At 10,706 meters deep in the Mermaid Abyss, in the Mariana Trench, inside a submersible the size of a Mini, and observed through the porthole, unknown beings of the same height as him, Héctor Salvador Fouz (Lugo, 1983), ate a ham sandwich.
- Aren’t you afraid that something bad will happen?
- No, but because we made the car. We wondered what could go wrong in the past when we designed all the systems to correct any scenario you could imagine. If a motor gets stuck on a rope, well, the motor is ejectable; you can break the screw, launch the motor, and move on. What if I run out of oxygen? Well, you have another system that is completely independent of oxygen, and so… there’s only one problem.
- Well, if you fail, no one will follow you, because the second deepest car in the world that exists reaches 6,000 meters, more than half.
Two and a half years and many ham sandwiches later, the DSV Limiting Factor, the masterpiece of this aeronautical engineer and director of operations of the American Triton Submarines, continues to explore one of the most unknown points of our solar system: the sea of the Earth; even the epicenter of the Fukushima tsunami, or the five deepest trenches in every ocean. “We don’t even know what they are, because there are still two-thirds of our planet that we don’t know about,” Héctor emphasized, recalling that before becoming the first Spaniard to descend into the Mariana Trench, 12 people had walked on the surface of the moon, but only three had descended into the abyss.
After each expedition, his submersible adopted three or four new species: «There are very rare animals. We accompanied the biologists, who sometimes did not know if they were seeing an animal or a plant. The incredible thing is that we spend a lot of money to send a robot to Mars, to dig a hole to see if it finds bacteria, and here. You go down to the sea, and you see a bug as big as you that you didn’t know existed—neither what he does nor what he eats. You don’t know. “For me, it seems like a more exciting exploration,” said Héctor, who recently visited Ibiza to take part in its Marine Forum.
Scientists had hoped to collect samples from the sea floor of what they believed to be an ancient Earth, which was pristine before the massive human arrival, but it was not. What Héctor found, after descending for four and a half hours, was like climbing 2,000 meters beyond Everest, but in the dark for three minutes, concentrations of PCBs, chemical poisons banned in the 1970s, amphipods with synthetic material in their stomachs, plastic bags, candy wrappers, carbon-14 residues from nuclear tests, and even cables from other scientific expeditions.
- Did he leave me anything?
- Well, it’s not the Mariana Trench; it’s any place in any ocean. No matter how far, there is a real landfill. In the deepest part of Antarctica, which took a month to get there because it was so far away when we lowered the bathyscaphe, I stayed on top, and an albatross came with a kitchen glove on his beak. And you say, But where did he get it? In the middle of the ocean, in Antarctica, which is a place that looks like it’s from another planet because it’s so far away, the guy comes with an oven mitt. In another place in the Indian Ocean, convinced that no one had been there in their lives, we found a truck tire. It’s not that they threw them there because the ocean currents mix everything we throw from the continents. 90% of marine plastics reach the ocean through rivers. Everything we throw into the water or the land ends up in the sea.
One of the species found was Eurythenes plasticus, which was given that name because his stomach was full of plastic. Now we don’t know what he ate before we started polluting the ocean. We don’t know what our planet is like until we start polluting it. We are destroying ecosystems that we don’t even have a chance to know about. “I’m really angry that we’re ruining it without understanding it.”
- And you don’t see it coming back?
- Back then, when I was little, you would go to the mountain and you would find refrigerators, cars, and and washing machines. People throw away the rest, and if they live on the coast, they throw it into the sea. Fortunately, this philosophy has changed, and the mountains are now much cleaner. There are efforts to control the discharges, but the sea is inaccessible, no one will clean it, and the mistakes of the past cannot biodegrade; they cannot disappear, and we do not stop throwing things away either. Maybe in more developed countries yes, but in others, for example, they don’t have car scrapyards and they throw them in the sea. There are island nations that have no other option to manage their waste than to sink it, and this problem has not stopped, nor does it have a short-term solution.
- It doesn’t seem very optimistic.
- The ocean has great resilience and a great capacity to recover. When you declare marine protected areas and apply a little pressure, especially from fishing, nature will recover faster than before, and you will once again see the red coral and large groups.
- If you were to speak to politicians today at COP28, what would you tell them?
- The problem is that we are not fully aware of the problem. Last year we did an expedition, the Nekton project, in the Maldives, which took all the ministers of the country to a depth of one thousand meters. They came back in shock. You can see in their faces that they realize they have problems. They see abandoned fishing nets and lines that continue to kill animals, they see a lack of biodiversity, and they don’t see fish, but they see coral bleaching. In many places, just by going down, you can see the acidification of the oceans. Corals that are full of life are dying. My wish is to humble all politicians so that they can see the problem in the first person.
- And now what do you want to do?
- The challenge is to develop technology that will allow us to go down to any depth and repeatedly do science, not just to get the medal. Now we have transparent hulls so that submersibles can see more, and more channel capacity so that more people can observe the ocean with their own eyes. I always say that submersibles are machines of change. The man who comes back from a dive is not the man who went down.
His submersible remains the only one in the world capable of descending to that depth. To do something else, financing is needed. to James Cameron, the director of Titanic, had to ally with Rolex to pay for his descent into the Mariana Trench, and add to his task the demonstration that the watch worked at such depths. “Well, I’m still trying to get them to invite me for a ham sandwich,” Héctor concluded.