An Interview with Jacques Piccard, 1922-2008
I'm saddened to read that Jacques Piccard died today. Jacques Piccard was a Swiss oceanic engineer famous for making the deepest ever ocean dive, which he accomplished on January 23, 1960 along with Lt. Don Walsh. The two entered a bathyscaph called Trieste and descended 10,916 meters (35,810 feet) into the Challenger Deep, an area in the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, touching down on the deepest part of the ocean anywhere on earth. That's quite an accomplishment, and one that hasn't yet been repeated.
I had the good fortune to interview Mr. Piccard by telephone back in 2005 and ask him what it was like to descend to the deepest part of the ocean. The interview never made it to print, so I will take this opportunity to publish it here, in its entirety. It could probably use some editing, but it's nice to hear the rhythms of his French-accented speech, and I wouldn't want to take out anything important. Also, I want to post it in a timely fashion. I'll probably post a link to it on Jaunted.com tomorrow as well.
Please read and enjoy it.
Interview with Jacques Piccard
Okay, yeah, sure
Okay, please you will excuse me but my English is relatively poor.
Our base was in
And until we could arrive to the place, precise place of the Mariana Trench where we were to descend, to dive, we had about four days to tow the submarine with a tugboat and the sea was pretty rough, and it was not a very nice trip. It was interesting of course, everybody was looking forward to making the deep dive, but the weather was relatively poor.
And when we arrived on the 23rd of January , the early morning, we arrived at the place, we had to start the dive as soon as possible because the waves were bad and the sea was very rough, windy, some rain also I believe, and so on.
But the first impression was as soon as we started the dive, being in the bathyscaphe, even just a few feet below the water level it was absolutely quiet and smooth and no waves anymore, you know, and so we could really start diving in very good spirits.
And looking through the portholes, the water seemed empty, no fishes of course because there are very rarely fishes on the surface of the sea in the middle of the ocean, the Pacific.
But the blue of the light was absolutely beautiful, clear and limpid and absolutely beautiful water.
So we start to dive, relatively slowly first, and, due to the physics of the bathyscaphe, normally when you dive you dive faster and faster, it is what happened.
And in order to control our speed and temperature you remember the
And the sphere was heavier than water, it was fixed to a container of gasoline, light gasoline which gives buoyancy for coming up after the dive, you know?
So we had to control the temperature of the gasoline, which was very important to know that everything was smooth.
The temperature in the gasoline was slowly increasing due to the compression of the gasoline.
And so everything was smooth, so we, after a few minutes we arrived to about 1,000 feet it was already darker, and then, gradually, as soon as we were continuing the dive the water was darker and darker, and when we arrived to approximately 600 meters which is about 2,000 feet we were really in the depths because it was completely night, you know.
We had searchlights so we could use our searchlights to try to see some (spheres?), there was some plankton in the water, not very much but we could see some light snow, you know, snow which was going up as we were going down, you know. Relatively speaking, the plankton which was remaining at the same depth continuously was appeared to be coming up.
So it was interesting to see but nothing special. We were used to dives, Don Walsh had dived previously. Everything was smooth so we could keep in touch by telephone with the surface. We said everything is fine, we are now at 2,000 feet, 3,000 feet, 10,000 feet, I believe even deeper to 20,000 feet.
But when we arrived at approximately 4,000 meters, 15,000 feet about, then the telephone stopped. The telephone could not reach the tugboat, the surface boat, so we were absolutely alone, by ourselves, we had no way to communicate with the surface.
This was an interesting point. We knew at least we could even say that the telephone was going until 4,000 meters, the telephone was going maybe better than what we could normally expect. So the communication was good until these 4,000 meters.
Then we continued, we arrived to 5,000 meters, 6,000 meters, maybe I can speak in meters? Everybody is knowing that about three feet is making one meter.
So we continued to dive and when we arrived at 10,000 meters approximately we could hear kind of a “fok” noise, and a small movement, a little bit like a very small, little earthquake. We didn’t know what it was so I stopped the bathyscaphe, to take a few minutes for thinking about this noise.
And I told to Walsh, you see, if when we will start to dive again if we are going very fast it would be showing that we are losing gasoline, which would be extremely dangerous, of course.
