Friday, June 3rd, 2011
by Alex Czartoryski
The History of Deep-Sea Exploration
Deep-sea exploration is a relatively modern science which only really began piquing
curiosity and interest in the late 1860s, when modern scientific theories about
the origin of life and evolution were emerging.
Before that time, the idea of exploring the unknown depths of the ocean was met
with significant trepidation, notably throughout the Middle Ages. It wouldn't be
until the Renaissance that people would begin to question what lies beneath. It
was about this time that the first "diving bell" was invented, which basically consisted
of a barrel that rested on the divers' shoulders and was supported by slings.
They were typically made of glass or wood though ultimately proved to be quite ineffective
as they could only reach about 40 meters. Plus, the pressure from the water was
damaging to the ears and sinuses of the divers.
Early Diving Bell
Record Distance Traveled: 3,028 ft.
Charles Beebe was a well-known adventurer who was contacted by Otis Barton in 1926
to embark on a deep sea expedition with him. Barton was from a very wealthy family
and had already begun experimenting with underwater exploration in his youth. Before
making contact with Beebe, he had already ventured the waters of Massachusetts with
the help of his own make-shift deep-diving helmet and by weighing himself down with
Barton sent Beebe detailed designs for the submersible he was working on and Beebe
agreed to team up with him. The two invented the bathysphere and from 1930-1934,
their underwater chamber would progress steadily, reaching its pinnacle in the historic
Beebe (left) Barton (right)
The bathysphere (pictured above) was a 4,500 pound hollow steel ball that was lowered
on a cord. It had 3 small portholes in the front, 1 larger hatch in the back and
2 oxygen tanks that carried 8 hours worth of air. The two inventors were able to
reach a record-breaking 3,028 feet (1/2 mile) right off the coast of Bermuda, in
their vessel. Beebe communicated with the surface by sending telephone cables to
a ship above, transmitting messages about all of the new underwater life passing
before their portholes.
Although Beebe wished to remain at that depth to observe longer, the captain on
the ship above would not allow this and pulled them up after five minutes. Beebe
named several new species of deep-sea animals but these observations were met with
controversy, some critics claiming that these fish were mere illusions. However,
many of Beebe's observations from the Bathysphere have since been confirmed by advances
in undersea photography.
The record set during this dive remained unbroken until 1949, when Barton broke
it with a 4,500 foot descent in a new deep-sea vessel he created called the Benthoscope.
The Bathyscaphe Trieste
Record Distance Traveled: 35,800 ft.
Swiss Balloonist and inventor Auguste Piccard met Beebe at the Chicago World Fair
in 1933. While Beebe was demonstrating the bathysphere, Piccard was showcasing his
hydrogen-filled gondola. Beebe and Piccard quickly became friends and Piccard was
soon inspired to modify his high altitude balloon so that it would use similar principles
to descend into the deep ocean.
This paved the way for the bathyscaphe, originally called the FNRS-2. He began working
on it in 1937, but had to put his project on hold until after the Second World War.
The FNRS-2 was completed by 1948. Unlike the bathysphere, the FNRS-2 was attached
to a free-floating tank rather than being suspended from the surface. It was also
referred to as the "submarine balloon" as it was designed to float in water just
like a balloon floats in air. Its heavy ballast would allow it to sink to a desired
depth when engaged, then rise to the surface when released (though initial sea trials
Later on, Piccard and his son Jacques designed and built a new bathyscaphe, the
Trieste. The Trieste consisted of a float chamber filled with gasoline for buoyancy,
with a separate pressure sphere. The Trieste had nine tons of magnetic iron pellets
placed on the craft as ballast, both to speed the descent and allow ascent.
In 1953, they managed to navigate Trieste to a depth of 10,330 feet in the Mediterranean.
The U.S. Navy then took an interest in the vessel and the Piccards sold the Trieste
to them in 1958. The Americans made extensive modifications to the ship, equipping
it with a new cabin to reach even deeper ocean trenches.
On January 23, 1960, the Trieste set a new world record of 35,800 feet when it touched
bottom in the Challenger Deep (the deepest point in the world's ocean) in the Mariana
Trench near Guam. The submersible was manned by Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant
Now that the depth race was over, the oceans were open to more thorough scientific
Jacques Cousteau & the Development of Scuba Gear
The legendary ocean explorer, Jacques Cousteau, first served in the French Navy
during the Second World War before sailing around the world on his iconic ship Calypso.
During and after his time in the Navy he developed various types of underwater diving
gear. His most notable however, was the "Scuba" (which stands for Self Contained
Underwater Breathing Apparatus) designed in 1943 with the help of Emile Gagnan.
The scuba was originally called the Aqualung.
In 1962, Cousteau created the first underwater habitat called Conshelf. A year later,
the Conshelf II was built in the Red Sea near Sudan. The underwater home was able
to house 10 oceanauts who lived there for 30 days. In fact, a documentary about
the project won Cousteau an Academy Award in 1964.
As well received as the projects were, they were far too costly to continue funding
and were eventually abandoned.
Alvin was built by General Mills' (yes- the cereal guys) Electronics Group was designed
to be more efficient for deep-sea exploration. Owned by the US Navy and operated
by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Alvin was first tested
in 1964 and has performed more than 4,000 dives since. The vessel can carry two
scientists and one pilot, and can stay underwater for up to nine hours at 14,800
In 1966, Alvin, together with a Navy robot, retrieved a hydrogen bomb lost in the
Mediterranean after the collision of an American B-52 and a refueling tanker. Alvin
has been part of many research projects, notably the discovery of giant tube worms
on the Pacific Ocean floor near the Galápagos Islands.
Alvin in 1978
Though there have been huge advancements in the field of deep-sea exploration, the
ocean's floor still remains a great mystery to us, with only about 2 percent explored
to date. The deepest a modern
submarine can go is around 20,000 ft below the surface.
Virgin is currently working on a project called
Virgin Oceanic. Designed by Graham Hawkes (who has built over 60 manned
submersibles) the Virgin submarine is striving to be the first sub that will be
able to withstand the extreme pressures of the deepest depths of our oceans and
carry humans in the hopes of one day learning more about the mysterious waters that
cover our great Earth.
Wondering if you need a boat license or Pleasure Craft Operator Card to operate a submarine? You will likely still need to meet State recreational boating requirements as well as potentially needing a U.S. Coast Guard Master's license depending on the tonnage of the submarine.