photograph of Keller in a magazine. The caption beneath his defiant face read: ‘My system made no mistakes!’ She attended the meeting at which Keller admitted to making mistakes. A few days later she committed suicide.

Keller became a consultant to Shell, advising on deep-water operations. The oil companies had recently begun to use helium divers to service their rigs. The bends were a common occurrence. To test whether they had decompressed Long enough, the divers hopped around the chamber. If they collapsed, they needed a little longer. They relied on the manufacturer supplying the right mix of oxygen and helium. When the gas man was on holiday, his replacement got it wrong and all the divers had hallucinations, seizures and the conviction that their feet were being electrocuted. Some saw haloes while driving home and could feel bubbles passing through their blood vessels.

Keller conducted simulated dives in pressure chambers down to the equivalent of 300 metres with progressively shorter decompression times. Helium/oxygen diving is now routine for commercial deep diving, but the emphasis has switched from speed of decompression to having greater safety margins. The other development has been the widespread use of diving computers that automatically calculate a diver’s decompression schedule. The algorithms that constitute their brains were developed by Albert Bühlmann.

Putting a ‘wet’ diver 305 metres down into the sea was a remarkable feat, but Keller had merely scratched the surface. The average depth of the world’s oceans is 4,000 metres. If Mount Everest were dropped into the deeps of the Pacific, it would not reach to within two and a half kilometres of the surface. No mysterious brew of gases will allow us to go there. Yet we have made the journey.

William Beebe was an American ornithologist who widened his interests to include fish, the birds of the sea. After hundreds of dives in the shallows, his gaze turned longingly to the green depths far beyond the reach of his diving helmet.

His plans for a deep dive were published in the New York Times in 1926. An engineer and diver called Otis Barton wrote to him with a design for an underwater chamber. Barton, with his own money, built a large metal sphere with a manhole at one side and fused-quartz portholes on the other. His bathysphere (‘deep sphere’) resembled an inflated and slightly cross-eyed bullfrog. It had no external air supply. Instead, it carried oxygen tanks and chemicals to absorb excess carbon dioxide. For the trials they couldn’t afford a ship with a winch strong enough to lift the five-ton sphere, so Barton melted it down and cast another one that was half the weight and with thinner walls.

Twenty-eight attendants were needed on the surface to tend to the sphere and its communications. The crew worked fine, but the ship, the Ready, was anything but. A crewman gazing over the side saw a fish swim up to the hull and vanish inside. With none of her pumps working, she had to run for land before she sank. It would have been unfortunate if the sphere had descended only to be followed by its mother ship.

Before attempting dives to record depths Barton decided to lower the bathysphere unmanned. Imagine his dismay when, on its return to the surface, water was dripping from the closed hatch. They gingerly unbolted the hatch. With a terrifying scream it shot across the deck like a shell from a howitzer and gouged a winch ten metres away. The pressure of the water had squashed all the air inside the sphere into a tiny bubble. When the pressure was released, the bubble instantly expanded to its original size and thrust the water out.

After all the seals had been restuffed, the sphere was ready to be lowered into the ocean – with Beebe and Barton inside.

They entered through the narrow hatch and huddled together on the cold, hard floor of the sphere. The internal diameter of their metal cell was only 137 centimetres. The manhole cover weighed 181 kilograms. It clanged into place, sliding over huge steel bolts. Then enormous nuts were screwed on and banged tight with hammers. Beebe thought of the Edgar Allan Poe story in which the victim is slowly bricked up behind a wall. They were lowered over the side, suspended on a steel hawser two and a half centimetres thick. Both men began to breathe conservatively and converse in whispers.

The initial dives did not go smoothly. At 180 metres down Beebe announced that: ‘Only dead men have sunk deeper than this.’ As if to prove him correct, water began to leak in round the hatch. Barton suggested that they abort the dive and ask to be hauled up. Beebe thought not. He didn’t want to perturb those on deck. Meanwhile, the thick electric cable was being pushed through its seals by the pressure and was coiling menacingly around Barton. By the time they reached the surface they had shipped over nineteen litres of water and Barton was ensnared by more than four metres of serpentine cable.

They tested the emergency-light signals. If anything went wrong and the telephone died, a tiny light would at least indicate they were still alive. On one dive the telephone did fail and their spirits plummeted, for the human voice had been their link with the world above.