If, on the contrary, the bathyscaphe is starting to dive again very very slowly, it means that our equilibrium is good, and that “fok” that we felt in the dive was of relatively no importance of all. This is what happened really.
Then we continued to dive. Finally we arrived to approximately 11,000 meters, 35,600 feet at that time.
And 200 meters below us on our fathometer, we could see the bottom. And it was important because some oceanographers had told us that maybe it would not be a real bottom, it would be just more and more sedimentation, or ooze in the water with the possible danger that we would enter into the mud too deep and then not see anything more, and stay in the mud, which would not be bad because by dropping some ballast we could always make the submarine lighter and come up to the surface.
But seeing on the fathometer a beautiful straight line on the bottom, it showed that the bottom was clear, that it was practically, probably no stone, no rocks and so on, and that the mud was sufficiently resistant so that we could really land on this kind of bottom.
So I slowed down the submarine and made it very very light in the water, just a few pounds more than the water, and so we went down and down very very slowly and finally at 35,800 feet we touched the bottom. Very slowly, didn’t make any clouds.
You know, if you land on sand or on ooze if you land too fast you can make a big cloud and you don’t see anything more for a few minutes.
But on the contrary the landing was so slow, so perfect I can say, that the bottom was not disturbed at all. We could finally look through the porthole, we could finally see the bottom on the deepest-known place in the earth, in the sea.
Another thing which was extremely important and very interesting. No oceanographer at the time could know with precision if very well complicated, well-organized life was living on the bottom. In other words, are there fish living there, or if no fish maybe some shrimps and so on.
So for fun, one oceanographer would remain on the surface, of the sea, it was Dr. Rechnitzer, told me before the dive “I prohibit, I tell you, you are not allowed to come up to the surface if you don’t see at least one fish,” you know, just to show it was important to look carefully.
Of course we looked very carefully but it was very simple.
When we arrived at the bottom, just at about ten or 15 feet from the porthole, we saw a fish which was at first absolutely not moving at all, and after a few minutes he started to move and to swim, very slowly, and to disappear in the darkness a few feet farther.
And this was very, very interesting, you know, because a fish living like this in the bottom of the sea of course is using oxygen for breathing. And this oxygen was, of course, in the water, and where was it coming from?
It could come only from the surface, because on the surface you have the (phytoplanktons??), or the vegetable planktons, making oxygen, producing oxygen, and the waves, taking oxygen from the air, or taking air from the atmosphere, and, by current, this oxygen finally arrived to the deepest place in the ocean.
And then, also, if you have water coming from the surface, maybe after several years of voyage, of course, this new water will push the old water away, and this water will finally arrive back to the surface.
So you can imagine it is a kind of a movement from water from the surface coming down to the bottom of the sea, and back to the surface, and so on. These are cycles which can take scores and scores of years, of course.
But it was very important, because, at that time, many people, scientists, also, and politicians, economists, economic people, and so on, said what can we do with the refuse, I believe you say, of the nuclear power, energy. What is the word? The product which has a radioactive, and which are coming out of nuclear …
VO: Nuclear waste?
Nuclear waste, that’s the word, thank you very much. So people said, oh nuclear waste, we can drop them in the deep trenches and then they would stay there forever.
And no, we said no, it’s not true, this fish practically told us that we are not to drop any nuclear waste in the bottom of the trenches, because we know that the water is finally coming back to the surface, and all the sea would be damaged, all the oceans and so would be damaged by the nuclear waste.
So this was quite clear and as far as I know no nuclear waste has been dropped on this bottom, in these places. Unfortunately there are many other places where they do this which is also very bad, but at least this water at least for now is protected.
So this was what this fish explained us, told us I can say.
How was the fish? It was nothing special. Not at all like the deep sea fish that you can see in the dictionary, encyclopedia and so on and so on.
It was a flat fish, about looking like a sole, not more than one foot at the most in length and about half in wide.
And it was a flat fish and it was important to know it was a flat fish because are usually living on the bottom, so this fish was living on the bottom of the trench.
