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Seven Miles Under the Sea

Limiting Factor after a dive to the Puerto Rico Trench. Photo by Richard Varcoe, via Wikimedia Commons.

In The New Yorker, Ben Taub writes about the Texan, Victor Vescovo, and a team of engineers who created a submarine able to do what no other submarine has been able to do until now—reach the bottom of the deepest oceanic trenches in the world:

Sea level—perpetual flux. There is a micromillimetre on the surface of the ocean that moves between sea and sky and is simultaneously both and neither. Every known life-form exists in relation to this layer. Above it, the world of land, air, sunlight, and lungs. Below it, the world of water, depth, and pressure. The deeper you go, the darker, the more hostile, the less familiar, the less measured, the less known.

A splash in the South Pacific, last June, marked a historic breach of that world. A crane lowered a small white submersible off the back of a ship and plonked it in the water. For a moment, it bobbed quietly on the surface, its buoyancy calibrated to the weight of the pilot, its only occupant. Then he flipped a switch, and the submarine emitted a frantic, high-pitched whirr. Electric pumps sucked seawater into an empty chamber, weighing the vessel down. The surface frothed as the water poured in—then silence, as the top of the submersible dipped below the waterline, and the ocean absorbed it.

Most submarines go down several hundred metres, then across; this one was designed to sink like a stone. It was the shape of a bulging briefcase, with a protruding bulb at the bottom. This was the pressure hull—a titanium sphere, five feet in diameter, which was sealed off from the rest of the submersible and housed the pilot and all his controls. Under the passenger seat was a tuna-fish sandwich, the pilot’s lunch. He gazed out of one of the viewports, into the blue. It would take nearly four hours to reach the bottom.

Sunlight cuts through the first thousand feet of water. This is the epipelagic zone, the layer of plankton, kelp, and reefs. It contains the entire ecosystem of marine plants, as well as the mammals and the fish that eat them. An Egyptian diver once descended to the limits of this layer. The feat required a lifetime of training, four years of planning, a team of support divers, an array of specialized air tanks, and a tedious, thirteen-hour ascent, with constant decompression stops, so that his blood would not be poisoned and his lungs would not explode.

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.

In other news: Researchers discover text on Dead Sea Scroll fragments thought to be blank: “Researchers revisited a collection of supposedly blank Dead Sea Scroll fragments that the Jordanian government gave to a leather and parchment expert at the United Kingdom’s University of Leeds in the 1950s. Because these fragments appeared ‘uninscribed,’ they were thought worthless to text-seeking biblical scholars, but perfect for tests the Leeds researcher wanted to perform to date the scrolls.”

Max Hastings reviews Antony Beevor’s The Battle of Arnhem: “They were better. Man for man, German soldiers fought more effectively in World War II than their Allied counterparts did. This was never more vividly exemplified than at the prosperous Dutch town of Arnhem in September 1944, when supposedly elite British airborne troops were dropped sixty-five miles beyond the Allied front. Although profiting from surprise and an overwhelming superiority of resources, they were overwhelmed by haphazardly assembled German battle groups that inflicted a gratuitous humiliation on them in the last months before the Third Reich succumbed. How did this come about? It was chiefly a consequence of hubris.”

Waterstones plans to put its books under a 72-hour quarantine: “The bookseller intends to ask shoppers to set aside any book they touch on trolleys which will be wheeled away into storage for at least 72 hours before being put back on shelves in an effort to protect customers from the spread of coronavirus, in a move first reported by consumer writer Harry Wallop. James Daunt, the chief executive of Waterstones, said the retailer has been advised that the virus cannot survive for long on cardboard or paper but will be taking extra precautions to give them time to ‘self heal’.” Self heal? I’m all for precautions to keep people safe, but can we drop the asinine personification?

C. Bradley Thompson responds to criticism of his new book, America’s Revolutionary Mind, saying that one reviewer was “clearly out of his depth.” Arthur Bloom gives us the blow-by-blow and throws a few punches of his own.

When museums open again, don’t breathe on Edvard Munch’s The Scream: “Over the last few decades, an unseen enemy has been degrading The Scream . . . Now, thanks to new noninvasive research, the culprit has been discovered: moisture.”

Photo: Nea Fokaia

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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