What is a Bathyscape?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

A bathyscape is basically a bathysphere — a thick-armored metal sphere for diving — bolted to the bottom of a float, or a buoying device used to change depth. The bathyscape is used for investigating the deep sea. The most famous is the bathyscape Trieste, which reached the deepest point on the Earth's surface, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, carrying two passengers, Jacques Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh. So few bathyscapes have been built that the term is most often associated specifically with the Trieste.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

The bathyscape began with the construction of the first bathysphere, devised by Otis Barton in 1928. The first bathysphere was hollow, with walls of one inch thick (2.54 cm)cast steel, 4.75 ft (1.5 m) in diameter. Fused quartz, which the strongest transparent material available at that point, was used for the windows. Instead of being self-propelled like the Trieste, this early bathysphere was lowered into the depths on a tether. Oxygen was provided via a pressurized canister on the outside of the sphere, and carbon dioxide removed by electric fans circulating the air over pans containing soda lime.

The bathyscape was an improvement on the bathysphere, devised by the Swiss physicist, inventor, and explorer Auguste Piccard. Initially interested in building atmospheric balloons, Piccard realized that a modification of some of these concepts would allow construction of a craft that could descend into the deep ocean. After extensive trial-and-error from the mid-30s to the mid-50s, Piccard invented a bathyscape suitable for use by the French Navy, which used it to send a man safely down to 4,176 m (13,700 ft). This is very impressive, and even the strongest modern nuclear subs have a crush depth of 730 m (2,400 feet).

The float portion of a bathyscape is filled with petrol, which is nearly incompressible. As the bathyscape descends, it discharges petrol, replacing it with water, decreasing the buoyancy of the craft. Buckets of iron shot are held inside the craft via electromagnets. Once the craft reaches the bottom, this shot is released to ascend. This is a fail-safe mechanism -- even if the power fails, the shot is released anyway, so no one is trapped at the bottom of the ocean.

The term bathyscaphe was made using the Greek words bathys ("deep") and skaphos ("ship"). Since the Trieste retired, most deep-sea submersibles have been robotic only.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


@Mor - Actually, apparently there is an organization offering $10 million dollars for the first people to manage to repeat the descent of the Trieste in a manned vehicle.

I'm not sure if it will actually happen, although if they could do it in the 1960's I don't see any reason someone couldn't do it now.

I just hope that they don't end up killing anyone. Although following in the footsteps of Bertrand Picard might be worth the risk.


@umbra21 - For a while I was a bit sad that we don't really seem to try and use bathyscapes anymore, but in reality there's no reason to when they have machines that will do it.

It's just too dangerous to try and lower something that has to sustain life, into such deep water. The pressures are too high, and the chances of something going wrong is too much. In fact, I think the statistic is that there have been more people on the moon, than have visited the deepest part of the ocean.

But, it's almost 7 miles deep, which, when you think about it, is just incredibly far.

I think most people would have difficulty even imagining how deep that really is. For comparison, Mt. Everest would fit in, with 6000ft to spare.


@JimN - I know the Oceanographic Institution has a remotely operated submersible capable of going down to around 4 miles.

I don't think anyone has a submersible capable of going deeper than that at the moment.

Although the Titanic was found at around 2.5 miles of depth and I read recently that they think the amount of tourists and treasure seekers are starting to damage the wreck.

So, there must be quite a few submersibles that are capable of going to 2.5 miles down at least.

Jason, the OI's submersible, is one of the reasons we know about the ecology of deep water vents, where it seems the only forms of life independent of the sun exist. The research they do with that little machine is quite fascinating.


Are there currently any remotely operated submersibles capable of three to five mile dives?

(15 to 20 thousand feet?)

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