The Perilous Frontier Of The Mariana Trench And Challenger Deep

Mariana Trench
This still frame of an illustration of the Mariana Trench is compliments of NOAA

The Mariana Trench is the deepest part of the world’s ocean, with Challenger Deep being the deepest location within the trench.  Due to these extreme conditions, any life found in its depths would appear alien in nature to what we observe in the rest of the Ocean.

The pressure is such that if a human could teleport to its depths, they would be crushed like a pancake, perhaps before becoming conscious of the experience itself.  To better appreciate what obstacles sea life has had to overcome to have evolved to thrive in these pitch black waters, let’s first have a look at some of the basic facts we know about this unique place on Earth.

Key Facts of The Mariana Trench

The Mariana Trench is 11,033 meters (36,201 feet), (6033.5) fathoms deep, or 6.58 Miles.

The Pressure at the deepest part of the Mariana Trench is over 8 tons per square inch.

The coordinates for the Mariana Trench are 11″21′ North latitude and 142″ 12′ East longitude.

The Mariana Trench is 2, 542 km (1,580 miles) long and 69 km (43 miles) wide. [ marianatrench.com ]

Anglerfish

The aphotic, or “midnight,” zone exists in depths below 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). Sunlight does not penetrate to these depths and the zone is bathed in darkness. [ oceanservice.noaa.gov ]

Anglerfish
Photograph by Bruce Robison/Corbis

Once below the ‘midnight’ zone of the ocean, it is pitch black, and eyesight will not avail any of the inhabitants that dwell this deep.  This, on the surface, disadvantage has given rise to life that is  interesting and often monstrous in nature to our human sensibilities.

One such animal to evolve to thrive in this environment is the anglerfish.  There are two hundred known species in the world, and can live as deep as one mile beneath the Ocean.  They create their own light source, often with luminescent bacteria that lures in prey to a gruesome demise.

As rugged and adaptable as an anglerfish must be to survive pressure of up to a mile beneath the ocean’s surface, it is but a glimpse of the great range of exotic sea life promised to be found deeper, into the ever more inhospitable regions of the ocean, where the pressure becomes ever more extreme.

James Cameron, Explorer of The Mariana Trench

Funny enough, James Cameron, the director of the Titanic and Avatar has been a pioneer in the exploration of the Mariana Trench.  Given these two movies were the biggest grossing blockbusters of all time, he has more than enough money to fund his own projects, and the adventurer’s will ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’, but in a different direction than what those words typically inspire to come to mind.

One of James Cameron’s primary pursuits has been to learn about what kind of life could be expected to thrive under such immense pressures, which might give us more insight into under what circumstances life can be expected to have evolved on other planets.  There are extremophiles such as tardigrades, that are microorganisms that can survive up to six times the pressure of the Mariana Trench, but finding larger creatures with similarly robust attributes that as yet lay undiscovered is a tantalizing notion.

The First Explorers of the Mariana Trench

 In 1960, Jacques Piccard and Navy Lt. Don Walsh reached the Challenger Deep in a U.S. Navy submersible, a bathyscaphe called the Trieste.  It was not until over 50 years later that James Cameron made the next attempt to reach its depths, but this time with the ability to not only take photographs in these conditions, but also footage and retrieve actual evidence of life living at these depths, as the first expedition in 1960 claimed to have been witness to.

Our modern day technology has allowed us to find evidence of new species living in these deep waters, though in the years to come we can be be certain to bring to light those creatures of myth that have up until this time dwelled in the deep and dark.  Might our hubris lead us to awaken a Kraken or a Balrog that will spell the final days of Mankind?  No.

In recent years, deep-ocean dredges and unmanned subs have glimpsed exotic organisms such as shrimp-like amphipods, and strange, translucent animals called holothurians. But scientists say there are many new species awaiting discovery and many unanswered questions about how animals can survive in these extreme conditions. Scientists are particularly interested in microorganisms living in the trenches, which they say could lead to breakthroughs in biomedicine and biotechnology. [ deepseachallenge.com ]

Check out the video below to learn more about James Cameron’s exploration into the Mariana Trench.

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