Tales From The Deep: Diver And Author Bill Streever On Underwater Exploration

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Bill Streever dives near a paddle wheel in Canada. (Photo courtesy of Little, Brown and Company).
Bill Streever dives near a paddle wheel in Canada. (Photo courtesy of Little, Brown and Company).

With Jane Clayson

There’s a whole new world to explore below the surface. Deep sea diver and author of "In Oceans Deep." Bill Streever joins us to tell deep sea tales of wonders, mysteries and dangers that lurk beneath the waves.


Bill Streever is a biologist, diver, author, nonfiction writer and sailor. He wrote “In Oceans Deep: Courage, Innovation, and Adventure Beneath the Waves." He’s also written the books “And Soon I Heard A Roaring Wind,” “Heat,” and “Cold,” about the history of wind, adventures in the world’s hottest places, and adventures in the world’s coldest places.

From The Reading List:

Excerpt from "In Oceans Deep: Courage, Innovation, and Adventure Beneath the Waves."  By Bill Streever. Copyright © 2019. Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.:

"Early on January 23, 1960, a thirty-seven-year-old Italian engineer named Giuseppe Buono looked out at the Pacific and worried. After two days of towing the ungainly submersible Trieste onto location above the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the waves were growing. Here, 220 miles from the western Pacific island of Guam, floating far above the deepest point in the world’s oceans, wave heights exceeded five feet. While seas of that size are mere ripples to an oceangoing surface ship, Trieste was built for calmer waters. On the surface, she was a fragile vessel. Buono had prepared Trieste for her sixty-four previous dives, and on this day he did not like what he saw. Trieste’s deck was awash. The shallow-water telephone, used by Trieste’s pilots to communicate with her support crew at the beginning of each dive, had been swept away. The sea had also destroyed an instrument that measured speed of descent and ascent. And Trieste’s vertical current meter hung from its mount, dangling from wires, swinging through the air as the vessel bobbed up and down. From his vantage point aboard the support ship, Buono did not know what else might be broken or lost. The waves and the damage they had already caused did not bode well for a record-setting dive to the ocean’s deepest floor, seven vertical miles down and — if all went well and catastrophe did not prevail — seven vertical miles back up."

"According to written accounts describing the day’s events, on that morning in 1960 Buono was “taut with anxiety.” But Buono was not calling the shots. U.S. Navy lieutenant Don Walsh was the Navy’s officer in charge, a formal title meaning that he was in command. Civilian Jacques Piccard, who had worked with Trieste long before the Navy acquired her, offered important advice. Buono was the engineer, but Walsh and Piccard were the two men who would be aboard Trieste for her historic journey. They were the test pilots, and they were not the sort of men who
succumbed to anxiety."

"If Trieste was to dive, the crew had to act quickly. The descent would require around five hours, and the ascent would need an additional three hours. The plan also called for thirty minutes on the seabed itself. Walsh and Piccard, though hardly risk averse, did not relish the prospect of surfacing after dark in heavy seas. And they did not want anyone to have to attach the one-inch- thick towing cable to Trieste after dusk, a tricky job that required a swimmer in the water."

“'I am going to check the main electric circuits in the sphere,' Piccard told Buono. “'Then, if everything is in order, we shall dive immediately.'”

"What he called the sphere was the personnel capsule attached to the bottom of Trieste. It was a hollow ball of steel that would protect him and Walsh from the almost unthinkable pressures found below."

"In 2016, I meet Don Walsh — the deepest man alive — in person, at his home in rural Oregon. He lives with his wife on a property well inland from the coast. Not counting a son who resides in a separate house on the same property, his nearest neighbor is a mile away."

"Don is eighty-four years old, but his upright posture, the surety of his gaze, his pleasure at the sight of a black bear climbing an apple tree at the edge of his long driveway, and his energy of engagement with me — a stranger — all suggest someone far younger."

"I am very pleased to meet him. It means something to me to stand next to him in the flesh, while time allows."

"Fifty-six years earlier, the year before I was born, Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard descended to the deepest known point in the world’s oceans, seven miles below the surface. No one would repeat this feat until 2012, when filmmaker and explorer James Cameron would follow in their footsteps, taking his submersible Deepsea Challenger to a depth just slightly shy of that reached by Trieste. To this day, only three human beings and two robots have visited the Challenger Deep. In contrast, twelve people have been to the moon and well over five hundred have traveled in space.

For perspective, if Mount Everest were somehow magically relocated to the deepest known point in the world’s oceans, the summit would be submerged, its peak standing some six thousand feet beneath the surface. For further perspective, 1960 was one year after the YMCA began offering scuba diving instruction in the United States, four years before the Navy’s Sealab experiments kept divers at depth for days at a time using a technique that would become known as saturation diving, a decade before rapidly changing economies and technologies would push the world’s search for oil and gas far out of sight of land, twenty years before tethered robots would revolutionize underwater work and exploration, and fifty-five years before untethered robots relying on artificial intelligence would begin to proliferate in the world’s oceans."

"Standing in the entryway to his house, I fill Don in on my own background underwater and on my current life living aboard a cruising sailboat with my marine biologist wife, sailing from place to place to better understand, firsthand, the oceans. I also tell him of my desire to write a book that will resonate with anyone who has ever looked out from a beach or over the side of a boat, and wondered, What’s under those waves?"

"I am too old to admit to having heroes, but standing there, still in his entryway, I tell Don Walsh that he is and has been, for as long as I can remember, one of my heroes.

“Aw, shucks,” he replies, timed and toned so as to sound not only anachronistic but also self-effacing and amused. Then he leads me through his home and up a flight of stairs to his office, a wonderfully large, open space designed by his wife, Joan, lined in lightly stained bookshelves holding eight thousand volumes — books on naval history, philosophy, submarines, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. And there we sit talking for four hours without a break."

Alex Schroeder produced this hour for broadcast. 

This program aired on July 11, 2019.



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