Hamish Harding on his journey to the Earth’s deepest point and back
Dubai resident and explorer Hamish Harding tells Saman Haziq about his extraordinary feat
How did you decide to go ahead with this expedition?
I am an aviation professional based in Dubai for the past 13 years. My company Action Aviation deals in buying and selling business jets. Although I have always been fascinated with how people would make it to the Guinness World Records, I got mine a year and a half ago for fastest circumnavigation of the earth via both poles in a Gulfstream 650ER business jet. I have always wanted to venture into uncharted territories. That got me interested in embarking on adventures and explorations, in general. I like going to extreme locations and this one — Challenger Deep — is the deepest point on Earth, and is an extremely hostile environment. To travel to parts of the Challenger Deep, where no human had ever been before, was truly remarkable. To discover both a potential new species and unmapped territory so far below sea level and to set two new Guinness World Records is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. I hope it will also inspire others to push the boundaries of what is possible. Being in the UAE has given me the opportunity and encouragement to undertake this challenging feat as I have been inspired by its spirit of “everything is possible” .
Why was this a challenging expedition?
This particular adventure of touching down and traversing the Mariana Trench was something that became possible only very recently because the technology wasn’t there earlier. The first submersible was a US Navy vessel called Trieste that descended to the ocean floor in 1960, where it spent just 20 minutes before ascending . The vessel was so badly damaged that it could never be used again. The second attempt was made by Hollywood director James Cameron in 2012, but his craft was also unable to be used again.
And so the Triton submersible, that my co-pilot Victor Vescovo and I used, is now the only one that can undertake repeat trips to full ocean depth and traverse the bottom for significant periods of time. The $35 million sub has been designed by Victor. It is a titanium pressure vessel, which has a 90mm of titanium sphere in the middle and acrylic surfaces all around. It has been used by Victor to go down to the lowest points of the five oceans around the world, making him the only one to have done this so far. The deepest part is Challenger Deep and I wanted to be a part of this expedition with Victor.
How did the journey shape up?
It was a 10-day mission as me and my 13-year-old son Giles flew from Dubai straight to a tiny island in the Western Pacific called Guam in a private jet. From Guam, we took a mothership — DSSV Pressure Drop — along with our submersible, which is crewed with 35 people. From here on, we headed to the Mariana Trench towards the location, which is the deepest point known to mankind called the Challenger Deep — 11km under the surface of the ocean.
There was a lot of briefing that was given to us about the system, procedures and what to do in case things don’t go as planned. A lot of the external parts of the sub could be jettisoned. There were chances of getting entangled in cables down in the trench that have come from the remote-operated vehicles by different countries. So there was a possibility that our thrusters could get entangled with such objects but we had made all arrangements in case of emergencies. Also, launching and recovering the sub is the most difficult part of the mission as we are at the mercy of the ocean — that too a rough one. But the moment you leave the surface, things get calmer and the sub just sinks.
We managed to reach the bottom in four hours at a speed of descending a metre per second — a comfortable descent rate. Once down, the craft can move itself as it is manoeuvrable. We stayed at the bottom and traversed 4.5 miles across the trench for another four hours before coming back to the surface. So we completed our round trip in around 12 hours.
What were the challenges you faced in this expedition?
Apart from checking the systems, weather and other things before taking the plunge, we also had to start dehydrating ourselves just so we did not have to use the rest room in those 12-13 hours we’d be down under tonnes of water. I began preparing myself by almost stopping food and water for 12 hours before the dive, which, of course, was not without its dramatic moments. As we geared up to start the dive, we learnt that out of the 10 thrusters of the two-person submersible, one malfunctioned. There was a discussion on delaying the dive, but we were told to fix the thruster. In fixing it, there could have been more damage to the sub and this might have put the whole mission in jeopardy.
We then took a decision to just go down with nine thrusters and not 10. And we took the plunge.
We began at 3.28am on March 5 and managed to reach the bottom of the trench in four hours. On touching down, we discovered that the Challenger Deep’s floor was not flat as previously thought. After our descent, we began our traverse across the trench but during this record-breaking traverse of 4,634 metres, the submersible was forced to ascend around 800 metres to clear an unmapped mountainous plateau the approximate height of the Burj Khalifa, with a shape resembling South Africa’s Table Mountain. This undersea mountain is yet to be named.
At the bottom of the trench, we were under 100,000 tonnes of pressure at full ocean depth — 1,200 times more than the standard atmospheric pressure at sea level. To put this level of force into perspective, it would be equivalent of 8,000 double-decker buses or 300 jumbo jets on top of a human.
Everything in the sub is battery-operated. Therefore, we were completely dependent on them and luckily things fell into place and we even managed to have batteries left when we came up. We worked out a better way of using the batteries by using less power on the actual thrusters with much lower settings that helped us use 50 per cent less power than usual.
What did you see as you descended in the depths and darkness of the ocean?
Once you go below 300 metres, you do not see any fish anymore, but at the bottom we found creatures running around on the ocean bed. Resembling a hollow shrimp, we found some 30 marine invertebrates 10.9 km below sea level at atmospheric pressures 1,200 times higher than what humans experience above water. Ongoing analysis of the creatures is taking place on board the mission’s support vessel, the DSSV Pressure Drop. We may have found some new species but research is still on. This shrimp-like creature crawls around the bottom of the ocean and does not have eyes as there’s no light at the bottom of the ocean anyway.
Our dive was supported by two robotic landers, named CLOSP and FLERE, which allow the submersible to triangulate sonar returns to determine its location. They also collect samples from the ocean floor and aid in communications between the submersible and the DSSV Pressure Drop at the surface. These robotic landers descend to full ocean depth four hours prior to the start of the dive and ascend after the dive is completed. On the mission, CLOSP found a number of isopods that will later be studied by scientists aboard the DSSV Pressure Drop, before being sent to Newcastle University and the British Geological Survey for further analysis. Although we did not find visible signs of human pollution but extensive water samples taken during the dive will now be analysed by Newcastle University in the UK for research, such as micro plastics testing.
What was your state of mind when you were descending in the unknown realm?
We were too focused on the work to think about fear (laughs). There was so much work to do, such as monitoring the instruments, depth, temperatures, pressure and communicating with the surface, that we did not think about the bigger picture but were just focused on the details and what we had to do next. We were communicating with our crew on the mothership after every 15 minutes using an acoustic modem (a sonar device) — these sound waves take about seven seconds to travel from the surface down to the bottom of the trench.
Your son joined you on this mission too. How was it having him around and what was the idea of having him on board?
My son Giles frequently joins me on most of my expeditions. It was good to have him with me as he was the one documenting the mission on social media, while aboard the expedition’s support vessel, DSSV Pressure Drop. The youth today are much better and updated on that front. Also, I want him to experience and learn about these new environs with me as well document them. He has been with me on my previous expedition to the South Pole when he was just 12 — making him the youngest person to have been to the South Pole.
I’m glad his school — Dubai College — is very accommodating about allowing him to accompany me on these adventurous trips, but Giles ensures he catches up on his missed work. But this time, he incredibly managed to do his regular online classes since we have the satellite connection on the ship for Internet. During the day, he would be busy attending online classes.
What are you planning next?
I have never ventured towards the North Pole, so I have set my sights on it and next year in April, I plan to realise this dream too. April is the month when you can really get to the North Pole as due to global warming the window to going to the place to enjoy ice in daylight has narrowed down.