It’s April 2019, and an expedition team awaits news from its submersible, which is miles down in the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean. Suddenly, they hear the voice of explorer Victor Vescovo. He’s telling them, “At bottom.” And these two words confirm that the daredevil has gone further down beneath the waves than any person in history.
As the submersible settled in the cloud of sediment it had stirred up at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, Vescovo marked the end of a long dive. So long, in fact, that he now held the record for the world’s deepest descent. Indeed, at 36,000 feet, he was nearly 7,000 feet lower than Mount Everest is high.
Dark and cold, under enormous depth pressure, the Challenger Deep depression could hardly be less hospitable to life. Nonetheless, in his four hours at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, Vescovo did encounter living beings. And as he looked out on the alien yet tranquil world of the deep, something quite shocking also caught his eye.
Vescovo had found himself at the bottom of the Mariana Trench as part of an ambitious series of dives. The Five Deeps Expedition hopes to explore the lowest parts of all the world’s oceans. And in some cases, Vescovo would be the first to see these profound depths.
A native of Dallas, Texas, Vescovo enjoyed an elite education, spanning Stanford University, MIT and Harvard Business School. In the world of finance, he made a name for himself as one of the founders of Insight Equity Holdings, where he invested primarily in electronics and defense firms.
No stranger to the sea, Vescovo also served in the U.S. Navy Reserve for more than two decades. Having stepped down from those duties, he subsequently focused on exploration. The Five Deeps Expedition is a part of the businessman’s mission to broaden our knowledge of the oceans and improve technology to help us understand them better.
Not that Vescovo sticks to the depths, though. No, he also enjoys scrambling up the world’s peaks, having scaled the tallest mountain on each continent as well – one of only a dozen Americans to achieve that feat. So, for him, this latest expedition represented a chance to become the first person to experience both the highest summits of our planet and its deepest lows.
The daredevil explained his desire to experience the world’s limits to CNN in May 2019. “Going to the extremes, I believe, is a natural inclination of man,” he said. “I think it is a wonderful part of human nature that makes us want to push ourselves… which has helped propel us as a species to where we are now.”
Moreover, the dives also have a serious scientific purpose. Not only does the expedition aim to increase knowledge of the life and landscape of the sea floor, but it also hopes to provide many maps of the terrain it explores. At the same time, samples will be collected that will help research in fields such as biology, geography and geology.
The lead scientist for the project, Alan Jamieson, shared a progress update about the mapping with CNN in April 2019. “So far, we’ve made up something like 150,000 square kilometers of deep sea floor now – and we’re only halfway through it,” he explained. “Those maps, once we’ve processed them and cleaned them up, they will get put on online repositories, so they will be made available to anyone who wants to use them.”
Meanwhile, expedition leader Vescovo talked to CNN in May 2019 about why the team had put such an emphasis on science. “It is very important to us that we show some initial scientific discoveries, just to give a small sample of what we could do if the sub was in the hands of a professional research organization,” he said.
Before setting out for the Mariana Trench, the expedition had already sent Vescovo to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in December 2018. The explorer had also touched the floor of the Southern Ocean in February 2019 and the Indian Ocean in April of the same year. In each case, he was the first person to reach the deepest parts of these waters.
So, by April 2019 Vescovo was set to plunge into the abyss known as the Challenger Deep. This isn’t only the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, but it’s also the lowest you can go underwater on the planet. A remote spot, it sits at the southern end of the Mariana Trench, some 178 miles from dry land.
The area received its name from the British vessel H.M.S. Challenger, which conducted the earliest measurements of the depression. Back in 1875, the ship recorded its depth as a little shy of 27,000 feet. However, the most up-to-date survey in 2017 calculated that its deepest points are much nearer to 36,000 feet underwater.
At these depths, however, water pressure is a serious problem. To explain, although you don’t feel it, when you’re standing at sea level the air above you is pressing down on your body. Every square inch of flesh feels a little less than 15 pounds of pressure. And every 33 feet or so that you descend adds the same amount of pressure – what’s referred to as an “atmosphere.” If you were able to swim at the bottom of the ocean, you’d be crushed flat by more than 15,000 pounds of water on every inch of your body.
Indeed, a scuba diver can typically only go down about 250 feet before encountering serious difficulties. As a result, any animal that hopes to stay alive in the ocean depths must not contain any air at all. And the world that Vescovo entered is also chilly. Outside the submersible, the water can be as cold as 34° F. It’s dark too – this far down, sunlight can’t reach you.
Despite the enormous difficulties that the Challenger Deep poses, though, Vescovo wasn’t the first human to venture into it. The U.S. Navy sent a team down in 1960, for example, and film director James Cameron also plumbed its depths in 2012. Indeed, prior to Vescovo’s dive, the Canadian filmmaker held the record for the lowest point reached, having descended 35,787 feet.
Of course, to go this deep in the ocean, you need a special kind of vessel. It’s possible to explore with a robot sub, for instance, but they can prove hard to control from a distance. In addition, the sub would need a cable to connect it to the surface. If a human is inside the submersible, however, they have to be protected from the crushing pressure.
Vescovo’s submersible, called the Limiting Factor, is specially designed to be strong but lightweight. And the curious name? Well, this is a personal touch from Vescovo – he’s a huge fan of the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, and “Limiting Factor” is the name of one of the spaceships in Banks’ science-fiction books.
In turn, the Limiting Factor is carried into action by Five Deeps’ research vessel. This is the D.S.S.V. Pressure Drop – also named for an Iain M. Banks creation – which Vescovo’s firm bought in 2017. It had already been used in a large number of research projects and now, after being retooled, it has everything the expedition needs.
