Today we made two more dives with the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER. They were brief excursions to moderate depths but confirmed the team’s ability to turn the sub around quickly. She went in the water at 4 a.m. and descended to 800 feet (244 meters). Six hours later, with Jim in the pilot sphere for the second time, she was on the bottom at 500 feet (152 meters). In spite of 20-knot winds and strong currents, the four launches and recoveries were flawless.
At 3 p.m., after navigating around the south end of the Ulithi Atoll, the ship eased into the bay in front of Falalop Island. She made a wide turn, and her captain blew two long blasts on the horn in tribute to Johnny Rulmal, who opened his home and his heart to all of us on the Mermaid Sapphire and Barakuda. With Charlie Arneson in the lead, we gathered at the bridge rail to wave at the people on the white-sand beach; the hours we spent with the soft-spoken men and women on Asor and Falalop Islands were among the most luminous of our trip.
Our long sea voyage is over. Fifty-five days ago we sailed out of Sydney Harbour and made our first test dives in Jervis Bay. We steamed north to Papua New Guinea and made our second test dives and first research dives. After stopping in Guam, we made an unpiloted dive into the Challenger Deep, followed by Jim’s historic descent. This morning we made our 13th and final dive.
The contours of the next steps are still emerging. The scientists will go back to their labs and start analyzing the samples collected and the hundreds of hours of high-resolution images. The scientific community will assess our systems and techniques and decide if they want to participate in a second expedition.
It’s too early to reflect on the real meaning of what we achieved here, but first impressions are already coming from the Mermaid Sapphire’s main deck. “Since the first day it’s been fix this, fix that, repair this, and repair that. It was like Apollo XIII over and over again,” Rich Robles told me. “We didn’t build the sub, the sub built us,” said John Garvin.
I’ve been on the ship for two months. We were so far from home there were moments when it felt like we were on a small spaceship orbiting a big blue planet. At carefully calculated intervals we launched a piloted vehicle—a vertical flying fish—to drop down and inspect some of the planet’s great chasms. The pilot came back with magical stories and breathtaking images.
Jim said it best some months ago. “Nobody ever said, ‘I want to grow up to be a robot.’ Astronaut, yes, or deep-ocean explorer. The human heart and soul is best satisfied by actually going, by projecting not just our consciousness through robotic eyes, but by going out there ourselves, to see it with our own eyes. Robots can do preliminary scouting to make it safer for us. But ultimately we have to gather our courage and go ourselves. To bear witness. To perform the task.”
It was a great honor to be on the front lines with Team Cameron and try to tell their story. I knew from the start that I couldn’t get the ocean, the expedition, and the Challenger Deep into a journal any more than I could haul up the Gulf Stream in a plankton net. Words and sentences are a mighty thin net. But they can be woven into a kind of truth about human beings.
Day after day, month after month, on a ship in the western Pacific, a group of ordinary individuals did extraordinary things. They were led by a man willing to put his money, his ideas, and his life on the line for something he deeply believed in. That something was exploration.
Exploration is a force that gives us meaning. It is driven by our curiosity to know what lies beyond the horizon. It is also driven by a hunger for self-discovery, an investigation of the subliminal self—something never fully realized by remotely operated vehicles.
Photograph by Joe MacInnis