It was not a fish that we would have, for instance, (trained/trailed?) with water with the submarine from mid-water or from the surface,
No it was a fish really living on the bottom. In other words, the deepest part of the fish, the part which was below the fish was in the mud, and we could see only the top of the fish if I can say so. A flat fish living in the mud, half the body in the mud and half the body in the water let’s say.
And the two eyes, typical from these animals, with the two eyes on the same side of the head, were clearly visible.
VO: Like a flounder?
Exactly like a flounder, exactly like a flounder, very similar to a flounder. Might be a flounder. To be sure, our observations which were relatively short, of course, we had other things to do, to be sure that this observations were good we should really make more dives, and continue to dive several times to see other fishes and so on.
This is a dream that I am too old to realize that myself. But sooner or later other people will make use of marine for great depths, new bathyscaphes will certainly make other dives at these places.
I can also tell you that the Japanese people are using the remote control instruments, and they have been approximately in the same area that the place where we landed and they found and described the bottom of the sea exactly as we saw it.
But up to now apparently they didn’t see any fishes yet.
So this is the story of the dive, well, an important point is, I told you that until about 12,000 feet the telephone did function very well, it was an acoustical telephone with no cable of course, like radio however by waves instead of being by cable. A telephone that you could use normally.
Excuse me, I wasn’t very clear, and we had no cable, no electric cable, no cable at all between the surface boat and the submarine.
We were absolutely free and the telephone was only going by using ultra, ultrawaves, ultrasound, you have a word in English? Ultrasound, exactly yes.
So, being at the bottom, we said we’ll try the submarine (phone) you never know, maybe it will work again. And we called the surface, “this is the
And you know the sound took approximately seven seconds to go to the surface, and seven seconds to go back again for the answer, so we could not have any answer before 14 seconds.
And just after 14 seconds we heard the surface “Hello,
So that was the telephone which was not working at 5,000 meters was apparently working at (??) meters.
Why? This was simple to explain. The surface boat was not still on the surface. It was moving, going for a few miles on east and west and north and south and so on. And the communication was good, whatever the depth was, just when the surface boat was on the vertical of the submarine.
Then the waves could go very well. But if the surface boat was too far away, it was a reflection, a refraction?? Of the wave, and nothing could arrive to the antenna of the boat.
So, by chance the surface boat, the tugboat and the small, other Navy boats which were there to help us, by chance they were just on the vertical of the submarine when we were on the bottom.
So we could speak and tell them where we were, what we were doing, and so on. And also we could tell them in advance, I told them we will arrive at this afternoon, and I believe we arrived at two minutes before four, so just practically exactly what was expected and computed.
So this is the story of our dive. I am just sorry that nobody did it again after this, after us, but as I told you before this will come certainly.
VO: Okay, well what was it like when you finally got back up to the surface and you got out of the
Oh, this was also interesting. We had two portholes on the
And which is on the same pressure as the water itself. So in order to close this small chamber called antichan ??? or small chamber we had a panel of Plexiglas which was about one inch and a quarter thick. And this panel, for some reason too long to explain now, could not stand some kind of tension, and although the pressure was the same inside and outside this little chamber, it was some crack that which was the noise that we heard before that I told you.
It was a crack maybe about half a foot, a few inches long. And we saw, we discovered this small crack when we were down on the bottom, and when we came up, due to the lower and lower pressure, the window closed. The small crack disappeared, it remained but it was completely tight again, watertight again.
So when we arrived on the surface I had to blow with compressed air the entrance tube. And when I blow the compressed air I decided to do it slowly so it would not increase too much the pressure inside, so that full panel could not be destroyed by the inside pressure due to the compressed air. I hope you understand what I mean?
So for this I opened the compressed air with the bottle we had inside the sphere, very slowly, and normally we make empty the entrance tube from this water, in a few minutes. Due to the fact that I was doing it very slowly it took I believe ten minutes, I don’t remember, ten or twelve minutes probably. And at that time the telephone did not work again because the antenna was out of the water. So I could not explain to the surface crew that we had to wait ten minutes or fifteen minutes so that we could open the hatch and get out.
So we did it very slowly, and the people there on the surface, unfortunately, believed it was some accident, maybe we are no more alive and so on.
They were slightly afraid until we could finally open the hatch and get out of the submarine.