National Geographic : 2013 Jun
58 national geographic • June 2013 the sub. There is no way I’m coming down here to the deepest place in the ocean without seeing it with my own eyes. It takes me several minutes to move the equipment out of my way and contort myself into a position where I can look directly out the window. I spend a few minutes taking in the stillness of this alien place, so far from all human experience. Human eyes have been down this deep only once before. But Walsh and Piccard dived 23 miles west of here, in another part of the Challenger Deep now called the Vitiaz Deep. No one has ever seen this place before. All other deep seafloor that I’ve ever visited, even as deep as 27,000 feet in the New Britain Trench, was crisscrossed with the tracks of worms, sea cucumbers, and other animals. Here there is literally no sign of life. The surface is undisturbed, and has been for who knows how long. I know it’s not truly sterile—we’ll almost surely discover new species of microbes living in that sediment sample I took earlier. But I have the inescapable feeling that I’ve dived beyond the limits of life itself. And with that comes an awe, a sense of the great privilege of being here, of bearing witness to a primordial world. Some scientists on our team think life may in- deed have originated in these black hadal depths, some four billion years ago, powered by the slow, steady chemical energy generated as one tectonic plate was dragged inexorably under another, re- leasing trapped fluids. This darkling plain has been here for countless eons, existing whether we witness it or not. I am humbled by the vastness of all we don’t know, both down here and out in the darkness of space. I feel how tiny a candle I’ve brought in these brief minutes and how enor- mous the task remains to explore our world. 10:25, 35,686 fEEt, 0.5 kNotS I’ve found the north slope and am working up along its gently undulating ridges. I’m about a a panel of led lights illuminates the bottom during a test dive off the Ulithi atoll. sediment samples later collected in the Mariana Trench revealed previously unknown microorganisms.