Saturday, November 8, 2008

The deeper you delve

Jacques Piccard, a pioneer of deep-sea exploration, has just died. Forty years ago he took part in an extraordinary experiment, a voyage on a submarine that was allowed to drift without power along the Gulf Stream for four weeks. A diary of that journey can be read online, as can Piccard’s own diary-like entries in a New York Times article.

Piccard, who died on 1 November, was a Swiss hydronaut and oceanographer of some repute. There is plenty of biographical information about him on the internet: Wikipedia has a good article; there is an excellent obituary by Marcus Williamson on The Independent website; and Jacques’ son, Bertrand Piccard, maintains a website with family information.

Jacques, born in 1922, came from a family of scientists, his father being a physicist, and his father’s twin a chemist, both of whom were also high-altitude balloonists. While Jacques was growing up, his father’s interests turned away from the sky and towards the sea, and in particular adapting the pressurised cockpit he had developed for ballooning for use in deep sea diving. Although Jacques studied and then taught economics for a while, he was soon working by his father’s side to build bathyscaphes (deep-sea diving submersibles).

With financial help from the US Navy, they built Trieste, the vessel in which Jacques and Lt. Don Walsh of the US Navy descended to the floor of Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench, seven miles beneath the surface of the Western Pacific. That historic dive, the deepest ever undertaken, took place in January 1960, and, so far, has not been bettered.

After his father’s death, Jacques continued the family work but focused on mesoscaphes - submersibles for medium depths. One of these was the Auguste Piccard, the first ever passenger submarine, which carried over 30,000 tourists to the depths of Lake Geneva during the 1964 Swiss National Exhibition.

The second was the Ben Franklin, also known as Grumman/Piccard PX-15, which was used for what SeaWiFS calls ‘the longest privately-sponsored undersea experiement of its kind’. There is much information about this submersible on Nasa’s SeaWiFS website. (SeaWiFS aims ‘to provide quantitative data on global ocean bio-optical properties to the earth science community’, and is part of Nasa’s Earth Science Enterprise.)

On 14 July 1969, the Ben Franklin slipped beneath the surface of the Atlantic off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida, the website says, its mission: ‘to investigate the secrets of the Gulf Stream as it drifted northward at depths of 600-2,000 feet; to learn the effects on man of a long-duration, closed-environment stressful voyage; to demonstrate the engineering-operational concepts of longterm submersible operation; and to conduct other scientific oceanographic studies.’ The experiment ended after more than 30 days and 1,444 nautical miles when the Ben Franklin and its crew of six surfaced some 300 miles south of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 14 August 1969.

On the same website, can be found ‘a very condensed’ version of the captain’s log (a diary in fact), with a peculiarly absorbing text by Captain Don Kazimir and delightful drawings by Erwin Aebersold. Here are three entries:

14 July 1969
‘At 1025 hours the ‘Ready for Sea’ checkout was completed. It was hoped the BEN FRANKLIN could leave port quietly with little fanfare; however, quite a crowd was on hand. The BEN FRANKLIN got underway at 1043 hours and passed the sea buoy at 1123 hours . . . At 2030 hours, the hatch was secured with the crew aboard. ‘Rig for Dive’ was completed . . . The boat descended smoothly - dribbled shot occasionally to slow descent. Trim good, no propulsion needed. At 2150 hours, we bottomed in 510 meters of water . . .’

16 July 1969
‘We were drifting nicely at 200 meters. . . F. Busby, D. Kazimir, C. May, and J. Piccard have slight colds. The cabin temperature got up to a comfortable 66 °F. C. May checked iodine concentration in the number 1 and 2 fresh water tanks and found no iodine - cannot understand why, the concentration should be 6 ppm. The same for tanks 3 and 4. C. May was having difficulty with the bunk counters and some sleep monitoring caps. The number 1 hot water tank was cooling down fast since the vacuum was lost - will shift tanks soon. Good luck message was sent to Apollo 11 astronauts.’

3 August 1969
‘Approximately 120 miles east of Cape Hatteras; we drifted at shallow depths. Our drift speed has increased to close to 3 knots. J. Piccard caught a salp in the plankton sampler.’

Days after the historic voyage was completed, Piccard wrote a long feature for the New York Times based on his own diary-like entries. Here are a few.

16 July 1969
‘All during the night the Franklin has drifted slowly at about 600 feet. Nothing has been moved to adjust her stability. Everything is fine, we are at a point 69 miles southeast of Cape Kennedy. We send a message to the Apollo 11 crew, a few hours before they leave for the moon. At 9:32, we hear - indirectly by way of radio and underwater telephone - the countdown and departure of the most fantastic expedition ever undertaken by man.’

19 July 1969
‘. . . The assault occurred at 6:09, at 252 meters down. As a matter of fact, it was really an attack; short, precise. The swordfish was about five or six feet long. Another one was waiting for him at the limit of our visibility. The combatant rushed forward and apparently tried to hit our porthole, missing it by a few inches. Then he circled around for several minutes close to the boat. Content that his domination of this portion of his realm was not threatened, he joined his friend and left, never to be seen again.’

20 July 1969
‘There is no weekend underwater. The watches succeed the watches. The work has to be done as usual. A Bible is on board. During the day we wait with impatience for the news of the moon landing. The message arrives finally at 4:20 pm and it is short and precise without any comments. ‘Two Americans have landed on the moon.’ So that is all we are to learn about the most beautiful, technical achievement ever made by mankind. Save for some 800 million Chinese and Albanians, we are the only people on earth not to have witnessed this historic event on our television screens. We must wait to enjoy the moment vicariously. Tonight I saw at my porthole a big salp, a sea creature perhaps 10 inches long and two to three inches in diameter. I could see it swimming, ejecting water from within itself to propel itself in circles through the water.’

And to conclude the article, Piccard wrote this: ‘The Gulf Stream has been deeply studied and a few secrets have been uncovered. But it will probably always shield the majority of its mysteries from man. This is the law of universal science. The deeper you delve into it, the more you realise that it is endless, limitless, infinite.’

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Congrats with this great webpage of yours! Perhaps it'd be interesting to post about Dutch artist Martine Mussies one day? She published parts of her self-made multi-langual dairy in many magazines in Holland and abroad and photograps of the dairy's pages were at art expositions too. If you're interested, just drop me an email at