“Driver training in a claustrophobic, Plexiglas coffin”, might be one way to describe the experience of learning to pilot an experimental one-person deep diving submarine. Another way to describe it would be, “a thrilling adventure into the unknown”, especially when your driving instructor is world-renowned ocean scientist, Dr. Sylvia Earle. I was with Sylvia a few years ago in the National Maine Sanctuary off the coast of Washington State where she was testing “Deep Worker”, a one person sub to be used in her “Sustainable Seas” project to study and inform people about the health of the world’s oceans.
The advantage of the sub is it’s ability to take researchers down 2,000 feet to visit parts of the ocean that can’t be accessed on scuba. It also makes it possible for air breathing humans to remain underwater for extended periods of time, far longer than would be possible on scuba, and of course being in the sub means the diver can stay dry and avoid the wrinkled prune like appearance that comes from sitting too long in the bath. The down side being, if something goes wrong, you spring a leak, the sub fills with water and wrinkled skin is the least of your worries.
I though about this story and some of my other adventures in tiny submarines this week when National Geographic and James Cameron teamed up to dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on the planet. It was a historic event. Cameron’s dive was the first manned solo trip down more than 35,000 feet beneath the ocean. And it was only the second manned visit to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in history. Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh made the first trip 51 years ago. Walsh was on board the support ship this week to welcome Cameron back to the surface and into membership in a very exclusive club of people who’ve been to the deepest part of the ocean.
This story reviews some of Sylvia Earle’s pioneering work in deep sea exploration, as well as showing what it’s like to squeeze into a one person sub, especially for someone my size. It may also leave you with the question, “If I had a $500,000 submarine, would I let Boyd drive it?”