Explorers hope for less boring critters on upcoming trench dives

Richard Branson hopes the Puerto Rico trench is less boring than the Mariana Trench. Director James Cameron made a huge, historic dive to the Mariana Trench last week, only the second mission in history to reach the deepest place on earth. Dissapointingly, he didn’t see much.

Cameron Branson
Destination Marianas Trench Puerto Rico Trench
Depth 35,800 ft 28,373 ft
Craft Deep Sea Challenger DeepFlight Challenger
Material foam carbon fiber and titanium
Goal visit the Mariana trench many times reach depths of each ocean
Confidence in critters at great depths “We’d all like to think there are giant squid and sea monsters down there,” he told the Times.  “We know there are gigantic things down there,” he told the Telegraph.
How vehicle moves vertical, like a seahorse with wings or flippers, like a dolphin
cameron ship deep flight

Luckily the world has more than one eco-minded, genius gazillionaire. Branson and his team hope to visit the Mariana, too, later this year in a different kind of craft. Branson himself will go down to the Puerto Rico trench. That’s the deepest spot in the Atlantic and is about 7,000 feet shallower.

Nobody is sure if anything could really survive that deep. It’s dark and that means not much plant life. It’s cold–and most creatures prefer the warm, shallow water like the mountainous waters that usually abut the sea trenches. Both land formations are formed by tectonic plates squishing and stretching the earth. And then there’s the incredible water pressure, which has made these explorations so difficult and dangerous.

Of course, we’re all hoping someone will find a whole herd of Loch Ness monsters down there. Or at minimum a giant squid. Certainly something better than the shrimp-like creatures Cameron got to see.

Branson is suitably enthusiastic, hoping his craft, which is bigger, can cruise and call in another sub to take pictures, will find something. He’s got a soft spot for fun creatures and has created a lemur haven, despite taking some slack from doubters.

The only other manned mission to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench was in 1960 when the U.S. Navy sent oceanographers Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard down to the bottom. Near the bottom they saw a flatfish, but Walsh told ScienceFriday last week, biologists insist they really didn’t see it.

“Well, just before we landed, we spotted what we thought was a flatfish, a white flat – like a halibut or a sole, a foot long. And that was quite a sighting, if true, of a higher-order marine vertebrate in such – at such a great depth. And it was a bottom-dwelling type of fish, so it meant that it was where it belonged and that there was food down there and sufficient oxygen to support it. Now Jacques Piccard…and I were not ichthyologists. We were engineers. We were, if you would, test pilots of this vehicle trying to prove out its capability. So in the subsequent years, we’ve been advised by all kinds of scientists that we didn’t see that.”

But what if conventional wisdom is wrong?

The first crew never got a good look because they stirred up so much silt. Cameron had to head up early because of a technical problem. He hopes to return. His mission, backed by National Geographic, was always to get down there a few times.

Although the story of two rich geniuses racing in their private subs to the bottom of the ocean is delightful, really Branson didn’t plan to dive to the Mariana Trench himself.  His partner, Chris Welsh, is heading there (and, yes, the trip was delayed). Branson is going on the second of the five legs of the adventure, one for the bottom of each ocean. The Puerto Rico Trench is near a breeding ground for humpback whales (they like shallow, warm water) and plenty of other marine mammals and flying fish near the surface, NOAA has found.

The vessels are slightly different, but both plan on using little helper “lander” craft that go down first and drop bait. Welsh says on their blog: “The Virgin sub is excellent for large scale exploration and identifying areas worthy of more detailed examination, and Jim’s sub is perfect for detailed examination of those sites once found.”

For now let’s remember that not seeing something doesn’t prove it isn’t there. Animal tourists know to well that you can go to the exact location of a previous sighting and come up with nothing after a whole day of patient waiting. It’s as if human beings had only spent a few hours in Alaska and came back thinking it was just snow: it is mainly just snow, but there are also polar bears and walruses in certain parts. I’m just happy there are two gazillionaires willing to go looking for new creatures down there in the least explored place on earth.


whaleorca Where to SEE WHALES

Read about Branson’s mission to save lemurs

Australia and New Zealand SEE ANIMALS IN AUSTRALIA




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