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Jiaolong pilot recounts journey

By Wang Qian in Qingdao, Shandong | China Daily | Updated: 2012-07-20 08:02

Jiaolong pilot recounts journey

Oceanaut Fu Wentao, one of 11 people in the world who has dived to a depth of more than 7,000 meters under the sea, talks with visitors on Thursday on Xiangyanghong 09, the support ship of China's manned submersible, Jiaolong, in Qingdao, Shandong province. Li Ziheng / Xinhua

While the film director and explorer James Cameron was undertaking a 10,898-meter dive into the western Pacific Ocean in March, Fu Wentao, a 30-year-old man from Yueyang, Hunan province, was busy preparing for China's 7,000-meter dive project.

As one of three Chinese oceanauts, Fu said deep dives are the stuff of his dreams. On June 27, he had the opportunity to live them aboard the submersible vehicle Jiaolong.

Fu piloted Jiaolong to 7,062 meters below sea level - a record depth for China - taking it to the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench. That dive made Fu one of 11 people in the world who have journeyed 7,000 meters under the sea.

"Although James Cameron went farther, we collected precious samples, surveyed the seabed and took videos and photographs of the amazing deep-sea world," Fu said.

And there were other differences.

The seabed Cameron reached consisted mostly of a bleak terrain. Fu's dive, in contrast, brought him into the midst of a colorful environment, one that was home to sea cucumbers that walked like caterpillars, flower-like polyps and species never seen before.

On dives to about 3,000 meters below sea level, observers have encountered sea cucumbers that were generally black in color. Below 5,000 meters, though, they tend to be transparent or milky white, Fu said.

At least 11 species were discovered on the 7,000-meter dive, according to Cui Weicheng, deputy commander of the project.

To lure life to the Jiaolong, Fu used a hand-like piece of equipment called a manipulator, which was installed on the vehicle's exterior. When fish meat was placed in its clutches and brandished about, the seemingly lifeless abyss surrounding the vessel would be suddenly invaded by transparent shrimps and fish.

Fu and the other crew members made video recordings of the animals for use in scientific research.

"They came out and moved the meat on their back like ants would, which was really lovely," Fu said.

Although Jiaolong shielded the oceanauts from exposure to the deep sea, conditions inside it were not always comfortable. In general, the temperature within vessel's hull can be expected to range from 38 C to 14 C on a deep dive.

Fu said he relished the opportunity to see the undersea world and knew he would be proud of being an oceanaut. Still, he said, he didn't go into the journey without recognizing its inherent dangers.

"I wrote a letter to my parents in case I died," he said. "My parents told me they couldn't sleep the entire time."

To take part in the project, Fu had to be at sea for six weeks. He returned to Qingdao, Shandong province, on Monday.

The 7,000-meter dive project went off more easily than a 5,000-meter project did last year. Six dives were conducted as part of the undertaking this year, reaching depths of 6,671, 6,965, 6,963, 7,020, 7,062 and 7,035 meters.

Fu said he clearly remembers a harrowing night during the 5,000-meter dive project. Rains and strong winds were battering the ocean, making it difficult for the crew aboard Xiangyanghong 09, Jiaolong's support ship, to see the submersible vessel. Only after nearly an hour of searching did they find it.

"Jiaolong was moving up and down like a volleyball floating on water," Fu said. "The other two pilots vomited because of the wild rocking."

He said the atmosphere inside the vessel was nerve-racking and cold, even colder than the deep sea.

He said he and the other oceanauts would have found it both physically and mentally taxing to be stranded all night at sea.

"We turned all of the vessel's lights upward to make it easier for Xiangyanghong 09 to find us and I got on the telecommunication equipment and began to sing songs with people in the support ship just to ease the tension," Fu said.

He said he sang a song whose words call on people to face life with bravery and the singing helped keep his courage up before he was rescued.

Looking forward to next year, Fu said he has two tasks to accomplish: Getting married and going to the South China Sea with his diving team to further study the deep sea.

Contact the writer at wangqian@chinadaily.com.cn

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