Jacques Cousteau and the Race to the Deep Ocean Part 3

Jacques Cousteau, Auguste Piccard and the Exploration of the Deep Ocean

The Story So Far…

Immediately after World War II, Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard built a bathyscaphe to explore the deep ocean. Jacques Cousteau co-invented the Aqualung in 1943 and established the Underwater Research Group for the French Navy. Cousteau offered the services of the French Navy and the Underwater Research Group to Auguste Piccard. In an unmanned test dive in 1948, the bathyscaphe (named the FNRS-II) successfully descended to, and returned from, 4554 feet (1400 m). But the float holding the gasoline had been damaged. Against his wishes, Auguste Piccard’s sponsors sold the remains of the damaged FNRS-II to the French Navy. Piccard, assisted by his son Jacques, commenced building another bathyscaphe in the city of Trieste, Italy. Cousteau resigned from the French Navy to concentrate on making underwater documentaries. The Underwater Research Group was put under the command of Georges Houot, who had the FNRS-II repaired and a new float built.

The French bathyscaphe, now named FNRS-III was successfully taken to a depth of 2000 metres (1.25 miles). Six weeks later, Auguste and Jacques Piccard took their bathyscaphe, Trieste, to a depth of 3000 metres (1.86 miles). In February 1954, Houot and Willm took the FNRS-III to 4000 metres. Both teams knew they had reached the maximum safe depths of their bathyscaphes. And both teams began designing bathyscaphes that could take them to the deepest places in the ocean.

The First Vessels to Reach the Deep Ocean

Following the dive to 3000 metres in his bathyscaphe Trieste, Auguste Piccard retired to his home in Switzerland. His son Jacques became the bathyscaphe pilot and, throughout 1954 and 1955, he took scientists to the deep ocean to conduct research. When there were no scientific organisations willing to sponsor dives, the Trieste lay idle. Late in 1955, Jacques Piccard was approached by the US Navy, which needed a vessel to research deep sea sound channels.

The United States was developing nuclear submarines to fight the Cold War against Russia. Because radio waves do not travel far underwater, submarines use sound to communicate and locate an enemy. Sound travels at different speeds underwater, depending on temperature, depth and salinity. The US Navy wanted to travel to the deep ocean to research sound channels, but knew there were only two deep sea vessels in the world. One was the Trieste, owned by the Piccards, and the other was the FNRS-III, owned by the French Navy. Scientists from the US Navy Electronics Laboratory at San Diego, California, travelled to Italy and made a number of dives in the Trieste. At the completion of the trials, the US Navy decided to buy the Trieste and develop it so that it could go to a depth of 7 miles (11 km).

Meanwhile, the United States and Russia were dumping their nuclear waste in the oceans. Both countries argued that it was safe to dump nuclear waste in the deep ocean trenches, which are formed by the tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust pushing against one another. The US Navy argued that because trenches are so deep, there could be no life in them. There are many trenches along the western side of the Pacific Ocean. The deepest trench in the world is the Mariana Trench, located near the Mariana Islands, south of Japan.

Concerned that the Americans would soon be dumping nuclear waste near Japan, Professor Tadayoshi Sasaki from the Tokyo University of Fisheries, wanted to prove that there was life in the ocean trenches. He also knew there were only two vessels in the world that could go deep underwater. One was the Trieste, which had just been sold to the people whose theories he was trying to disprove. The other was the FNRS-III, which was owned by the French Navy.

In February 1956, Sasaki travelled to the French naval base at Toulon and met with Georges Houot, who showed him over the FNRS-III. Houot explained the French bathyscaphe had been to depths of 4000 metres, which was its safe limit. Houot also explained that he and Pierre Willm had designed a bathyscaphe capable of reaching 7 miles. Sasaki proposed a series of dives off the coast of Japan in the FNRS-III and, if they were successful, he would try to persuade Japanese scientific bodies to provide financial support to build Houot’s new bathyscaphe.

It took two years for Houot to organise for the FNRS-III to be shipped to Japan. Once there, he and Sasaki made a series of deep dives. Houot returned to France where, in November 1958, with joint sponsorship from Japan, he commenced building a new bathyscaphe capable of going 7 miles deep.

The bathyscaphe Trieste
The bathyscaphe Trieste at the US Navy base San Diego California


A month after Houot began building his new bathyscaphe, the Trieste made its first dives for its new owners in San Diego Harbor. Following the trial dives, it was taken out of the water, and sat in a cradle on the waterfront. The cabin of the Trieste had been built at the steelworks in Terni, Italy. It had been designed to withstand pressure at 6000 metres, a little more than half the maximum depth of the ocean. The first part of rebuilding the Trieste involved making a new, stronger cabin. Jacques Piccard, who had overseen the construction of the original cabin, travelled to the Terni Steelworks in Italy, to have a new cabin built. He discovered the company was undergoing a restructure and the management declined the job. Next, Piccard travelled to the Krupp Steelworks in Germany. There it was explained to him that the company did not have a forge large enough to make a cabin in two parts, as the Terni sphere had been made. Krupp could, however, make a sphere in three parts, with a large central ring and two side caps. Jacques Piccard ordered the sphere to be made.

While the Krupp sphere was being made, Piccard returned to San Diego, so that he could instruct US Navy officers how to pilot the bathyscaphe. One of the officers who learnt how to operate the deep sea vessel was a young Lieutenant, Don Walsh. After a number of dives with the Terni sphere, the Trieste was taken out of the water again and the navy set about increasing the size of its float. In June 1959, the Krupp sphere arrived and was fitted. Four months later, the bathyscaphe was loaded aboard a ship and taken to the US Naval base on the island of Guam, south of Japan.

