The first-ever crewed mission has reached the bottom of the Atacama Trench, the deepest region of the Eastern Pacific. On January 21, veteran ocean explorer Victor Vescovo and oceanographer Dr. Osvaldo Ulloa traveled to the deepest spot, called Richards Deep, which they measured as 8,069 meters (26,465 feet) below sea level.
The abyssal canyon, also known as the Peru-Chile Trench, was created by the subducting of the Nazca oceanic plate underneath the South American continental plate. It extends for 5,900 kilometers (3,666 miles) flanking a large part of the western side of the continent.
Exploring the bottom of the ocean requires a special submarine capable of handling incredible pressures. Vescovo has exactly that. Called Limiting Factor, the small submersible has reached the deepest points underwater, but it is far from comfortable. In an interview with IFLScience, explorer Richard Garriott told us just what it was like getting to the Mariana Trench in the submersible early last year.
The mission to the bottom of the Atacama Trench is not just about record-breaking, it has important scientific objectives too. This is why it involved Dr. Ulloa, Director of the Instituto Milenio de Oceanografia (IMO). The IMO is studying the seabed of the trench and its detailed depths so that in the future it will be possible to install sensors for the Institute’s IDOOS project (Integrated Deep Ocean Observing System for geoscience research).
“It was a great privilege to pilot the first human descent to the bottom of the Atacama Trench with Dr. Ulloa. Being able to glide along the seafloor for three hours, personally investigating interesting points with someone who has studied the area for much of their career, was just fantastic,” Vescovo, the founder of Caladan Oceanic, said in a statement seen by IFLScience.
“This has been a great day for Chilean science. Thanks to Victor Vescovo and Caladan Oceanic we were able to directly bear witness to the amazing geological and biological richness of the Atacama Trench,” Dr Ulloa, added.
“Doing exploration at Victor’s side has been a tremendous privilege and rewarding experience, and we are very thankful to him, as well as the entire team of the submersible Limiting Factor and its support vessel Pressure Drop.”
Reaching Richards Deep was only the first of several dives planned across the Eastern Pacific, all the way to the Mid-American Trench off the western coast of Mexico. The expedition also discovered the second-deepest spot – 7,727 meters (25,350 feet) below sea level – in the trench, located 142 kilometers (88 miles) north of Richards Deep. This location was then visited by Vescovo and Dr. Ruben Escribano on January 23.
Despite the incredible depths, the explorers saw that life existed there undeterred. The footage shows many holothurians – commonly named sea cucumbers or sea pigs – on the ocean floor, where no light has ever reached before the submersible got there.
“Together we witnessed some amazing evidence of what appears to be more examples of chemosynthesis in the world’s deep ocean trenches,” Vescovo continued. “Here, however, we saw long bacterial tendrils coming off of rock faces that never see any sunlight, and obtain their energy from the minerals and gases seeping from the rocks, surrounded by a freezing seawater environment, Just extraordinary.”