australia's deepest couple divers deep sea
Australia's deepest man and woman are... a couple. 
Science

Meet Australia's Deepest Couple

“You're very accustomed to the idea that the speed of sound is slower than the implosion speed so you wouldn't even hear yourself die.”

What happens when a deep-sea submarine pilot and a deep-sea marine biologist fall in love? They explore the deepest, darkest, freakiest parts of the ocean – together, of course.

Meet Paige Maroni and Tim Macdonald – Australia’s deepest couple, perhaps even the world’s. Between them they have descended to parts of the ocean so deep and remote only a handful of humans have ever been there. 

Tim, an engineer and submarine pilot, has logged “around 100 – 150” deep-sea dives, including a trip to Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench – the deepest known point on Earth at 10,935 metres.

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(For perspective, the submersible that imploded in 2023 was trying to reach the Titanic at about 3,800 metres deep.)

Paige, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia and molecular marine biologist, studies the genetic makeup and global connectivity of deep-sea creatures. 

Two very deep people, basically, who have a killer answer to the ‘how did you meet’ question.

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Last year, they were both assigned to a research trip exploring the Japan Trench – 7,400 metres below the ocean’s surface.

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One of their submersibles descending.

"I was working on the research ship as a sub pilot and sub team leader, and Paige came on as a scientist," Tim explained to VICE over video call from a boat about 1000 miles north of Samoa in a place called the Nova Canton Fracture Zone.

“And I just said hey, you want to check out my submarine? And it worked."

“It worked!” added Paige, who was dialling in from her university in Perth, which somehow had worse internet connection than Tim’s ship floating in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

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View from the port hole at the bottom of Japan Trench.

"It was kind of the latter end of COVID times, so it was a weird trip because the ship could only bring on people who were already in Western Australia," Paige said.

"It was this really unique opportunity for people who were in town to fly out north and jump on this ship that most of us had never heard of."

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That five-week research trip was ample time for the two to connect in a way that was a little deeper than the standard colleague friendship.

"It was a great amount of time to get to know everyone and, for Tim and I, that just meant a lot of extended chats after work on the ship's bow.

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After a long sea voyage on a ship, they reach the drop point.

“On ships it is always so hard to truly be alone so having this space to actually just get to know one another, was so fantastic. It certainly felt a little like school children sneaking out to a party after their parents had gone to sleep, and well for Tim, this was extremely so as his father was actually on the ship for this voyage too…”

At voyage's end, given COVID was still very much a thing, the whole ship, submersible, and crew were left in Western Australia for an extended period of time.

The rest is history. 

But there are so many questions. How did Australia’s deepest couple get so deep? How and why does anyone do such a thing? Let’s dive in.

VICE: I think my main question is why? Why do you dive so deep? Does the ocean not scare you? Do you know you don't have to go down there?

Tim: (Laughs) Well I come from an engineering background, so for me, it's more about just really seeing if we can do it and trying to help people like Paige and all her colleagues understand what's happening down there a little better.

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Paige: For me, it's the complete lack of knowledge baseline in terms of what's down there. How biodiverse, how abundant, how connected, how under threat – there’s so much we don’t know. So, if we can get our eyes on these physical systems and start to piece together a bit of the deep sea puzzle to fill that knowledge gap then why not?

VICE: What was it like the first time you dove in a submersible? Were you scared?

Paige: Pure, childlike excitement. Couldn't sleep the night before. You jump in the sub and you're immediately treated to a bioluminescence firework show as you're sinking. All these gelatinous marine animals are shooting out light as you blast past them.

Then you get to the bottom and the lights get turned on and actually when I got to the bottom, the first thing I saw was a plastic bag. Plastic pollution in the deep sea is hugely heartbreaking because it is so prolific.

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A plastic bag 7,400 metres underwater.

But where I was, it was some of the oldest bedrock on the planet. So you're looking back at millions of years in time. Then you start to see these beautiful, fragile, white anemones or fish flying around. Stuff that I had been reading about for years and trying to understand from a computer, so to actually see it in real life was just unbelievable.

It’s so fragile because that one dive was to one specific location that may never get revisited. So then to know that you're kind of this, you know, champion for this one tiny part of the ocean is huge in the grand scheme of how I live every day.

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Credit: Alex Ingle.

VICE: So that first dive changed your approach to your work?

Paige: It certainly increased a sense of urgency.

