There was a lot of celebration of the first Moon landing back in June 2019, but the anniversary of another major exploration event has come and gone a lot more quietly. On January 23rd, 1960 the bathyscaphe Trieste descended into the deepest part of the ocean, known as the Challenger Deep. The ultimate depth was almost eleven thousand meters or, to put that in American terms, almost 6.8 miles. Or, to put it other terms, if you cut off Mount Everest at its base and dropped it into the Challenger Deep the peak would be a mile underwater and there’d be a lot of angry Sherpas frantically learning to swim.
Two men, Jacques Piccard, who was the son of the Trieste’s designer, and U.S. Navy Lieutenant descended in the Trieste in a round trip of just over seven hours, not counting the twenty minutes they spent on the sea floor. During the descent one of the plexiglass windows cracked but they decided to keep going. They claim they saw flatfish at the bottom, before the ship touched the muddy bottom and stirred up a cloud of sand, but scientists now think what they saw were probably some form of sea cucumber. The amazing thing about anything living at that depth is that the pressure is so great the water can barely hold any oxygen but life is tenacious and always finds a way.
Going to the Moon in many ways was a more significant achievement, certainly more miles, and gave us a chance to look back at Earth from a perspective no human had ever seen before, but it’s strange that more of us have walked on the Moon than have seen the deepest part of the ocean with our own eyes. For humans to visit the Challenger Deep is to provide an even more important perspective. With every foray into space we can always go a little farther, but the bottom of the ocean is a record that can only be matched, never exceeded. The ocean is where we came from and we depend on it for our existence. There is no part of Earth that life hasn’t reached, and everything we do on this planet affects every other part of it in some way. Unless we leave Earth entirely we’re tethered to the ocean, and understanding it is the only chance we have for survival.
Here’s a poem I wrote years ago. I’ve never shown it to anyone before and after the fiftieth anniversary of the descent of the Trieste came and went I thought I never would, but I’m persistent.
Touch. The descent is finished and sand clouds
The splintered window.
Over me, where unseen monsters turned away,
Is a column of water seven miles high.
I’ve lost contact
With the world down here. I’ve always been drawn
To the desolate
There are no stars here to navigate by.
They aren’t needed. There’s one direction:
Back the way I came, but in
Reaching the end I
Can’t pass out of this small point. The window,
Fractured by pressure,
Won’t clear. The whiteness is a bed
I float on and walls
Where a television filled with static hisses.
Dots curl up and spin around
In wormy patterns and crackling flowers.
The desert rejects, cold
Turned to hard burning,
Molecules slowed to visible.
Is so empty, so
Desperately barren. Even though what I see
Is affected by those cracks that crept in around
The third or fourth mile I can see
Between them where change is happening.
A sea cucumber
Flew away just before landing.
I’d like to walk after it, see
If I could find others. There must be
More down here, life I couldn’t take back,
But I brought light. I’ve already made this place
Different. I thought it would be different,
Like other stretches that teem with brittle stars,
Crinoids grasping at whatever comes,
Round urchins that never shatter,
Never able to change their depth,
And the long fishes that surface
Sometimes to die for reasons only they know,
And beds where giant oysters dream colors
Unknown in the night.
There’s nothing here
I can take back
With me that wouldn’t change into something else.
When whales die they must reach this depth,
But the sea’s cycle doesn’t end here.
As a child I imagined Heaven
Must be a place like this:
Colorless and flat,
And desire beyond the seen.
I believed in that place, believed death
Was just an exit
From one place and an entrance to another,
That I’d keep moving from one to the next,
But the dead don’t just slip through holes. To go
There means something else.
A voice says over and over, It’s time to go now.
When I was seven
I rode out into the middle of a lake,
The reflections and how, up close,
I could see through them,
I could see through myself
To the weeds below and where they fell
Away from each other.
It’s time to go now.
The sentence is like a lead necklace.
Even the raptures
Here are impossible to touch, captured
By an iron bubble,
Held back from forces
That would crush a frail body
Denying strangeness to this world.
The descent was hard. Leaving
Will be harder.
Before I came the bell was sent unmanned
And a leak let in more water than it could hold.
When the hatch was opened to the air
The water leaped out like a ray of untamed light.
This water, this salt syrup,
Must have changed me but left enough me
To slip back and forth out of balance.
All along I’ve been living like a nautilus
In reverse, each chamber smaller than the one before,
But there’s an end beyond the end,
And the walls between worlds are porous.
This is what I’ll carry back.