Race to Bottom of the Sea Has Bay Area Competitors

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Bay Area engineer Graham Hawkes and his custom submarine will embark on a race to the bottom of the Mariana Trench near Guam. The trench drops 36,000 feet -- the deepest spot in the ocean. Hawkes will be competing against three other teams, including a group helped by Hollywood director James Cameron. NBC Bay Area's Cheryl Hurd reports from Point Richmond. (Published Saturday, Aug 20, 2011)

    When -- and if -- humanity returns to the world's deepest point -- a muddy gorge 36,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific near Guam -- the Bay Area will be there.

    Twice, in fact.

    Four crews worldwide are building submarines that are intended to travel to Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, last visited by humans in 1960. One of the submarines, built by San Anselmo resident Graham Hawkes, "resembles an underwater fighter jet" and is currently sitting in a "bare concrete room" in Port Richmond, according to the Marin Independent Journal. Another is a "hovering deep-sea space station," this one courtesy of Alameda-based scientist Sylvia Earle.

    The trick of visiting such deep depths is to figure out how to withstand pressure, which is 1,000 times greater at that depth than at the surface. These craft must also maneuver better than did the bathyscape Trieste did in 1960, which could only dive and surface, up and down.

    Hawkes's $5 million submarine, which resembles an airpline or a sea creature with its flappable wings, is in fact owned by Virgin business mogul Richard Branson, whose money is helping send the craft to the bottom of the ocean.

    In a twist, Earle, National Geographic Society's "explorer in residence," is Hawkes's ex-wife. Her $40 million sub, funded in part by Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, is "blimplike," according to the newspaper.

    Other teams are lead by "Avatar" and "Titanic" director James Cameron and a Florida-based team called Triton Submarines.

    What is at the bottom of the ocean, exactly? Not much: sunlight doesn't reach there and ergo photosynthesis cannot occur, which means no plant life. But the divers in 1960 did see shrimp and other creatures. Exactly what can survive at 16,000 pounds of pressure is partially what's driving these divers to such depths.