In the 1930s, 18-year-old Austrian biology student Hans Hass went diving off the southern coast of France for the first time.
Some 80 years later, the legendary diving pioneer remains an inspiration for underwater adventurers, most recently the Chinese.
The Jiaolong submersible won the 2014 Hans Hass Fifty Fathoms Award in Sanya, Hainan province, in June. The award is jointly given by the Historical Diving Society Hans Hass Award Committee and Swiss watchmaker Blancpain.
The submersible, independently developed in China, reached as deep as 7,062 meters in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean in 2012, setting a new record among Chinese divers.
The committee initiated a double prize for Cui Weicheng, deputy chief designer of Jiaolong, for his individual achievements, and the State Oceanic Administration for its support in building the submersible.
The award has been honoring individuals for excellence in underwater science and technology since 2003. Previous recipients include renowned film director and diving pioneer James Cameron and Stan Waterman, pioneering underwater film producer and photographer. This is the first time a Chinese project has won the award.
"Today, it is China that is leading the world in its commitment to manned deep ocean exploration," says Krov Menuhin, chairman of the award committee and advisory board member at the Historical Diving Society, an international non-profit organization that studies man's underwater activities and promotes public awareness of the ocean.
"And the far-sighted vision, the courage and the immense engagement to implement this program is in keeping with the pioneering spirit of Hans Hass. He entered the ocean with the same vision, courage and commitment," he says.
The winners received a framed cast bronze plaque, with an image of Hans Hass, designed by ocean artist Wyland. And Blancpain presented them Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe diving watches with specially engraved cases.
The brand will serve as the official time keeper for Jiaolong's future underwater expeditions. It also announced a collaboration with the State Oceanic Administration to launch projects to raise public consciousness of the ocean in China in the coming years. The details are still being discussed.
"We are very impressed with Jiaolong with its ability to constantly dive into new depths, especially its crew, whose courage, focus and action enabled them to reach new frontiers all the time," says Marc Junod, vice-president and head of sales at Blancpain.
The research and development of Jiaolong basically started from zero in 2002. None of the crew members had seen, let alone been in, a virtual submersible before.
Fu Wentao, one of the oceanauts of Jiaolong, shared his experience underwater, including encounters with curious creatures.
"Unlike the terrestrial creatures, those under the water are not cautious at all. They are actually very curious and will even swim toward us," Fu says.
Cui is planning to launch a project to develop a submersible that will be able to dive as deep as 11,000 meters with financial support from both the government and the private sector.
"The combination will fuel faster development in underwater science," Cui says. "The sea is vast and rich, but we have a lot of research to do before we can exploit it."
While funds for the financing of manned deep-ocean explorations in the West are drying up, China has just committed to a long-term project that will change the way everyone thinks about the sea, says Menuhin.
As the creator of the world's first modern diving wristwatch, Blancpain has long been a supporter of major manned deep-water explorations.
"We are not just getting involved today because it is trendy to protect the Ocean. Our philosophy is to help as many people as possible to learn about, and get familiar with, the underwater world. Because we believe that people can only respect and protect what they love. And they can only love what they know," says Junod.