Knowing that humans are already creating so many problems down there, and we don't even know how many things are there or how they'll survive or adapt to human-related pressures, the sense of urgency was magnified for sure.

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Deep-sea anenome in the Japan Trench.

VICE: And Tim, you’ve been on hundreds of dives – is diving to the deepest depths just a regular day at the office for you now?

Tim: Nah, you definitely appreciate every single time you get to hop in the sub. You can guarantee pretty much every single dive that you're gonna be the only person in history who has ever seen that piece of seafloor with your own eyes – and probably ever will again.

VICE: Does it ever just hit you when you're down there, like holy shit, there's so much water above me right now?

Paige: I don't think it’s freaked me out at all. I think I was just more taken aback by the amazing engineering feat and just how far we've come to be able to do such amazing things. And then certainly there’s that little bit of an introspective bubble of like, oh my gosh, how did I end up here? Things like that. But never fear.

You're very accustomed to the idea that the speed of sound is slower than the implosion speed. So you wouldn't even hear yourself die. So it's kind of like oh well, if that happens, I won't know. So doesn't matter.

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VICE: I guess that's one way to look at it.

Tim: You wouldn't know about it. It would all be over real quick... you know when you go in an aeroplane, and you’re travelling at 1000 miles an hour 30,000 feet in the air and you're sitting there sipping on a beer and watching a movie, you don't really realise that, you know, your life's in peril. It's kind of that same sort of feeling. 

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And you know we've got a fan running and there's lights – but I've turned the whole sub off at depth and just left the lights on, and it's only really then you realise okay, I actually am at like 6000 metres or 8000 metres. And I'm just bobbing around – it’s not like there's some computer program running to keep us in this place and keep us alive. It's just I’m literally in a metal sphere bobbing around on the bottom of the ocean.

VICE: What happens if you have to go to the bathroom down there?

Paige: I was in there for 12 hours, and I didn't use the bathroom. It was a long day of crossed legs.

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The subs are pretty small and cramped.

Tim: It's a bit easier for a guy... We normally try not to drink too much water. But sometimes it's not possible – like if you're diving every day, multiple dives, sometimes you just have to pee in a bottle. You don't want to ask about how we do number twos...

VICE: Well now I do.

Paige: It's my number one fear.

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Tim: (laughs) It's not a thing. You should never do it. But, worst case scenario if you did get stuck in there for an extended period of time, it’s an ask your mate to hold the bag open for you kind of deal.

VICE: Wild. What's your favourite underwater creature?

Tim: Stalked sponges. They’re these massive sponges which are made up of microscopic glass shards... You'd be down 1000 metres and everything seems robust and rugged. And then you'll go up to a rock wall and there'll just be this stalked sponge that's two or three metres long and the stalk is as thin as your pinky. At the end is just this big wine-glass-looking mesh that takes hundreds or even thousands of years to grow. They're just so delicate and beautiful and crystal white.

Paige: The supergiant amphipod. They're about 43 centimetres, the size of a forearm, and they're a crustacean, and they’re just so–

Tim: They’re a big prawn.

Paige: They’re not a prawn!

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the prawns in fact come in a range of sizes. Credit: Alex Ingle.

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Credit: Alex Ingle

VICE: So what do you like about it?

They're just this weird mix of creepy and gorgeous.

When I think of deep sea, I think of supergiant amphipods because they're global. They're so structurally perfect, completely identical on the left and right sides. They're just so well reinforced to adapt to the depth of pressure, yet they look so fragile and delicate, yet they just swim through the water column as if it's the easiest thing in the world and they don't have 1100 tons of pressure pushed on top of them.

VICE: If you could solve one mystery of the deep sea, what would it be?

Tim: Well, there’s no GPS underwater so we have to use an array of expensive and complicated acoustic devices to more accurately track assets on the seafloor down to 10,925m. I’m currently working on is a Full Ocean Depth (FOD) navigation solution.

Paige: My big mystery is that you get animals that live between 8000 metres and 6000 metres. They live in one trench but then they’re also found in another trench on the other side of the world, and they're identical species. But no one's ever found them in the shallower parts.

No one knows if they release their young into the water column and they float and drift and sink back down. Or if they walk along the seafloor and climb back down. At the moment, I'm working on the supergiant amphipod, whose whole global ocean distribution covers 54 per cent of the total body of water, which is so much of the planet, but we have no idea how it's connecting itself between all these oceans. Which is just insane to say that it's probably one of the most abundant animals on the planet and we don't know how it gets around.

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