Happy Trieste Day! It’s the fifty-seventh anniversary of the Bathyscaphe Trieste’s descent to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. At 6.8 miles it still holds the record for the deepest ever manned ocean dive. Today’s book may seem comparatively easy – three miles must be doddle! – but that’s still more than enough to be a challenge.
Narratives about explorations and expeditions tend to be about the successful ones. Who would you rather read about, the salvagers who found a WWII Japanese submarine loaded with two tons of gold, or the salvagers who spent five weeks finding nothing but bare ocean floor?
But finding nothing can be quite informative. Modern enterprises, especially when requiring specialist tools like deep ocean submersibles, are a coalition of many people who frequently have differing agendas. As Hamilton-Peterson puts it, “Success blots out such issues as being no longer relevant. […] The doubts and dislikes and splits that underlie these adventures are instantly swallowed up in the brainless grins of people pictured holding double handfuls of gold sovereigns. In that sense there is nothing to be learned from success.”
And this expedition was divisive. Mike Anderson and Andrea Cordani, highly experienced in the legalities and business of deep sea salvage, had found the records of a liner sunk in WWII that might have been carrying up to fifty tons of gold (or perhaps none at all). It is, however, lying on the ocean floor three miles beneath the surface, a depth that only a few submersibles in the world can reach.
After six years of planning and compromising with investors, they finally secured the services of the Russian service vessel Keldysh in 1994 and were ready to go. But the investors had added their own conditions, not least that the five-week expedition now had to spend half of its time searching for another sunken vessel lying at a similar depth, one that definitely contained gold: the Japanese submarine I-52. It’s also a wreck that, unlike the liner, other treasure-hunters are actively looking for too.
As with almost every endeavor, there’s not nearly enough money or time to do everything properly. If an expedition on a shoestring budget is successful, it’s a sign of thrift and validates their decisions; if the expedition is a failure, you wonder whether they should have waited until they attracted more funding before trying anything at all. While the book doesn’t draw any firm conclusions, it provides plenty of fodder for armchair treasure-hunters to argue whether they should have waited for more funds (risking another salvage group finding I-52 in the meantime) or if the team was merely unlucky.
So already you have two factions onboard, the treasure-hunters and the investors. But it soon turns out there’s a third: the crew of the Keldysh itself, who are most concerned for their long-term livelihood. In the 1990s there was no more funding from the Russian government for oceanographic research like this. The Keldysh therefore survives from private contract to private contract, and one major equipment breakage could spell the end of its sailing days. You can imagine the conservative environment this fosters, a reluctance to risk their none-too-new equipment in even mildly turbulent weather. Why should they? Anderson and Cordani are just one client among many.
A lot of the negative reviews of this book are from people who seemingly expected a thriller or rollicking adventure. This book is defiantly neither. If anything it’s a mix of a detail-heavy account of a deep-sea exploration combined with character studies of how people cope with a growing disappointment. From the outset of the book you know they’re not going to recover any gold. But you still hold out hope that they find the wrecks, or they find something significant, or anything that justifies the journey and expense. But you know, whatever they do, the journey’s going to be judged a failure, and it’s that inevitable doom that gives a dramatic weight to the narrative that would be lacking if their endeavor was boringly successful.
Throughout all this the narrator, Hamilton-Peterson, is fairly unobtrusive. Although he’s onboard the ship for the whole expedition, he mostly exists to hear people’s stories and witness their problems. The main exception, and the one that makes this book quite relevant today, is the chapter where he gets to ride in the submersible for one of its dives.
A submersible is a small, cramped place. If you remember the submersible Alvin from the film Titanic (not to mention real life), the Keldysh’s submersible is similar. Now, Hamilton-Peterson is just a journalist. He doesn’t know how the submersible’s controls work or how to read any of the screens; he’s just along for the ride. Furthermore, because the Keldysh is a Russian research ship, neither of the two other crew members speak English (and nor does Hamilton-Peterson speak any Russian, though he does learn the word for ‘peanut’ when they open their packed lunches).
Riding in the six-hour journey to the bottom of the ocean in such confined conditions is claustrophobic enough. But when you don’t understand the machine you’re squatting in – when you can’t even understand enough to know if a light turning on is normal or a sign of imminent death – and when you can’t even communicate with the people in charge of your life, the sense of isolation grows and multiplies. The chapter’s written in the form of an hour-by-hour diary, depicting both his growing terror and increasingly nihilistic thoughts, until the submersible reaches the bottom and its searchlights illuminate rock that has not been lit for tens of millions of years.
Most of the accounts I’ve read of riding in submersibles and bathyscaphes have been from the perspective of the oceanographers and technicians who know what they’re doing. But Hamilton-Peterson’s reactions more accurately capture how a layperson might feel about a descent, and as such it’s perhaps the closest most of us will ever get to experiencing the bottom of the ocean. If that appeals to you, this chapter might alone justify picking up this book, though hopefully I’ve given you an idea of its other merits too.
Three Miles Down by James Hamilton-Peterson
Availability: print, Kindle ebook
Page count: 308 pages
First published: Random House UK, 1998
If you’re interested in more aquatic adventures, I have a short story in an upcoming anthology Sharkpunk 2, whose kickstarter campaign is going live on January 28, 2017. I’ll let you know more details as it unfolds.