6000 and beyond! (by Daniele)

As the title of this blog states we never imagined what was coming in our lives. We planned several dives keeping conservatives with the limit defined by Ifremer policies. The day arrived, however, all concurred to an historic performance.
The Nautile team led by Xavier Placaud was running confident since few days. Nautile performances at the top were confirmed in the dive of Marcia, our French chief that reached easily the impressive depth of 6014 meters. Then a series of dives ranging from 3000 to 5800 meters confirmed the optimal state of all equipment. So arrived my day.
I entered into the sphere surrounded by the usual happiness and emotion of all companions. Thoughtful because of the many occurrences and events of the last days I was not fully concentrated and present to the event. I prepared carefully the dive, thinking to the many possibilities of the geological occurrences I would have met there. One of my daily tasks consists in briefing the diver of the upcoming day. We discuss the geological scenario, study the track on the seafloor, make hypothesis on the nature of the rocks, faults, morphologies. We study the movies of the previous dive and discuss with previous divers to be prepared for the immersion. So I did, discussing with Georges that dove just the day before, studying the maps and 3D reconstruction.
I just forgot preparing my luggage… so in a hurry in the morning I filled my sack with warm clothes, a change, material to write and take some pictures… and I dressed the blue suite. Time to go.
Inside the sphere, all is uncomfortable but the space is not too small. You can arrange your stuff and prepare. The descent to 6000 takes time. Once in the water all turns rapidly. Scuba divers arrange all around you. Sunrays cut the blue water like sword strokes, then blue turns rapidly into a black hole behind the porthole. And you forget it.
Xavier and Pierre-Yves fill the checklist rapidly then they relax. The descent has started. My two companions are calm, one opens a book, the other dozes off on his bed and grumbles chatting with me closed eyes. Pierre-Yves, the copilot has a chair surrounded by a number of controls blinking in the shade. Xavier, like me, has a little bed. Once arrived at the seabottom we will turn face down and stick our faces on the small portholes looking outside. Xavier will drive the sphere with a couple of joysticks situated beneath his bed. A surreal conversation takes places among us.
The descent takes long, 0.6 meters per second is not a great speed to reach the 6 km of our target. After more than 2.5 hours we approach the bottom. My companions recover instantly their freshness. They surprise me. A rapid sequence of commands. Release of the ballast, release again. Speed decreases. The sphere stops. The submarine is driven to neutral buoyancy and then operations start. We move down slowly, a little apart from the starting point on the deepest side of the slope. Lights on. A diffuse cloud of particles, little animals, translucent globes, whitish flakes, all moves around us. I stick my face to the porthole; is just the size of my eyes. Xavier is looking for something, concentrated, we slowly approach 6000 m. I do not realize we are so deep. Outside is still dark. “We are close to the seabottom”. I don’t see it really. On the red panel to my left I see the depth increasing slowly 5998, 5999… 6003. I look around me, the wall of the sphere, the hatchway, as to listen suspicious creaking, all is silent. I perceive now the deep silence. Just the calm ticking of Pierre-Yves on the control keys. The warm sound of Xavier’s commands. Slowly cadenced. He is looking out, then back to control panels. Checking all parameters. 6009, 6010. I look out, shadows in the shadow, something appears below us. “Oxygen ok? – Oxygen ok. CO2 ok? CO2 right”. “Temperature? 1.2 degrees outside”. The titanium sphere has no thermal isolation; our breath condenses on the walls, drops slide down continuously. 6015. We are still high on the floor. I recognize some dark spots, rocks scattered on a thin light brown sediment. 6018. 6020. Closer, I distinguish the details of some large boulders; all is immersed in a yellowish sediment. Debris on a slope. Xavier drives down the submarine slowly to the seafloor, 6025,  …26…27 … … 6028. We stop.
Just a fraction of deep silence.
We smile now, check all systems, look around. Here we are! The deepest dive with a scientist onboard on this mythic submarine. Generations of geologists grew with this yellow image in their dreams. Am here now in the dark, all seems so normal. All so surreal.
My work starts. It’s a sequence of observations on the nature of the seafloor, rocks, sampling, faults. Xavier handles the robotic harm with sure mastery. Picks a rock and arrange it in the kangaroo pocket below us. Then moves fast again. Strange animals, strange worms, strange rocks. Am not sure I am describing all with the right words. Long pauses over large sedimented areas. Then suddenly a deep channel, rocky borders, giant block of breccias elongated in the channels. Slowly we ascend the slope following the track studied before. Our course twists over the track on the navigation monitor. The front sounder gives the image of the slope around us. I write notes, record observations. Time flows rapid and am already at the end. Five hours of observations in a single breath. Am broken, all my bones are crunched, my body iced. I turn on my back and look behind my shoulder the ground blurring progressively in the dark. 15:25 we leave the bottom. Lights off. Silence. Cold.
Two hours later, with a little too high carbon dioxide level in our little atmosphere we perceive the sunlight through the waters. Then a complex sequence of operations bring us on the main deck and drive into the hangar before the hatch is open.
Some buckets of water flew on me and a bottle of champagne too.
I have been passenger and witness of an incredible performance. I was a kid when my father gave me a book on the exploration of the oceans. The Trieste with his vertical stripes and the bathysphere suspended below shined on the cover and drove my dreams for many years. Still this book is on my desk.
People like Xavier, Olivier, Pierre-Yves, David, Guillaume, Julien, Hervé, Wandy, Gill spend their lives with enthusiasm. They dedicate days, nights, months at sea, far from families, far from comforts of home life. A fresh beer sitting on the benches of a rolling deck is their daily pay. They are the true heroes of this story. Those making possible to an anonymous scientist to make his dream true. Let our children having the same strength and fulfilled life.

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