National Geographic

DEEPSEA CHALLENGE

Expedition Journal

The Sub Tamer

Ulithi Atoll

Last night the Mermaid Sapphire left the lagoon and steamed to the deep water on the west side of Ulithi Atoll. At 4 a.m. the ship’s bow and stern thrusters began holding us in position a few miles west of the Zowariyau Passage. Today’s objective is to prepare for our next dive into the Challenger Deep. As part of that preparation, Ron Allum will pilot the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER to a 4,000-foot (1,219-meter) rendezvous with lander Mike and the ship’s Quasar ROV.

The DEEPSEA CHALLENGER and her pilot were lowered into the ocean at 3:30 p.m. On the ship’s main deck a muscular man in blue coveralls spoke into his headset, kept clear of the tag lines under tension, and choreographed the entire four-minute passage from the cradle to the sea. David Wotherspoon, 44, is a man of few words, but if you work with him on deck when the sub is being moved, you better do your job right or you’ll feel the withering heat of his military expletives.

A former member of the Corps of Royal Engineers, David is a mechanical engineer and military diving supervisor who saw active service in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. Five years ago, he enlisted in the Australian Defence Force and served as a development officer in the Special Operations Command. Last July he became the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER‘s project manager; six months later, under his supervision, the sub was built, tested, and made her first dive. He’s currently the project’s surface control officer responsible for prelaunch, launch, tracking, recovery, and safety operations.

David confirms an essential truth about this expedition. Knowing there would be months of hardship and moments of peril, Jim selected his team partners with rigorous forethought. They had to be professionally competent and able to adapt to change. They had to take care of each other and be willing to do whatever it took to get the job done.

Just prior to launch, David’s blue eyes were everywhere, searching, trying to anticipate the unexpected. He stalked around the sub like a hungry lion, checking the divers fastening the lift bags to the top of the sub; assessing the batteries and junction boxes for oil leaks; and examining lines, pulleys, and winches. He scanned the deck crew handling the tag lines, said a few words to the captain controlling the ship’s thrusters on the bridge, and gave the crane operator the signal to lift the sub out of her cradle.

“When DEEPSEA CHALLENGER’S 12 tons are moving across the deck,” he told me, “The lift lines and tag lines go lethally tight and it takes a tremendous amount of coordinated energy to keep her from swinging. If something breaks, it could kill someone.” David’s greatest concern is that a tag line will snap, spring back, and strike a member of his deck team. Ten days ago, during recovery of the sub in a rough sea, a shackle on the upper tag line gave way, arced into the air, and struck his right leg. “We’ve had problems,” he said with a smile, “But we’ve come a long way since our first training dives with the dummy sub in Jervis Bay. Each dive makes us better.”

As a young man David answered his nation’s call and passed through the fire of armed conflict. He’s seen comrades killed and wounded. He learned the hard way that a leader must know his own strengths and weaknesses and exhibit confidence under any circumstance. In leading the teams that built the sub and then made sure it was safe to operate, he showed everyone on Team Cameron that when you’re up against tough problems, you never quit. There’s always one more thing you can do to shift the situation in your favor.

Written by Dr. Joe MacInnis

Photograph by Joe MacInnis

Science Partners

  • Additional major support provided by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • University of Guam