Jiaolong under the Sea
On June 23, 2017, China’s Jiaolong manned deep-sea submersible and its mother ship Xiangyanghong 09 returned to the National Deep-sea Base in Qingdao, Shandong Province, bringing the nation’s 38th oceanic expedition and the submersible’s five-year trial run to an end. During the 138-day expedition, Xiangyanghong 09 sailed 18,302 nautical miles through the South China Sea, northwestern Indian Ocean and northwestern Pacific Ocean.
World’s Deepest Dive
Named after a mythical dragon, Jiaolong is China’s first homegrown manned deep-sea research submersible, making China the fifth country with deep-sea exploration technology, after the United States, France, Russia and Japan. It can carry three people and cover 99.8 percent of the world’s underwater area. During a test dive in June 2012, Jiaolong reached its deepest depth, 7,062 meters, which is the deepest depth reached by a submersible of its kind. In January 2013, the submersible began a five-year trial run, during which time it made 152 dives in seven marine zones around the world and collected precious data as well as geological and biological samples.
About 90 manned submersibles are currently in service worldwide, 12 of which can reach a 1,000-meter-depth. The five leading countries in deep-sea exploration all have submersibles capable of diving 6,000 meters deep. Japan once held the diving depth record with 6,527 meters.
Father of Jiaolong
In 2002, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology launched a project to build a manned submersible capable of diving 7,000 meters deep. Almost every expert nominated Xu Qinan to serve as its chief designer. Xu was a founding member of China’s deep-sea submersible program and successively served as deputy chief designer or chief designer of the country’s five submersibles, manned and unmanned.
But Xu had already been retired from China Shipbuilding Industry Corp, one of China’s major state-owned shipbuilders, for six years by then. When the company invited him to take the position, Xu was eager to get back to work, but his family objected because Xu was suffering from heart problems, high blood pressure, headaches and partial blindness in one eye. “I have been working on developing a 7,000-meter diving device since 1992,” pleaded Xu. “It’s my dream. I can do it.”
Xu was 66 at the time, which was beyond the project’s age limit of 55. But China’s Ministry of Science and Technology made an exception for him.
Across the following decade, Xu and his team overcame many difficulties to continuously set new records for Chinese submersible depth. When Jiaolong conducted its first trial run, Xu insisted on being aboard its mother ship, even lugging a suitcase of drugs and healthcare equipment such as an oxygen machine and blood pressure monitors. Every time Jiaolong dove, rather than wait in the command room, he would sit in the control cabinet to look at the sea and wait for responses from the divers—only a dozen sentences in several hours. He didn’t want to miss a word. “I am tired, but I am happy,” remarked Xu.
Today, 81-year-old Xu no longer manages any work, but the team he built and the professionals he trained continue to carry his torch.
Xu Qinan (left), chief designer of China's Jiaolong manned deepsea submersible, visits Taizhou Institute of Science and Technology under Nanjing University of Science and Technology. IC