At a depth of 485 metres the sphere began to pitch like a balloon in a cyclone. Both of the men clouted their heads against the steel inner surface. For a terrible moment they thought the hawser had snapped and they were tumbling into the abyss. But it was just the heaving of a big sea far above.

At their maximum depth Beebe admired the aquatic illuminations. A pebble of light closed on the window and suddenly exploded into sparks. An unknown luminescent creature had hit the window, setting off a flash of underwater fireworks. He would never forget these living illuminations in the darkness of the icy depths.

Later, on a three-hour dive, literally at the very end of their tether, they reached 920 metres, with the sphere’s window holding back over seventeen tonnes of pressure. They had penetrated ten times deeper into the ocean than anyone before them. Beebe could not dismiss the thought of their instant death should the fused-quartz porthole fracture.

Barton’s worries were slightly different. He had calculated that the hawser should be able to take the strain, but had doubts that the ship’s winch could haul up the combined weight of the sphere and the hawser. The steam boilers powering the winch were working well above their rated pressure and were wheezing like an asthmatic. If the winch and its donkey engine were pulled out of gear with each other, the cable would unwind at a terrifying speed and the sphere would plunge towards the bottom. Barton tried to look on the bright side. At least they would have a very long time to make observations.

Beebe observed several species new to science, but the creatures of the deep were so fantastic that many of his discoveries were discounted at the time. During the Second World War, the sphere was sent on a secret mission to study the effects of depth charges for the US Navy. Barton manufactured an improved sphere, his ‘eyeball on a string’, and penetrated to a record depth of 1,368 metres (4,500 feet).

Beebe’s account of their adventure thrilled the public. One avid reader was Auguste Piccard, an engineer and Professor of Physics at the University of Brussels. He was the epitome of a Hollywood eccentric professor, with hair like Einstein’s in an electrical storm. Piccard always wore two watches. He thought that three would be even better as he could then use their average time.

Piccard’s mind dwelt on the deficiencies of the bathysphere. Its problems arose from being suspended from a ship. The weight of the hawser limited the sphere’s depth penetration. When almost fully unwound on Beebe’s deepest dive the weight of the cable was double that of the sphere. Being tethered to the surface also meant that the bathysphere couldn’t be directed. If an unknown creature slid past the tiny window, it was glimpsed and then it was gone. Piccard envisaged an independent submersible that could move around to explore the landscape and seek out the fauna.

The metal sphere was obviously a suitable pressure-proof container for the personnel. Piccard’s brilliant idea was to sling it beneath a large float containing petrol. The petrol supplied buoyancy, not fuel. It is lighter than water and only slightly compressible. To counteract its buoyancy there would be hoppers full of iron pellets, and two compartments in the float that could be flooded with seawater to make the submersible sink. To slow or halt the descent some iron pellets could be dropped. If lots were liberated the submersible would return to the surface. It would have a round window made from a cone of perspex flat at both ends. Perspex is flexible and doesn’t shatter like glass or quartz.

He would call it the bathyscaphe (meaning ‘deep boat’ and pronounced bathee skaff). It could go far deeper than a submarine and cruise around on the ocean bottom using its two small propellers.

Piccard’s ambition was to revolutionise oceanography by enabling the scientists to visit anywhere in the oceans. In 1948 the abyssal deeps were terra incognita. The largest feature on our planet is a continuous chain of mountains called the Mid-Ocean Ridge. It covers a quarter of the Earth’s surface and makes the Himalayas look like an outbreak of zits on a schoolboy’s face. Yet until the 1950s we had no idea that it existed.

Our knowledge of deep-sea fauna was also perfunctory. It was said that all the samples taken from the abyssal depths would fit into a single warehouse. They had been collected by blindly dragging a dredge or dropping samplers to take tiny bites out of the sea-floor mud. Imagine that you are drifting over a fogbound London in a balloon and let down a net to trawl the unseen street below. It might ‘catch’ some cigarette butts, empty beer cans and the regurgitated remains of a doner kebab. How representative would that be of life in the city beneath? Well, perhaps that was a bad example.

Piccard secured funds from the Belgian research council, Fondes National de la Recherche Scientifique, so the first bathyscaphe was christened FNRS-2. (Why ‘2’ will become apparent in the next chapter). The sea trial took place in 1948 off the coast of West Africa. It dived unmanned, programmed to release ballast at a predetermined depth and return to the surface. It plumbed 1,398 metres but rose too quickly and the resulting reverberation caused the sphere to leak. The fragile float was also damaged while being towed in a rough sea.

