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Dawn Wright becomes first Black person to reach the deepest known spot on Earth

Scientist dives deepest oceanic trench
Dawn Wright becomes first Black person to dive to the deepest known spot on Earth07:10

In the waters of the Western Pacific, a sea of blue surrounded oceanographer Dawn Wright, who was a little blue herself. Her mother died last December and would not be there to watch Wright take on the challenge of reaching the deepest place on Earth. 

"She wanted to be able to live to see this, but she is watching from heaven," Wright told "CBS Sunday Morning" correspondent Lee Cowan.

Wright, a specialist in marine geology and geography at the Environmental Systems Research Institute, is the first person of any gender of African descent to go to Challenger Deep — the deepest-known point of the seabed of Earth.   

Wright's love of the ocean started in her home in Maui, Hawaii. She said she knew she wanted to be an oceanographer by the time she was 8.

"It was partly fueled by the Apollo 11 mission," said Wright, who is nicknamed Deep-Sea Dawn. "If those men could land on the moon, I thought, 'Well, why can't I go the opposite direction and explore the oceans?'"

But back in the 1970s and 80s, there weren't many oceanographers who were women — and fewer were Black. 

"I spent several years at sea as a marine technician. And there were men on the ship that I was on who didn't believe that women should be there. ... That is the story, an age-old story. It's still an issue," she said. 

But all of that was eclipsed by her arrival at a place void of judgment and prejudice — a journey that took her four times deeper than she'd been before. At the bottom, she experienced more than 100,000 tons of pressure on the outside of her submersible. 

Challenger Deep is seven miles beneath the surface and more than six times deeper than the Grand Canyon. It's almost triple the depth of the Titanic — and has only been seen by a few. 

The reason why? It's not sinking down that's hard, but going back up without being crushed. Only one manned vehicle in the world can do it: Limiting Factor, which is the brainchild of Texas adventurer and explorer Victor Vescovo. He financed the two-person submersible's design and construction.

"If it can work here, it can work anywhere on the seafloor," said Vescovo, who was with Wright on the deep-sea journey. 

Ocean trenches are largely a watery black hole in terms of research, but they have much to tell us — like Earth's reaction to climate change, and how to better predict earthquakes and tsunamis.  

Wright's task was to bring back the first high-resolution mapping of Challenger Deep. Currently, less than a quarter of the global sea floor is mapped "to sufficient detail," she said. Last year, the United Nations pledged to change that and set a goal to have at least 80% of the seabed mapped by 2030. 

But one of the best tools to do that is side-scan sonar, and typically the instruments can't survive the harsh environment. 

This time, though, a first-of-its kind- side-scan sonar worked. 

After 10 hours beneath the land of sunlight, Wright emerged and returned to the pitching deck of her research vessel where the real work of analyzing her research had only just begun. 

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