Osvaldo Ulloa and Rubén Escribano have become the first humans to descend the Atacama Trench, an oceanic trench that breaks off from the Andes. At 8,000 meters deep in a two-seater submersible, or what is the same, a submersible with an inner diameter of one and a half meters: “It is smaller than the front seats of a car”, this is how Héctor Salvador, aeronautical engineer, defines the submarine Triton 36.002 in an interview for Antena 3 Deportes.
This Spanish engineer knows what it is like to be in that same situation since in 2021 he descended ten kilometers deep to explore the deepest point of the Mariana Trench. Currently, he has been part of the creation of this submersible to be able to travel and explore what is in the depths of the Atacama Trench: “It allows you to create science down there,” says Salvador.
This research tool is a very thick titanium sphere with three very small portholes to be able to see what is on the outside because there is also life down there: “The animals found allow you to reconstruct the geological history of the pit,” confirms Salvador. Although most of them die when ascending to the surface because of pressure changes.
At 8,000 meters deep, the external pressure is 1,100 times higher than that on the surface. In addition, the darkness is terrifying and the temperatures reach close to freezing: “In total there are four hours of descent and three of ascent without being able to barely move, so we have to avoid falling asleep our legs,” says the engineer.
Below, they sailed for hours on a plain of sand and sediment until they came across a wall that they began to ascend aboard the Limited Factor, a kind of Isetta model car of the mid-twentieth century. “We started to see geological structure, broken rock, canyons. It was something I didn’t expect. I told Victor an analogy that appeared in my mind: this looks like flying over the Andes mountain range, where you have snow, but at the same time bare rock. Meanwhile, microbial communities resembling gold-colored tapestries appeared. Seeing them was wonderful,” says the scientist who works in microbiology and who, although he practices diving, had to prepare a lot for this expedition. Medical examinations, an operation on the gallbladder, physical conditioning, and yoga.
The submarine, which was manufactured in Florida, United States, especially for Vescovo’s exploits, has three small windows that allow crew members to observe, but the field of view is limited. The machine, therefore, has high-definition cameras that record in a much larger field. They are the images that scientists analyze carefully and that will allow them many discoveries. This is what Ulloa aspires to, who in 2018 led the Atacamex project, of the University of Concepción and the Millennium Institute of Oceanography, with which for the first time it was possible to capture images of the bottom of the Atacama Trench through an unmanned vehicle.
It was what opened the door to this new expedition of Vescovo, which recognized in the Chilean community some partners with scientific experience in the study of ocean trenches.But it’s not the same. According to the Chilean doctor, “obviously it is one thing to see something in a video and another, very different, is to experience it through the senses while browsing. It’s an unforgettable, extraordinary, magical experience.”
Until before the American began his adventures under the sea, only three people had descended into an ocean trench and all those expeditions went to the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. The first time happened in 1960 and then it was made by film director James Cameron, who came down only in 2012. But in neither case was the submersible used again, unlike the Vescovo convertible, which has allowed repetitive dives and has high navigation and even space technology. Next to the submersible, the researchers were able to use three autonomous modules with video cameras, not connected to the vessel, which carry systems to obtain different types of samples.
Ulloa recounts: “When you arrive in an unknown world, you ask yourself the simplest questions you can imagine. Who lives? We are just getting to know some of the species. How are they able to survive the great pressures? They require adaptations at the genetic and molecular level to be able to resist down there. What do they eat? How dependent are they on the food that falls from the surface? Since there is no light, they have to get the nutrients, the energy from somewhere.”
The Limited Factor no longer sails in Chilean waters, because it has set sail for other oceans. But it leaves questions and broad paths of scientific research through the images of never-before-explored areas of the planet. “It is a treasure that we have not yet opened,” says the Chilean scientist, who as a child grew up fascinated with the stories of Jules Verne and the mysteries that the sea hides.
The first descent: Osvaldo Ulloa
On January 20, the scientist Osvaldo Ulloa made his descent into the pit. He thought that the long time was going to become eternal, but together with Vescovo they knew well what to do. They talked, laughed and even listened to music and watched series: something by the Chilean singer-songwriter Manuel García with Mon Laferte, and also by the group The Eagles, accompanied by a chapter of the Spanish series El Cid.
Once in the background, Vescovo flew over the ship in the middle of an inexplicably amazing terrain full of valleys, ridges and other rock formations. All of them will yield invaluable information about the characteristic geology of this area. “This was the adventure of a lifetime and a pinnacle in my career as a researcher in marine sciences,” Ulloa, 60, told BBC Mundo within minutes of his trip.
In conversation with the University of Concepción, he added that “it has been a very interesting immersion. We have been able to observe quite a bit of wildlife, and many of the species I had not seen before in any other pit. In addition, I was surprised by the topography. At first we passed through a flat area and then we slowly ascended a very steep wall. It’s really been very surprising.”
The second descent: Rubén Escribano
Three days later, on Sunday, January 23, the scientist Rubén Escribano would leave his name in history after replicating the journey of his colleague. Considering that the Chilean has an interest in oceanic fauna, Vescovo descended only to 7,330 meters to allow him to explore the eastern slope of the trench, in search of new and abundant organisms.
“They told me we had to study the pit, but they didn’t tell me we had to go to it,” Escribano joked as he left the submersible and put his feet on deck. He added that “it was something magical; like descending on another planet and seeing the structures built by these beings. I imagined they were tiny cities made by the worms and crustaceans that make paths in the sediment.”