Piccard was soon at work on an improved model. Jacques Cousteau called it the most wonderful invention of the century and the French navy took over the project with Piccard as adviser. The problem was that the navy wouldn’t take advice from a non-naval man, an academic dreamer. Auguste Piccard withdrew from the team and built his own submersible. His son Jacques, an economist by training, raised the cash. A new sphere was forged at the Krupp works in Germany, an Italian petroleum company donated the petrol and the Italian navy supplied the support ship. The bathyscaphe Trieste was launched in August 1953.

Unlike the original bathyscaphe, the Trieste had an access shaft down through the centre of the float to allow the crew to get in from the conning tower when the bathyscaphe was afloat. It reduced the time they had to spend in the sphere. This was important as the crew would be Auguste as observer and Jacques as pilot, both of whom were very tall. The inner diameter of the sphere was only two metres before all the equipment lined its walls. Jacques was almost two metres tall (six feet, five inches). Presumably he had to be folded to get inside.

The sea trials produced a few scares. While deep below, choking smoke filled the sphere. It was just a wire that had shorted, but it was frightening and unpleasant. An unexpected problem was revealed when they released some ballast to slow their descent. The iron pellets followed them down and landed on the Trieste’s deck. When they shed more ballast to rise from the bottom, the bathyscaphe didn’t budge. Only when they dropped all the pellets did it manage to ascend.

The Trieste was built to be a tool for oceanographers. To determine whether it was a suitable platform for underwater experimentation several scientists temporarily installed their equipment in the sphere to study sunlight penetration into the sea, sound transmission, and to observe animal behaviour. All were impressed. Seventy hours were spent experimenting at depths down to 300 metres.

The only hairy moment was when the bathyscaphe came to rest on a narrow ledge. It gave way and the Trieste slid down a mud slope, triggering an avalanche. Jacques shed ballast to no effect. Anxiously he released another load of pellets and the Trieste eased upwards.

The US Office of Naval Research realised the importance of better hydrographic knowledge as submarines were venturing deeper and marauding further afield. The US Navy adopted the Piccards, and the Trieste was shipped to San Diego. After struggling for years on a shoestring budget, the project was at last fully funded. The collaboration worked well under the sympathetic command of Lieutenant Don Walsh.

In 1951 the British research vessel Challenger II had surveyed the Marianas Trench in the Pacific and found the deepest place in the world’s oceans, the Challenger Deep. It was almost 11,000 metres (36,000 feet) down. The US Navy decided it was a challenge they couldn’t resist. If the capability existed, they must plumb the deepest abyss. But could the Trieste do it? Auguste agreed that it could be done, but at that immense pressure the margin of safety on the sphere would be small. It could cause a catastrophic implosion. Under pressure hollow objects explode inwards and an implosion can be just violent as an explosion.

Jacques thought it was a diversion from the scientific research, but record breaking is seductive and this was the greatest record of all. He agreed to the dive and insisted on being the pilot. The other crewman would be Don Walsh. A stronger sphere was made, plus a bigger float to lift it.

Test dives began in November 1959. They touched bottom at 5,472 metres, a new world record. As they ascended there were two violent explosions. Had the sphere failed? They surfaced as fast as they could and got out of the sphere. It had been cast in three parts: a central ring and two capping pieces. The epoxy glue that held them together had failed and drops of water were trickling in. Fortunately the water pressure pushed the parts together. As they couldn’t be reglued, two metal rings with gaskets underneath were clamped over the seams.

One can hardly blame the crew for feeling nervous. To descend into the abyss imprisoned in a sealed vessel is to become hypersensitive to the slightest creak or ping. Submersibles tend to gurgle and grumble, but the sounds that the Trieste uttered were not whispers. When squeezed, it complained.

On one dive a loud implosion sounded like the float splitting. They thought they were dead men, but it was only a camera case that had crumpled. At 7,000 metres there was a series of implosions because holes had not been drilled in hollow metal stanchions to let the water get inside. The air-filled tubes couldn’t withstand the water pressure.