On 14 November, piloted by Jacques Piccard and US Navy officer Andy Rechnitzer, the new Trieste reached a record depth of 5500 metres (3.4 miles). On 8 January 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh piloted the Trieste to 7000 metres, almost a mile deeper than its previous dive. Everyone felt it was time to attempt to reach the deepest point of the ocean—the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.

The Trieste was towed from Guam and, early on the morning of 23 January, was in the vicinity of the Challenger Deep. The crew of the USS Lewis, sailed around detonating explosions and timing how long it took for the echo to bounce off the sea bed and return to the surface. When water approximately 35,000 feet (10,600 metres or 6.6 miles) was found, a flare was sent up and the Trieste towed into position.

Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh climbed aboard, which was a difficult task in the choppy seas. The hatch was closed and the Trieste slipped below the surface at 8:15 a.m. An hour later Walsh and Piccard had passed 3000 feet. Their speed increased to more than 3.5 (1.0 6 metres) feet per second. Two hours after leaving the surface, they passed 12,000 feet. Piccard began to slow the rate of descent by releasing steel shot ballast from the silos. Four hours into the dive they were are 31,000 feet.

As they continued to descend their depth gauge showed 34,000 feet, then 35,000, then 36,000. How could they miss the bottom of the ocean, they wondered? They were not to know it at the time, but their depth gauge was out by about 2,000 feet. It had been calibrated in Switzerland for fresh water, and the higher density of the salt water gave it higher readings.

The Trieste reached a sea bed of soft sediment. The exterior light illuminated a milky coloured ooze. The depth gauge read 37,800 feet, but they were, in fact, around 35,800 feet. They were almost 7 miles, or 11 kilometres, underwater. (6.78 miles/10.9 km).

The two men quietly shook hands.

An illustration of the bathyscaphe Trieste at the bottom of the Mariana Trench
An illustration of the bathyscaphe Trieste at the bottom of the Mariana Trench


At 1:30 p.m. on January 23, 1960, after waiting on the bottom for twenty minutes, Jacques Piccard dumped ballast and the Trieste began to rise. Three and a half hours after leaving the bottom they were on the surface.

The Last of the Bathyscaphes

Following the dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the Trieste was drydocked at Guam. Further dives were undertaken in June and July of 1960, mainly to measure the speed of sound at different depths. Following those tests, the Trieste was taken back to San Diego, where it was modified, and the size of the float increased again. The Navy Electronics Laboratory continued to use it for scientific study.

On April 10, 1963, the US Navy suffered a nuclear submarine accident when the USS Thresher sank during a test dive in the Atlantic Ocean. The crew of 129 men died. Shortly after, wreckage was located at a depth of 8400 feet (2600 m), which was beyond the operating depth of any US Navy vessel, other than the Trieste. The bathyscaphe was shipped through the Panama Canal and descended to the wreckage in an attempt to determine the cause of the disaster. (It was later surmised that the Thresher imploded.)

The loss of the Thresher motivated the US Navy to consider building vessels capable of going deeper than submarines and, if possible, could be fitted with robotic arms. For their first attempt to build a deep sea vessel from scratch, the navy turned to Trieste’s redundant Terni sphere, and used it to construct the Trieste II, which was completed in September 1965. The Trieste II was fitted with an external robotic arm, and dove to the Thresher and successfully recovered wreckage.

The Trieste II bathyscaphe fitted with the Terni sphere
The Trieste II bathyscaphe fitted with the Terni sphere


Both American bathyscaphes ceased operational duties in 1980. Today the Trieste with the Krupp sphere is preserved at the National Museum of the US Navy, at the Washington Navy Yard. The Trieste II is on display at the Naval Undersea Museum, Keyport, Washington.

Tadayoshi Sasaki and Georges Houot, the French naval officer who had inherited the leadership of the Underwater Research Group from Jacques Cousteau, continued to construct a bathyscaphe capable of reaching the bottom of the Mariana Trench. When the new bathyscaphe was completed it was launched at Toulon, France, on July 27, 1961. It was christened Archimede. The massive Archimede displaced more than sixty tons. Its float could hold up to 160,000 litres (42,250 US gallons) of gasoline. It also held an external robotic arm that could be operated from inside its spherical cabin.

A cutaway model of the bathyscaphe Archimede
A cutaway model of the bathyscaphe Archimede


The Archimede underwent testing in the Mediterranean, before being taken to Japan where Houot and Sasaki continued their research into marine life and currents in the ocean trenches. On July 15, 1962, the pair piloted the Archimedes to 31,350 feet (9560 m) in the Kuril-Kamchatka Trench, off the east coast of Russia. At the time it was the second deepest dive ever made. Between 1961 and 1970, the Archimede made 133 dives in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Mediterranean. Forty-two of those dives exceeded a depth of 3 kilometres and fourteen exceeded six kilometers. After assisting in the searches for two lost French submarines in 1970, the Archimede was put on operational reserve, then decommissioned in 1978. Today it can be seen at the City of the Sea (La Cité de la Mer) museum, at Cherbourg, France.

The FNRS-III is preserved at the French naval base Toulon, where Jacques Cousteau and Philippe Tailliez first presented the Aqualung to navy officials and were instructed to form the Underwater Research Group.

Share This Article!

Recent Articles
Recent Videos