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Long, long read of the week: Thirty-six Thousand Feet Under the Sea

The submersible dropped at a rate of about two and a half feet per second.

Twenty minutes into the dive, the pilot reached the midnight zone, where dark waters turn black. The only light is the dim glow of bioluminescence—from electric jellies, camouflaged shrimp, and toothy predators with natural lanterns to attract unwitting prey. Some fish in these depths have no eyes—what use are they? There is little to eat. Conditions in the midnight zone favor fish with slow metabolic rates, weak muscles, and slimy, gelatinous bodies.

An hour into the descent, the pilot reached ten thousand feet—the beginning of the abyssal zone. The temperature is always a few degrees above freezing, and is unaffected by the weather at the surface. Animals feed on “marine snow”: scraps of dead fish and plants from the upper layers, falling gently through the water column. The abyssal zone, which extends to twenty thousand feet, encompasses ninety-seven per cent of the ocean floor.

After two hours in free fall, the pilot entered the hadal zone, named for the Greek god of the underworld. It is made up of trenches—geological scars at the edges of the earth’s tectonic plates—and although it composes only a tiny fraction of the ocean floor, it accounts for nearly fifty per cent of the depth.

Past twenty-seven thousand feet, the pilot had gone beyond the theoretical limit for any kind of fish. (Their cells collapse at greater depths.) After thirty-five thousand feet, he began releasing a series of weights, to slow his descent. Nearly seven miles of water was pressing on the titanium sphere. If there were any imperfections, it could instantly implode.

The submarine touched the silty bottom, and the pilot, a fifty-three-year-old Texan named Victor Vescovo, became the first living creature with blood and bones to reach the deepest point in the Tonga Trench. He was piloting the only submersible that can bring a human to that depth: his own.

For the next hour, he explored the featureless beige sediment, and tried to find and collect a rock sample. Then the lights flickered, and an alarm went off. Vescovo checked his systems—there was a catastrophic failure in battery one. Water had seeped into the electronics, bringing about a less welcome superlative: the deepest-ever artificial explosion was taking place a few feet from his head.

If there were oxygen at that depth, there could have been a raging fire. Instead, a battery junction box melted, burning a hole through its external shell without ever showing a flame. Any instinct to panic was suppressed by the impossibility of rescue. Vescovo would have to come up on his own.

RTWT AT Thirty-six Thousand Feet Under the Sea | The New Yorker

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ghostsniper May 16, 2020, 11:49 AM

    Nice read. Vescovo has a fat wallet and cast iron heuvos.

  • captflee May 16, 2020, 11:49 AM

    Well, that article was certainly, erm, in my wheelhouse. Having some decades back been a plank owner on three of the first six of the class (Indomitable was seven if memory serves) I could well relate to the tale of extraordinary measures taken to prevent being unceremoniously rolled out of one’s rack- my method was to stick my bagged gumby suit underneath the side of the mattress away from the bulkhead so that it formed a vee, which when properly padded one could wedge ones self into sufficiently to be able to sort of sleep. As for CIA folks manning them, prolly not, unless that kafkaesque bureaucracy in Bldg 42-4 MOTBY (and its left coast analog in West Oakland) was actually a devilishly disguised outpost of Langley, with the squid ink of bureaucratic backstabbing and infighting hiding away the ruthless killer efficiency, though that would spice the tale up a bit.

    Good on Mr. V for following his heart and shoveling immense piles of lucre into the effort! I got to work with DSV Alvin and the bunch from Woods Hole back when I was a dashing young Chief Mate, on things that shall have to remain unspecified for a few years more, so have some little grounding in ops of the sort, and must compliment Mr. Taub on an interesting , and perhaps more impressive, a howler free article about a world very, very few will ever see.

  • James ONeil May 16, 2020, 2:27 PM

    Two minor howlers, captflee;

    “If there were oxygen at that depth, … have been a raging fire.” Little hard to have a fire at any depth unless you bring your own oxidizing agent.

    “…beyond the theoretical limit for any kind of fish. (Their cells collapse at greater depths.)” Cells collapse? Hadal amphipods, etc., oddly enough have cells too.

    None the less, a good article and it did prompt me to do a little more reading and find that the good properties of trimethylamine oxide (The source of that fishy smell.) may be what allows some of our finned friends to go quite deep but stops them around 27,600 feet.

    OK, I admit the minor howlers were simply nits I picked and it was a very good article. 😉

  • Bravo Romeo Delta May 16, 2020, 6:09 PM

    I am very glad you ran across this piece; it’s a gem.

  • ghostsniper May 16, 2020, 6:34 PM

    “trimethylamine oxide”
    Those words look familiar.
    Are they the little white squares that you use to start a fire?

    And yes, that “cell” thing caught my eye too. Then I wondered if creatures under that pressure have some other sort of structure? shrug I found the article fascinating.

  • Anonymous May 16, 2020, 7:16 PM

    How is it The New Yorker printed something other than an Orange Man Bad tirade?

  • Jack May 17, 2020, 11:48 AM

    Great read but since I don’t subscribe to the NY’er I wasn’t permitted to read it entirely. Interesting beyond most things though, for sure.

    I spent several years in the Navy and like 95% of its new recruits the Nav sends you to the fleet. I was assigned to a VF unit aboard a carrier and over the course of my tour I learned that 60-90 periods at sea are a great way to grind your weaker nerves to shreds but replace them with nearly unbelievable new ones that can endure more monotony and constant noise than any other thing I can think of, other than perhaps being a pre-school teacher with Head Start.

    Nonetheless, the one thing I was certain about was that I was unfit for submarine duty and every time I watch a movie or read about being submarine, I get a sense of uneasiness and claustrophobia and notwithstanding, the popping of the hull during a dive, bursting valves, a hot reactor, a faulty seal on an outboard hatch, tiny shared bunks and the constant thought that it’s just possible that the friggin thing could plow nose first into an undersea Mt. Everest, all of which are highly unlikely, is still more than enough to render me unfit for thinking that my white ass could even go aboard unless the thing was tied to the dock and the Navy was sponsoring civilian tours.

    Once it gets underway Jules Verne and his admirers can have it.

  • ghostsniper May 17, 2020, 4:35 PM

    Jack, if you’re using Chrome, right click the link and then scroll down to “Open link in incognito window”. Sometimes it works, sometimes it duddn’t.