Fifty-seven years ago, Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard and US Navy Captain Don Walsh touched down at the very bottom of the sea – 10,911m (35,797ft) deep – in their specially-designed submarine, the Trieste. The location was Challenger Deep, a spot in the Mariana Trench, east of the Mariana Islands, the lowest known point in the entirety of the planet’s oceans. Named ‘Project Nekton’, the touchdown was the first time in human history that anyone had reached such depths. ‘Like a free balloon on a windless day,’ wrote Piccard, ‘indifferent to the almost 200,000 tons of water pressing on the cabin from all sides, balanced to within an ounce or so on its wire guide rope, slowly, surely, in the name of science and humanity, the Trieste took possession of the abyss, the last extreme on our Earth that remained to be conquered.’
After being afforded a mere 20 minutes at the bottom of the ocean, Piccard and Walsh had to return to the surface. It would be another 52 years before anyone would again visit this spot – the film director James Cameron making a similar journey in March 2012 in the Deepsea Challenger. Despite a total of 12 people walking on the moon, these three are the only individuals ever to visit such a remote part of the planet.
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Now, we can all get a taste of what such an experience would be like, thanks to the release of a virtual reality dive into the deep, narrated by Don Walsh himself. While the original dive took nearly five cold, cramped hours for Piccard and Walsh to reach the bottom, with Journey to the Deep we can thankfully sample the experience in just ten minutes, all from the comfort of home.
The video – produced by the marine research charity Nekton and sponsored by re/insurer XL Catlin – is designed to raise awareness of the remarkable depths of the ocean beneath the waves, as well as the immense range of threats it faces, from seabed trawling and plastic waste to ocean acidification. ‘After 1960, we turned our eyes towards outer space and Project Nekton was largely forgotten,’ explains Walsh. ‘I hope this film encourages people to turn their gaze downwards. Today the deep ocean remains the last, great unknown frontier on our planet.’
‘Viewers can experience the descent into the darkest depths of the ocean, and encounter the inhabitants and hundreds of facts about the largest, yet also the least known environment on our planet,’ says Nekton Mission Director Oliver Steeds. ‘Look out for hammerhead sharks, blue whales, oil rigs, sperm whales, microplastics and the terrifying fangtooth fish.’
Nekton is a multi-disciplinary alliance of the world’s leading ocean scientists, media organisations, business leaders, philanthropists, educationalists and civil leaders who have joined forces to explore and research the deep ocean. Nekton’s first research programme, sponsored by XL Catlin, aims to create a new standardised methodology to be used by marine biologists for measuring physical, chemical and biological indicators to assess the function, health and resilience of the deep ocean.