National Geographic : 1955 Apr
538 Diving Through an Undersea Avalanche Nearly a Mile Beneath the Mediterranean, the Bathyscaphe Touches Off a Slide Dislodging Tons of Mud BY CAPT. JACQUES-YVES COUSTEAU Leader, National Geographic Society-Calypso Oceanographic Expeditions EVERY dive is a good dive if you return to the surface. By this definition, the plunge I took last summer in the French Navy's bathyscaphe, F. N. R. S. 3, was a good dive. But it proved also to be one of the strangest and most exciting the little underwater craft has ever made. Unwittingly, we started an avalanche of mud from the cliffsides of an oceanic canyon, an experience unique in our work with this deep-diving sea dirigible.* I had taken a month off from my oceano graphic duties aboard the research vessel Calypso to concentrate on deep photography with Lt. Comdr. Georges S. Houot, master of the bathyscaphe. For days and weeks we waited, while rough weather and mechanical difficulties canceled dive after dive in the open Mediterranean. Goal: an Undersea Grand Canyon At last, overcome with impatience, we de cided upon a coastal descent of about 5,300 feet into a canyon off Cap Cepet. This huge submarine trough near Toulon, in southern France, had been carefully charted by Prof. Jacques Bourcart through echo soundings. It would offer few surprises and no dangers we thought. On the morning of July 24, clutching two movie cameras and two still cameras, I hob bled aboard the bathyscaphe. I was not the picture of an able seaman: my right foot was encased in plaster, a reward for playing tennis with my son after a 20-year layoff. At any rate, I managed to squeeze through the hatch of the bathyscaphe's sphere and join Houot, noting that his brief case with the sandwiches and the bottles of vintage wine was safely on board. Houot locked the door and phoned up to the "topman" on the deck above. "Is the tow rope free?" "Oui, commandant." "Have the divers let down the guide chain?" "Oui, commandant." "Have they removed all seven clamps from the electromagnets?" "Have the gasoline valves been opened?" Houot ritually ticked off 20 more safety precautions on his check list. I crouched in the rocking ball, wondering if there wasn't a simpler way of visiting the ocean floor. Through the porthole I saw two pale Aqua lung divers in the bright-green water-Dr. Harold Edgerton of the Massachusetts Insti tute of Technology, and his son Bill, clean ing the lenses of the electronic flash camera provided by the National Geographic Society. Harold held up his finger at a point 80 inches from the window, so I might judge where to snap fish in focus. I tested the camera by pressing a button: it photographed the Edgertons as sea monsters (page 525). Houot flooded the air lock to sink the bathy scaphe. On the radiotelephone we heard Lt. Comdr. Georges Ortolan from the tender: "Allo, bathyscaphe. The topmen are off in the rubber boat. They are recovering les Edgerton...." At last the bathyscaphe sank into green silence. Descent into the Abyss A little deeper, the water shaded into blue. At 1,000 feet it was practically dark. In the light of the exterior droplights I saw crazy "snow" falling upward. The flakes were tiny suspended organisms passing as we fell; other wise, there was no sensation of motion in the bathyscaphe. We were in a calm room in the country at night. This was my second dive. Comparing the snow and the swimming organisms with those I had observed the first time, I noted they were again thickest in the 2,000- to 3,300 foot stratum, below the point where the "deep scattering layer" is first met (page 528). As before, squids stopped for an instant in the lights and flashed away, leaving a spurt of phosphorescent ink. I clicked the Edgerton flash repeatedly, hoping to catch a squid in * For graphic accounts of previous descents, see, in the July, 1954, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Two and a Half Miles Down," by Lt. Comdr. Georges S. Houot, and "To the Depths of the Sea by Bathyscaphe," by Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau.