At dawn this morning, after steaming southwest all night, the Mermaid Sapphire arrived at Ulithi, the nearest land to the Challenger Deep. Six of the islands surrounding its enormous lagoon hung on the horizon like compressed emeralds. We turned slowly into the lee of Falalop Island and stopped in front of its white-sand beach. An hour later, the survey ship Barakuda swung into the lee behind us.
Not long after we arrived, several people on both ships began packing their gear to go ashore to catch the flight to Yap. Among those leaving were National Geographic writer Bruce Barcott, National Geographic photographer Mark Theissen, and staunch expedition supporter Mike McDowell. Team Cameron was back down to the “magnificent 30” who sailed out of Sydney harbor 45 days ago.
Just before he left for London to attend the premiere of Titanic 3D, Jim told us to step back from the grind of the past month and take the day off. So, what does Team Cameron do the day after their leader makes his historic descent into the deep end of the Mariana Trench? They go diving. Led by sub-support divers Dave Apperley and Nick Corkhill, they hunt down every last mask, fin, snorkel and scuba tank in the ship’s dive locker and convince Zodiac drivers Rich Robles and Sako Palandjian to give them a ride to the beach. They shrug into their gear, wade into the warm water, and start exploring a world that captures the heart.
Forty feet (twelve meters) below the surface with sunlight shimmering on a virgin coral reef is a good place to reflect on the risk and meaning of what we achieved yesterday. At first glance, the facts are simple. A man climbed into his gravity rocket, closed the hatch, and rode it for 7 miles (11 kilometers) until he reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench. He focused his lights and cameras and spent three and a half hours gathering information about the world’s most inaccessible and unknown place. After crossing a flat seafloor and climbing a slope of rocks, he dropped his descent weights and made a seven-mile trip back to the surface. But, for Jim, the dive is “just the beginning. I don’t know how many more dives we’ll be able to make, but our mission has always been to do as much science as we can.”
Yesterday, for the first time in 52 years, there was a brief, bright fire inside the deepest spot in the global ocean. It was created by the intense illumination from the sub’s 700 LED lights and the fiery fortitude of the man inside the crew sphere.
Resolute courage is the mastery of committing oneself to a life-enhancing, long-duration mission and seeing it through no matter how difficult or dangerous the challenge. For many of us, Jim’s most courageous act was not his seven-mile dive, but his sustained commitment to constructing a radically new vehicle to give everyone on Earth a scientific understanding of the world beneath the abyss, a place where earthquakes are born and life may have had its beginnings.
For more than seven years and particularly for the past six months, numerous versions of resolute courage have been a fundamental part of this project. There is Jim’s unwavering, damn-the-torpedoes commitment and the determination of his co-designer Ron Allum and their team to get the sub built. There is the dedication of John Garvin and his life-support team to the safety and performance of the pilot. And there is the resolve of David Wotherspoon and his team to get the sub operational and move it safely into and out of the water. The unspoken mantra for Jim and his “magnificent 30” is: We will find a way.
The mission and its mantra were contagious. Everyone knew they were working on a once-in-a-century project that has echoes of the Wright brothers’ first flight and the initial ascent of Mount Everest. Officers and crew of the Mermaid Sapphire performed superbly and teams at National Geographic and Rolex worked around the clock. Perhaps the most sublime configuration of courage came from the wives, husbands, and partners of the “magnificent 30.” They knew their loved ones were on a small ship on the other side of the world working under severe stress in arduous conditions. For long months they endured the loneliness and uncertainty of postponements and delays. We don’t necessarily recognize or celebrate these various forms of resolute courage, but they were essential to the success of our mission.
Photograph by Joe MacInnis