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The Race To The Deep

Humans have always been fascinated by the secrets of the ocean. For thousands of years, our curiosity and desire to go deeper has been pushed and pulled with the changing tides. And despite the persistent dangers and challenges, our spirit of exploration has continued to take us further below the waves.

Jacques Cousteau once said that “underwater, man becomes an archangel”, able to “fly in any direction.” In recent history, revolutionary new equipment has certainly enabled us to fly to the darkest and most mysterious realms. And this has led to an explosion of inspiration. In fact, today we can look back on generations of scientists, inventors, explorers, treasure hunters and military personnel who have overcome many barriers in the enduring race to the deep.

For one famous French novelist, the deep ocean provided a great voyage of the imagination. Jules Verne wrote his iconic novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” after seeing the world’s first diving suit, created in 1864 by Benoit Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze. Their gold-medal winning invention fuelled the mind of Jules Verne. His story specifically mentioned the Rouquayrol/Denayrouze system and theorized about the next inevitable step – cutting the diver’s reliance on surface-supplied air. But could this challenge ever be overcome?

Literature wasn’t the only industry being carried along by the possibilities of the sea. Other industries also found opportunity and inspiration. In medicine, Dr. John Scott Haldane’s interest in diving led to pioneering breakthroughs in decompression sickness. By 1910, the world was aware of the effects that the deep sea and its natural gases had on the human body. It was one major obstacle that stopped man from going ever deeper. But by creating the first “dive tables”, Haldane made significant steps in helping to make diving a lot safer.

Even in watchmaking, the lure of the ocean became apparent. Many iconic Swiss brands such as Blancpain have helped to bring time underwater, but it was OMEGA, in 1932, who created the world’s first diver’s wristwatch available to everyone. Sold commercially, the OMEGA Marine used a removable double case that cleverly kept the water out. With each second of air being critical for divers, this watch solved many underwater problems.

Other diving equipment began to surface in the 1930s too. Guy Gilpatric, an American aviator, inspired a new style of rubber goggles with glass lenses, while the Frenchman Louis de Corlieu created the very first fins. With such a rise in thinking and innovation, it was inevitable that humans would try to force themselves deeper yet again.

William Beebe was one such man. His deep-sea submersible, known as the “Bathysphere”, allowed him to reach a depth of 3,000 feet in 1934. Surrounded by the blue waters off Bermuda, he discovered an unseen world of weird and luminescent sealife. But such a large and heavy vehicle had one obvious drawback; it wasn’t something that everyone could own.

In Beebe’s time, getting to the deepest parts of the ocean was still a pastime reserved for the few. For the common man with a hunger for exploration, diving still had its limitations. But that all changed in 1943 with the invention of the Aqua-Lung. Known as the first modern SCUBA system, the Aqua-Lung was invented by none other than Jacques Cousteau. Together with Emile Gagnan, he was able to open up a new age of deep sea exploration. The very challenge that Jules Verne had written about almost a century earlier had been conquered.

Cousteau walked in the footsteps, or “flippersteps”, of inventors such as Yves Le Prieur, who had previously designed a similar system. But unlike the “short submersions” of Le Prieur’s invention, Cousteau’s Aqua-Lung was a ground-breaking piece of self-contained equipment that allowed divers to stay underwater for extended periods of time. Importantly, the invention was both reliable and low-cost. With freedom unlike ever before, man’s perception of the planet was now changing. By the 1950s, dive stores were opening up everywhere, dedicated magazines emerged and scuba clubs and courses became commonplace.

Recreation aside, the race to the deep has also been about scientific discovery. John. F. Kennedy was known for his bold promise to send men to the moon. At the very same time, he also said that “knowledge of the oceans is more than a matter of curiosity. Our very survival may hinge upon it.”

In the decades that followed Kennedy’s speech, huge investments were made that forever changed our understanding of the ocean and the way it affects climate, weather and planetary chemistry. To get down there, organizations such as COMEX created entire experimentation centres to help solve the problems that occurred when diving at great depths. Similar to Dr. Haldane 50 years earlier, COMEX experimented with hydrogen to overcome severe health issues experienced by divers.

In 1970, Jacques Cousteau also submerged himself to test man’s physical and psychological capacities of working and living at depths of 500 metres. Again, technology was able to keep up with curiosity. By now, OMEGA had created its iconic Seamaster Ploprof watch and Cousteau could rely on its great pressure-resistance when conducting his deep-sea experiments. Unlike other watch brands which included fitted helium escape valves, OMEGA instead created the Ploprof with a case that prevented helium from entering the watch in the first place. By doing this, the precision of the watch was unaffected by gas. That meant that people who worked in the inky blackness of the sea could always rely on exact time to connect themselves with the world above. Even today, the Ploprof watch design has endured.

The race to the deep has been a shared passion since the dawn of time. It can be a personal quest or a great expedition. And considering that 12 men have walked on the moon, yet only three have been to the bottom of the ocean, it shows that the “inner-space” of our own planet holds just as much wonder and intrigue as the vastness above us. Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh first reached the deepest possible point in 1960 aboard their Bathyscaphe Trieste. Although this incredible depth of 35,820 feet has now already been reached, there is still a race to discover much more.

Today, over 945,000 PADI certifications are issued each year. Diving has never been more popular. And with around 95% of the world’s ocean still unseen by human eyes, our dedication to deep-sea exploration is sure to continue for many years to come.

Simon Balsom