Despite the attentions of numerous technicians, there were several equipment failures. The echo-sounder was faulty. It could have been serious had they hit the bottom at speed, thinking they were less deep than they really were. The valve for releasing small amounts of petrol to trim the bathyscaphe was damaged while towing the Trieste from the US base on Guam. En route the sea had also carried away the phone, the current meter and the device for measuring rate of descent.

On January 23rd 1960 they located the exact position of the Challenger Deep, but the wind was getting up. The swell was so high that attempting to board the Trieste was dangerous. Before they even left the surface the pressure was on. The world’s press had arrived and were waiting, two typing fingers poised, to report the great attempt.

Timing was critical. If they delayed any longer the Trieste would not return until after sunset and she was a small, inconspicuous vessel to find in the dark. At 8.15 a.m. Piccard and Walsh took a last look at the sky and climbed down into the sphere. As soon as the hatch was sealed, the access shaft was flooded and the Trieste began to descend. It was a relief to leave the angry waves behind.

As they got deeper the petrol in the float was compressed and seawater filled the space, so the bathyscaphe became progressively heavier and was falling as fast as a lift in a skyscraper. It grew colder and colder. Their clothes were drenched with condensation and perhaps a little nervous sweating. Outside, the water temperature was 1°C.

The pit of the Challenger Deep was only one and a half- kilometres across and they had no idea how much they might have drifted laterally. They could miss it completely or, worse still, collide with its walls – a frightening prospect.

They were now passing beyond the abyss into what oceanographers call the hadal (‘hellish’) region. A disconcerting dribble of water was entering the sphere. The pressure on every square centimetre of the perspex port was 1.25 tonnes. Suddenly a heart-stopping implosion shook the sphere. This was a major, perhaps even a fatal failure. They waited, holding their breath. Nothing happened. They exchanged nervous glances, then resumed their descent.

The bottom seemed to rise up to meet them. What they thought was a flatfish slid idly by, oblivious of the occasion. It is now believed that it was a sea cucumber, not a fish. Either way, there was life down there. They stayed twenty minutes in the deepest hole in the world at 10,883 metres, almost seven miles below the surface.

Piccard was concerned that as they rose and the petrol expanded, by the laws of physics it would cool dramatically. The petrol would be all right but the pipe that allowed water in and out of the float to keep its volume constant might freeze. If it did, the float could explode and they would plunge to their deaths. It didn’t.

The dive had lasted almost nine hours. On the ascent they discovered that the implosion they had felt was the cracking of a window at the bottom of the access shaft. The shaft was their only way out and it was flooded. If, when they got to the surface, they could not clear the shaft they would be imprisoned in the sphere until the Trieste was towed the 322 kilometres back to Guam – not a pleasant prospect in rough seas. They had only condensation to drink and chocolate bars for sustenance. They needn’t have fretted. Compressed air displaced the water in the shaft and the window had held firm.

The Trieste returned to her scientific duties until she was called to a more sombre task. In 1963 the USS Thresher was the newest and most advanced nuclear submarine in the world. On 10 April she was on trials off the coast of New England. The mother ship received a radio message: ‘Experiencing minor difficulties … Am attempting to blow.’ Four minutes later there was a garbled transmission that mentioned ‘test depth’. The test depth is the vessel’s lowermost diving limit. She was heading for the bottom 2,400 metres below.

At such a depth the steel hull would crumple like paper and water would jet in, destroying everything. There was no chance of anyone surviving. The Trieste was rushed from her base in San Diego. She was hastily equipped with the latest cameras and clawed arms for picking up whatever she found. During ten dives, some lasting six hours or more, she discovered a vast field of debris: mangled pipes, buckled steel plates and articles of protective clothing worn in the reactor room. It was the vandalised graveyard of a hundred and fifty men and a mighty submarine humbled by the ocean.

The tragedy stimulated the production of submersibles that could rescue survivors from the depths at which modern submarines operate. Money poured into underwater technology. But, long before, Auguste Piccard had built two bathyscaphes, the most radical submarines ever envisaged, and had done so on a ridiculously small budget. He couldn’t afford to equip them with an echo sounder or sufficiently large batteries. Even shedding the iron ballast was a financial worry at $600 at time. To cap it all, he risked his life by going down in them and took his son with him. He merely wished to demonstrate that it was safe.

Piccard did all this because he had to. How could he ignore his destiny when the objective was so worthwhile?


Arne Zetterström’s gravestone.