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The Mariana Trench - where the surprises keep coming!

What really is hidden in the sea? Let us discover the sounds and life forms of this mysterious location

Home life The Mariana Trench - where the surprises keep coming!
The Mariana Trench - where the surprises keep coming!

From literature to films and music, the sea has always beguiled and intrigued artists who, alongside the scholars, have celebrated its immensity, magnificence, force, power and infinite beauty.

The Mariana Trench - where the surprises keep coming!

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea is a French novel written by Jules Verne in 1870, the third in a trilogy. It describes the adventures of a submarine called Nautilus, its captain and his prisoners who have epic adventures at incredible depths, encountering huge, frightening creatures and discovering the remains of the continent of Atlantis.

La Mer is the title of a French song written by Charles Trenet in 1943. It was a colossal hit in the 1960s, sung by Bobby Darin with the title Beyond the Sea, the ideal soundtrack for anyone making an imaginative voyage to the seabed to explore the many mysteries hidden beneath the boundless sheet of water that envelopes the earth. A world that commands much respect, is essential to our survival and is marvellous and infinite, populated with creatures familiar and unfamiliar that instil fear and tenderness, and have inhabited film scripts and cartoons. In 2004, Pixar won an Oscar for its animated film Finding Nemo which tells the adventures of a little fish and its father in an underwater universe filled with colour and amazing characters.

DISCOVERING THE SEA: THE BEGINNING

What is surprising is to imagine that there is life, indeed a whole universe, hundreds of thousands of metres below sea level in a dimension so far removed from our own. Studies to discover the deepest oceanic trench began in 1872 with the first Challenger expedition to an area between Japan, the Philippines and New Guinea. The initial data spoke of a depth of 8,184 metres. Many surveys have been conducted over the years and, in 1957, the Soviet ship Vitjaz measured a depth of 11,034 metres but this was not deemed reliable as subsequent expeditions failed to read the same measurement.

THE MARIANA TRENCH

We had to wait until 23 January 1960 when the US Navy bathyscaphe Trieste  reached the depths of the Mariana Trench, east of the Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean. At the helm were Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard, son of Auguste Piccard, the inventor of the bathyscaphe, who descended to a depth of 10,916 metres. The US Navy purchased the bathyscaphe from Piccard and engaged Jacques as a training consultant for those involved in operations and maintenance. The Trieste was initially designed to descend to a maximum depth of 6,000 metres but it was later modified to withstand greater pressure, up to that exercised at a depth of 11,000 metres. The preparation for this historic undertaking lasted nine months and, before the mission proper, 64 test dives were conducted off the coast of Guam in the Western Pacific.

Walsh and Piccard encountered a staggering spectacle with forms of marine life on the Ocean floor. They were amazed to see fish such as sole, plaice and prawns at such a distant and previously impenetrable depth. The expedition members also encountered a very low temperature and needed hot water bottles to keep themselves warm. The Trieste's visit to the unexplored seabed lasted nine hours. The Navy was accompanied on this historic undertaking by Rolex, which was delighted to receive an end-of-mission telegram from Jacques Piccard confirming that their watch worked just as well at a depth of 11,000 metres as on dry land.

Curiosity in the Mariana Trench did not end with its first discovery and much is to be attributed to very recent studies.

THE LATEST STUDIES

First of all, in 2003, US experts from the Hawaii Mapping Research Group discovered a new abyss in the very same area. They travelled in a submarine linked by cable to a research ship with sonar, an instrument used to generate and capture acoustic signals, and guided remotely. Its readings discovered an abyss almost as deep as the Challenger Deep and called the HMRG Deep.

In terms of even more recent discoveries, one in April this year can be attributed to the remote-controlled submarine Deep Discoverer of the Okeanos Explorer research ship, which studies the life forms present at these depths and reports to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This federal agency observes and protects oceans and the atmosphere, forecasting changes that may affect them. During their research, the Deep Discoverer scientists had a delightful if highly unusual encounter that left them open-mouthed, as if they had come face to face with an optical illusion or an exceptional computer product: a special jellyfish with incredible movements and colours, resembling fireworks on first sight. It is a hydromedusae of the Crossota genus that does not, in its early years, have a sessile stage. It is therefore an aquatic organism like sponges and cannot make autonomous movements. They float in the marine environment with tentacles extended like a spider's web, awaiting small and unknowing prey. The NOAA researchers have always scouted the area studying the presence of hydrothermal springs, mud volcanoes, corals, sponges and deepsea fish and seamounts on the seabed.

