The Frontier Below: The Past, Present, and Future of Our Quest to Go Deeper Underwater Jeff Maynard William Collins (2023)
On July 12, 2022, oceanographer Dawn Wright boarded the submarine A limiting factor, along with pilot and researcher Victor Vescovo, and descended nearly 11 kilometers to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the western Pacific Ocean. She became the 23rd person to reach the deepest known point of the ocean — and the first black person.
Like climbing Mount Everest, reaching the deepest depths of the oceans remains an adventure and privilege beyond the reach of most. Many more people have climbed the heights of the Earth, but in The border below, Jeff Maynard recounts the pursuit of the depths. It’s a lively tour through the history of diving and submarines, heavy on engineering and light on science.
This is appropriate because the endeavor has almost never been about science. The pearls of the deep tempt the first divers to develop their incredible lungs and swimming abilities. Goods from wrecked ships convinced divers wearing helmets to venture into the estuary’s murky waters. Military interests prompted attempts to breathe underwater as far back as ancient times.
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Some research has happened. In the 1620s, Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel, who is believed to have built the first submarine, may have isolated oxygen to aid underwater breathing. In the 1660s, Robert Hooke of the Royal Society of London pulled upturned buckets of air beneath the waves to study how air and water pressure changed with depth. Hooke’s employer, Robert Boyle, demonstrated that compressing air made his container less buoyant.
Everyone, it seems, comes up with ideas on how people can spend more time underwater. In 1690, the English astronomer Edmund Halley invented a system in which barrels of air were lowered to the diving bell so that swimmers could work on rescue operations; he says that he and four others tested it about 18 meters down. By the early eighteenth century, an unknown craftsman in Finland had sewn the world’s oldest surviving diving suit, supplied by an air hose and made of leather with resin-sealed seams. It must have gone terribly.
Going deeper into the oceans meant wrestling with the physics of air and water to figure out how to maintain a breathable supply of air and how to return without the dreaded “bends,” a condition in which nitrogen builds up in the blood. bubbles.
Maynard, a writer who was involved with historical diving societies, goes into great detail about the development of early diving techniques. Compressed air tanks appeared on the scene in 1860 thanks to French mining engineer Benoit Roukerol. In 1878, English sailor Henry Flouse invented a way to pass oxygen through a breathing mask and circulate the exhalations over yarn soaked in potash to remove excess carbon dioxide. This paved the way for modern diving, the “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”.
The greatest depths
Maynard’s narrative accelerates as he moves on to the race to build deep-sea ships. The cast of characters is wide and wild, starting with American engineer Otis Barton. In the late 1920s, he designed and financed the construction of a “bathysphere,” a metal sphere that could be lowered into the depths by cable from a ship. Barton collaborated and eventually fought with William Beebe, a naturalist at the New York Zoological Park who grabbed the limelight for their joint deep-sea dives.
In 1930 they reached 245 meters, a record. Four years later, they managed to descend to about 900 meters. Beebe wrote provocatively of these descents: “Until I am actually enclosed in some futuristic rocket and set off on a journey into interstellar space, I will never experience such a sense of complete isolation from the surface of planet Earth.”
The race opened wide in the late 1940s with the invention of the bathyscaphe—essentially a bathysphere with better buoyancy control—by Swiss physicist Auguste Picard, whose name rose to great heights with balloons. Picard and his son Jacques partnered with Italian engineers and financiers to build several bathyscaphes. In 1953, they reached a depth of 3.1 kilometers. A year later, a rival French team led by Georges Waugh and Pierre Willem fell 4 kilometers away.
After that, the big dive to Challenger Deep was the only great prize left up for grabs. The US Navy purchased the Piccards’ ship, Trieste, and put his lieutenant Don Walsh on board. In 1960, Walsh and Jacques Picard descended to the deepest point in the oceans.
It was a time of renewed interest in the deepest seas. US leaders suggested that deep-sea trenches could be an excellent place to dump nuclear waste, arguing that the material would remain contained and there was no life there to worry about anyway. On reaching the bottom, Picard reported seeing a fish, flat and with eyes; some speculated that this was a hoax intended to deter any plans to dispose of nuclear power.
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The border below misses chances to discuss the science of the deep. The first major oceanographic survey conducted by a British Royal Navy ship HMS Challenger — after which the Challenger Deep was named — in 1870 was off by a little more than a page. The discredited “aquatic ape” theory that humans evolved in water appears unpleasantly, albeit briefly. Maynard was quick to dismiss modern developments in oceanographic research, such as underwater manned ships, including those of the US Navy Alvin, operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, which since its commissioning in 1964 has studied the biology and geology of the deep sea on thousands of dives. Remotely operated, tethered vessels, which are increasingly being used for purposes including deep-sea mining, also barely figure.
These are gaps: ultimately, humanity’s impact on the deep ocean will shape our future. The drive to go deeper must be motivated by an improved understanding of how the deep ocean works and what can be found there to better protect it. When Vescovo first descended into the Challenger Deep in 2019, he found not a flatfish but a plastic bag.