National Geographic : 1954 Jul
Two and a Half Miles Down dive last August. Willm pressed the button which cut off the electromagnets on our four silos and held it down for 100 seconds. A ton of iron pellets fell on the sphere and bounced into the sea, greatly reducing our speed. I tapped out an ultrasound message to the ship far above: "Everything going well; 6,560 feet." Now the vertical-speed indicator stood al most at zero. We were inching through the black unknown, with a circus outside the window. In the bright light, magnificent red shrimps with long antennae swam past. By noon we had reached 9,845 feet, close to the greatest depth hitherto attained-by Prof. Auguste Piccard in his Trieste bathyscaphe on September 30, 1953. Releasing another ton of ballast, we stopped almost dead. Every square inch of the sphere was now being subjected to a load of 4,370 pounds. Carefully we inspected our weakest points the outlets through which control cables pass outside to the lights, motors, and electro magnets. We had sealed these small holes with conical plastic washers, so designed that the pressure of the water against the sphere should make them tighter than ever. Was the theory sound? Though our ears strained for suspicious noises, we heard only the normal hum of the transformers, the hiss of the oxygen, the reg ular ticktock of the clockwork in the pres sure recorder. "All control apparatus func tions perfectly," I wrote in the ship's log. Releasing some of our buoyant gasoline, we started downward once more. As we encoun tered increasing pressure, our remaining gaso line slowly contracted, and sea water filled the space in the bottom of the buoyancy "balloon." Heavier now, our ship picked up speed. Sea's Pressure Squeezes Steel Sphere Willm said, "It's about time we heard the duralumin frames cracking. In this pressure the sphere should contract about one milli meter [.04 inch] and pull a bit on the sup port frames." But we heard nothing. The frames proved sufficiently elastic to adjust to the shrinkage of the ball. At 12:45 our pressure gauges registered 11,800 feet. I started the echo sounder. At once the stylus started drawing pictures of the sea bottom. On the graph the depth profile sloped up toward us. It gave us a rather queer feeling, for on a moving ship, when one sees the graph climbing, it means a hill rising from the floor. Our "hill" was caused by the submarine falling toward a level plain. When we reached 660 feet "altitude," it was time to decelerate. We didn't know whether the bottom was smooth or jagged, and the bathyscaphe must land very lightly. Systematically we shed ballast-first 550 pounds of shot, then 330 pounds, until the F.N.R.S. 3 had a negative buoyancy of only a few pounds. With our craft so nearly in balance, we could rise by dropping only the guide chain. Preparing to Land on the Bottom Slowly the curve of the echo graph climbed toward us: 330 feet... 260 feet... 165 feet ... 65 feet. The soup outside seemed motion less. Only the echo sounder and the log acknowledged the descent. We were more than 212 miles down. I was at the porthole in the profound silence of those last moments. Finally "I see the bottom!" It was thrilling. Our droplights made a theatrical circle about 10 feet in diameter on the sea floor. The yellow sand was carved in low ripples. Everywhere extended mounds with animal holes about an inch wide. Though we never saw a creature go in or out of the holes, we felt there must be many living things under this rumpled surface. The guide chain touched bottom, and the F.N.R.S. 3 came to a dead stop, hanging above the floor by a steel tendril. There were no more maneuvers to be made. The water tem perature was 410 Fahrenheit, and the inside of the ball was very cold to the touch. I checked the temperature gauge of the gasoline in our "balloon": 50° F. Soon, as the gas cooled, contracted, and became heavier, the sub sank gently to the bottom. A cloud of very fine sand bloomed around the gondola and drifted away in a slight current. We had landed at 1:30. Above us, 13 Eiffel Towers could have been stacked on end without reaching daylight. We were alive in side a 3/-inch shell, withstanding a total pressure of 68,000 tons, or 5,900 pounds per square inch. We took turns at the porthole, staring at the sea floor at a depth no man had ever reached before alive. Beautiful colonies of sea anemones were clinging to the bottom. Tulips of crystal, they swayed lightly in the gentle current.