Under pressure to perform

Art January 24, 2013 00:00


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Thanks to Rolex watches, history's deepest-diving aquanauts never lost track of time

While scientists gaze skywards and send robots to Mars seeking clues to the origins of life, Don Walsh and James Cameron chose to look in the opposite direction – into the depths of the world’s oceans.

 In 1960 Lieutenant Walsh of the US Navy dropped 35,814 feet – nearly 11,000 metres – into the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, south of Guam, in the Swiss-made bathyscaphe Trieste. He was the first man to go that deep. Cameron, the director of “Titanic”, about the great sunken liner, revisited the same spot 52 years later in the submersible Deepsea Challenger, plunging even deeper, to 36,100 feet.

They had one other factor in common. Both took along an experimental Rolex wristwatch, testing its strength and ability to function that far down.

“I attached my Rolex Deepsea Special to a railing outside the sub and it functioned perfectly on the sea floor, where there’s more than 100,000 tonnes of pressure,” says Walsh.

Cameron’s Rolex Deepsea Challenge – the only model made at the time, just for that expedition – also remained in good working order.

You can see what was involved in those dives in the exhibition “Rolex Deepsea Challenge” continuing through Monday at Rolex Boutique Time Midas at Siam Paragon. Walsh, now 81 and a retired Navy captain, was on hand for the show’s premiere in Singapore.

On January 23, 1960, Lieutenant Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard made a nine-hour dive to the deepest known point in any ocean in the Trieste, which Jacques’ father Auguste designed.

“I was kind of used to diving to great depths as a researcher with the Navy, but the Rolex dive was the most important,” Walsh said. “In the years before that I went as deep as 400 feet, and I did it regularly. But in January 1960 I dived to 36,000 feet. That was a big difference and it opened many more doors for me.”

More important dives of discovery followed for Walsh (as well as scholarships that led to an MSc and PhD in physical oceanography from Texas A&M University).

“I dived in the Russian sub Mir to the wreck of RHMS Titanic, which took 12 hours, and had lunch in its bow. I also had lunch on the sunken German battleship Bismarck. That dive took 15 hours.”

It took Walsh and Piccard five hours to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 1960 and they spent 20 minutes there, surprised at one point to see a fish. Oceanographers believed at the time that no life could be sustained under such pressure.

“It was moving very slowly and was white. It was an invertebrate, like us. I saw just the one, but there could have been more.”

Visibility on the sea floor was poor because their hard landing had stirred up a cloud of sediment. “The cloud wouldn’t go away either. It painted the sub windows white!”

When Cameron made his dive to the same spot last year, Walsh told him to find that fish.

Deep-sea dives often create strange sensations. Walsh said time passes quicker at greater depths, although being in closed, cramped conditions meant he was constantly busy keeping track of multiple instruments and his surroundings.

“But you don’t have a sense of time down there because it’s so dark,” he said. “That nine hours in the Trieste seemed so short. I can’t explain it, but if I fly on a plane for nine hours it’s very long and boring. You tend to have an intense experience in the sub.”

Deep-sea dives also involve rigorous mental gymnastics. Walsh, still a junior naval officer in 1960, tried out new-built submarines to certify them for military service. “We were like test pilots. I knew how every system worked. The whole idea was to detect what could go wrong and what you could do if it did. It’s like being a sportsman – you play the game in your head. It’s a skill-luck rationale. You still need some luck to overcome anything bad that could happen!”

The plunge to the vast Mariana canyon was also a rigorous test for the Rolex Deepsea Special. Walsh confirmed that the watch functioned perfectly at the deepest-known point on earth. “It can resist hundreds of thousands of tonnes of pressure,” he said. “It’s not an ordinary watch.”

The watch that Cameron took to the abyss, the Rolex Deepsea Challenge, was built to be waterproof to 12,000 metres. It was named after the submersible, a 12-ton “vertical torpedo”, a science platform with a separate unmanned vehicle and two “lander” vehicles to collect sediment samples, all remotely operated. The sub also carried multiple high-definition cameras, including several 3D cameras whose footage Cameron could use in a big-screen film.

And it had a manipulator arm –which was wearing the experimental Rolex watch.

Cameron was alone for the 10-hour dive to 11,000 metres, spent six hours at the bottom, and had a few surprises of his own, said Walsh.

“He told me he saw living things and said it was like a light show down there. The lights weren’t so bright – they came from luminescent creatures. It’s like when snow is falling and the light from your home’s windows reflects off the snowflakes. Jim saw small fish and shrimp, some kind of jellyfish and some other invertebrates.”

Cameron’s expedition was obviously more technologically advanced than that of the Trieste five decades earlier. And Walsh fully expects the same progression to continue on future deep-sea expeditions, which he believes will ultimately benefit mankind.

 “My expedition occurred half a century after the first flight of the Wright brothers,” he said. “Jim’s dive took place 50 years after mine. But the world has changed so much technologically. We might have 5G or even 8G phones soon. Technology moves so fast!”

The writer’s trip to Singapore was courtesy of Rolex Thailand.


- The Rolex Deepsea Challenge exhibition opens today at Rolex Boutique Time Midas on the M floor at Siam Paragon.

- On display are the watches Don Walsh and James Cameron carried, along with other watches and photos from the two expeditions and models of the Deepsea Challenger and Trieste.

- The exhibition continues through Monday.