So on April 26, 2019, the Pressure Drop came to the spot where it would let the Limiting Factor loose. After using sonar to pinpoint the right location, the team lowered a remote-control lander to check out the area. Then, on April 28 the sub began its descent into the “Eastern Pool,” the deepest of three areas in the depression.
It took three-and-a-half hours for the sub to descend into the deep. And during the dive that followed and his sojourn at the bottom, Vescovo found a number of species that hadn’t previously been encountered by humans. Among them was an amphipod, which is a kind of crustacean that’s somewhat similar to a shrimp.
Once Vescovo had confirmed that he’d reached the floor of the ocean, his team went crazy. Applause and cries of joy rang out as the congratulations flowed back and forth. And they were merited, because the explorer was now at the lowest point any human had ever reached: 35,853 feet below the surface.
Moreover, Vescovo was able to confirm that the seabed was home to living things. “There was definitely life at the very bottom of the sea. It was not dead by any means,” he told The Washington Post in May 2019. “I felt very excited, privileged to get to see it, but also very much at peace because it really is a quiet, peaceful place.”
Indeed, Vescovo remained at the bottom of the ocean for a total of four hours. He didn’t just enjoy the peace and quiet, though, and spent the time observing and making maps of the area around him. However, something then caught his eye that shocked him. Out in the dark sea, a piece of garbage was floating in the water.
The rubbish seemed to be a piece of plastic. At first, Vescovo thought that it might be a bag or even a wrapper from some candy. It’s still not clear what exactly the object was, but what’s far more certain is that it was man-made – some discarded material that had somehow found its way to the deepest part of the ocean.
As can be imagined, Vescovo felt somewhat disheartened by the sight of the garbage. “I was disappointed to see human contamination in the deepest point in the ocean,” he told The Washington Post. “With over seven billion people on the Earth, the oceans are going to be impacted negatively by mankind, but I hope we can at least minimize it in the future.”
And this dramatic discovery is far from the first sign that humans are affecting the planet’s deep seas. A 2019 study by British researchers looked at amphipods – such as the ones seen by the Five Deeps expedition – that had been taken from several ocean depressions. In excess of seven in ten of those animals had plastic in them. Shockingly, every one of the amphipods that had come from the Mariana Trench contained plastic.
Meanwhile, a huge seabed study involving scientists from around the globe in 2018 also revealed some alarming findings. Among the things turned up by the probe – which involved thousands of dives and explorations by remote vehicles – were rubber, glass and metal.
The study’s report expressed scientists’ alarm at human destruction of the marine ecosphere. “There is growing concern that deep-sea ecosystems are already being damaged by direct exploitation of both biological and non-biological resources – through deep-sea trawling, mining and infrastructure development, for example,” it stated, according to The Daily Telegraph.
On top of that, the British amphipod study noted that even species we haven’t yet encountered will have swallowed some plastic. In an interview with National Geographic, study lead Alan Jamieson stated, “We can now say with confidence that plastic is everywhere.” And Vescovo seemed to confirm that this is true.
The rubbish Vescovo found would now be added to the findings of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. The agency has a Deep-sea Debris Database, and Vescovo’s discovery will represent the deepest garbage yet discovered, although it isn’t the first piece from the Mariana Trench.
The United Nations believes that the globe’s oceans contain at least 100 million tons of plastic rubbish. And such waste has turned up in the guts of mammals that visit the deep sea, such as whales. It’s little surprise, then, that the U.N. reported in May 2019 that humans had “severely altered” two-thirds of sea ecosystems and endangered a third of the oceans’ species.
Perhaps this sense of an unfolding disaster has added urgency to the work done by Vescovo’s team. Certainly, he didn’t rest on his laurels – instead, he boosted his record-breaking credentials by diving again. Indeed, in all he went to the bottom of the trench four times. And, of course, that didn’t end his scientific work – the Pressure Drop then steamed east to continue with it.
Vescovo sees himself very much as a trailblazer, opening the way to a “golden age” of discovery of the underwater realm. Once the Five Deeps project has ended in the fall of 2019, all its equipment – ship and submersible included – will be sold on so it can continue to be of use. And that’s not all: the submersible has been certified for commercial deployment, plus the company that makes it, Triton, is now able to produce more of the deep-sea vessels.
Vesovo shared his excitement about the prospect of there being more submersibles like the Limiting Factor with The Washington Post. “Such a thing has never existed before,” he said. “We can make more of them, to really open up the 90 per cent of the ocean that has heretofore remained unexplored.”
Although Vescovo paints a rosy picture of exploration, his discovery did sound alarms in some corners. For example, at the Clinton Foundation, which works to clean up the seas, vice-chair Chelsea Clinton expressed dismay on Twitter. “A sub dive 7 miles deep in the ocean at the Mariana Trench finds possible new species of shrimp and a plastic bag,” she wrote. “How long will the former survive if there’s more of the latter?”
For his part, Vescovo wants his findings to help people become more aware of the consequences of plastic dumping. And that knowledge might, he hopes, lead to increased pressure being put on governments to do something about the problem. “It’s not a big garbage collection pool, even though it’s treated as such,” he said.
And it seems that whatever goes into the ocean might feasibly end up at the bottom of the Challenger Deep. When scientists have looked at mud from the seabed, for instance, they’ve found even more microbes and sediments than you’d see higher up. Apparently, the deeps are just like a hole in your backyard, filling up with detritus.
Vescovo’s time on the seabed wasn’t entirely spoilt by his discovery of rubbish, though. And, all in all, he remembers it fondly. Reminiscing about drifting in the deep, munching on a tuna fish snack, he summed up the good feelings he was left with. “It was a very happy, peaceful moment for me,” he told CNN. “And then I came up.”