The Mariana Trench plays host to many and all very surprising guests, by no means common inhabitants but original creatures, sometimes amusing but sometimes frightening as in the case of the sea ghost sighted at a depth of 8,145 metres. From the Liparidae family, already found at great depths because sighted in the Kermadec Trench close to New Zealand and in the Japan Trench, it is a pale and fragile fish that really does looks like a ghost, and not a very pretty one. Its fins are covered with taste sensors to source food and seem to divide the water without moving it. This fish, very unusual and approximately 15 cm long, was discovered by the scientists of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, also  studying the Oceanic trench. Its body is so transparent that the internal organs are visible. What is remarkable is that this ghost lives at a depth just 55 metres above the cut-off line for fish survival. Once past 8200 metres, they are incapable of producing osmolytes, the chemical components that allow cells to withstand the pressure encountered at such depths. Unfortunately, the ghost has remained in the abysses and it has not been possible to better study its behaviour and characteristics.

The Mariana Trench - where the surprises keep coming! 02

It is natural to think that, at such depths, an absolute and deafening silence reigns as nowhere else on the planet, that acoustic pollution is an illustrious stranger in this impenetrable place and that it is, necessarily, a part of the earth's crust steeped in peace but the oceanographers of NOAA, along with those of the Oregon State University and the American Coastguard, took an underwater microphone into the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Trench 10.9 km below sea level, and discovered constant noise coming from earthquakes, whale sounds and the echo of a typhoon passing not far away. The sounds produced by humans are also easily detected using a hydrophone, such as those of ships in transit around Guam, not far from the Trench, where container ships from China and the Philippines pass by every day. To take these measurements and capture the sounds, the microphone was inserted into a titanium capsule subjected to a pressure of 1100 bar, 1000 times more than that normally tolerated.

One of the great new developments to emerge in the study of the oceans is a marine laboratory, designed and constructed by the University of Technology of Sydney. Here, researchers can examine and study samples of the micro-organisms living in the ocean's waters without returning to dry land. The Investigator research ship conducted the first tests and scientists were at last able to analyse samples on the spot. Studying and handling living cells in this way to understand how they adapt to changes in the ocean is a major step forward.

The magic of the sea always harbours a multitude of surprises for those who love this immensely romantic world. A wave throwing up a bottle from the sea, a message that has travelled for months or perhaps years, a mystery and a story all to be discovered: no, not a film but the true story of a message in a bottle found by a young couple on the coast of the island of Amrum, in Germany. No romance or mystery unfortunately, simply the result, at this point successful, of an experiment conducted between 1904 and 1906 by George Parker Bidder in the North Sea. Appointed as President of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom from 1939 to 1945, he was a scholar of the hydraulics of sponges and designed these bottles (in all 102) to be caught up in trawl nets. One of his bottles travelled for 108 years and was, at last, returned to sender after the two lucky people handed it back to the Marine Biological Association.

JAMES CAMERON'S ADVENTURE

The discovery of the Mariana Trench has always mesmerised the most diverse figures, notably a man who had already made a name for himself by making records… at the box office. James Cameron, the director of  Titanic and creator of Avatar, two films that have gone down in history and consecrated him as a legendary film-maker. Having decided to journey into the Mariana Trench, he was accompanied on his adventure by millions who followed the enterprise on Twitter. The words tweeted on his arrival in the Challenger Deep have become famous: "Hitting bottom never felt so good.” After Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard, the pioneers of the descent into the abysses of the Mariana Trench, he was the first to travel down 11 kilometres since 1960. A solitary voyage on this very private oceanic motorway because the Deepsea Challenger submarine, which he designed himself, only had room for one. The green one-occupant submersible, shaped like a torpedo and seven metres long, was built in Australia in collaboration with the National Geographic Society and the University of Hawaii. It has a pilot sphere, equipped with mechanical arms bearing cameras and pincers to collect samples, which Cameron diligently did bringing to the surface what had never before seen the light of day. Cameron had a first-class ticket for an outward trip lasting two hours and 36 minutes although he resurfaced much faster, in just 70 minutes, andall went well. Cameron had spent seven years preparing the undertaking. The mission support ship was the Octopus yacht owned by Paul Allen, a friend of the director, explorer and co-founder of Microsoft. Everything is still on hold but the initial project of the sequel to his film Avatar had the ambitious embryonic desire to film shots in the Mariana Trench. Who knows whether this project will soon see the light of day. There is talk of the film's release being postponed to Christmas 2017.

After this memorable success, the eclectic director donated his scientific prototype to the US oceanographic research centre WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) with which it is important to work and help further technology at the service of the oceanographic community.

This unfamiliar world instils reverential fear for its force, power and unknown dimension. Who knows how many surprises await. All we can do is watch and make our contribution towards the informed defence of a world so precious to all, which must be protected.

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