National Geographic


Expedition Journal


Sydney Harbour, Australia

Last night, while the city slept, a large flatbed truck carried the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER out of the shop and down narrow and twisting streets to the Garden Island Naval Depot in Sydney Harbour. It was an emotional moment for the more than 30 engineers and technicians who had worked on the sub for the last year. In the darkness, next to a row of gray naval ships, the 12-ton sub was lifted off the truck, swung across a concrete pier, and placed on her cradle on the main deck of the Mermaid Sapphire. For the next two months, this 200-foot-long (61-meter-long) offshore workboat will be her mother ship.

As soon as the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER was locked in, the sub team started to prepare for her first “dive”—a short immersion to make sure she’s watertight and buoyant. Since this was the first time the team had worked on the ship, there were safety meetings to attend, tools to unpack, and checklists to look at. Finally, as the sun was setting over the gleaming towers of downtown Sydney, they were ready.

I watched as the ship’s 23-ton crane picked up the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, slowly moved her across the deck, and stopped. Wearing a hard hat, Jim stepped forward and broke a bottle of champagne across the sub’s lower end. Among the men and women applauding was Don Walsh, the former naval commander who made the first—and only—dive into the Mariana Trench.

With 3-D cameras rolling and everyone holding their breath, the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER was lowered into the turbid waters off the starboard side of the ship. A small black Zodiac moved in and two divers dropped into the water and released the lift bags holding the sub. There was no pilot in the crew sphere, but the sub floated entirely on her own. Not long after, she was pulled underwater to measure her buoyancy. “Now that she’s completely underwater, she’s a sub,” Jim said to Don as the tip of the radio antennae submerged. “Until this moment, she’s been a sculpture, a lawn ornament.”

Written by Dr. Joe MacInnis

Photograph by Joe MacInnis

Science Partners

  • Additional major support provided by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • University of Guam