Aryana Noroozi |

Dr. Dawn Wright made history this summer becoming the first Black person to descend to the deepest known point in the earth’s seabed, a trench known as the Challenger Deep. To complete the dive, she traveled from her home in Redlands to the Mariana Trench, a territory of the Federated States of Micronesia, in the western Pacific Ocean.

Wright says that the Challenger Deep is important for the region, particularly its’ home Palau, a nation of over 500 islands. “A lot of people in Palau don’t realize that they have this deep ocean trench within their territory. It would be like those of us here in the U.S. not realizing that we had a Grand Canyon.”

As the Challenger Deep “generates excitement and knowledge” for Palau, Wright says she sees a parallel between it and dives to the wrecks of African slave ships. 

Dr. Dawn Wright  points to the location of Challenger Deep on her map, which lies in the Mariana Trench, a territory of the Federated States of Micronesia, in the western Pacific Ocean. Dawn sees a parallel of Challenger Deep“generating knowledge and excitement” for he indigenous people of the region, to Black people diving to slave shipwrecks and “discovering and claiming” their history. (Aryana Noroozi for Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local) July 28, 2022.

“African and Black people can get a sense of that history, as painful as that history is… It’s a beautiful project in terms of discovering and claiming that history,” she offered.

Wright resides in Redlands where she is Chief Scientist at Esri. Esri is a leading developer in geographic information system (GIS) software, location intelligence, and mapping. Wright has played a critical role in integrating GIS technology to ocean and coastal science, where she worked to create the first ocean GIS data model.  Wright says that these maps are developed using soundwaves. 

“Basically, what the instruments do is they measure the amount of time that it takes for these [sound] pulses to go down to the bottom [of the sea] and come back,” explained Wright. “The amount of travel time is converted to a distance, so that’s where we get the maps of the topography.”

But Wright said that at extreme depths it is very difficult for this technology to properly function. “The technology tends to break below 6000 meters, because of the high pressure,” she said. “The pressure at the bottom of Challenger Deep is 16,000 pounds per square inch.”  If there was a problem during her expedition, the submersible ship would have combusted in a matter of seconds, Wright noted.

One of the goals of her Challenger Deep expedition was to test a mapping device called a sidescan sonar and determine whether it was able to operate at this pressure. Instead of time, the sidescan sonar uses sound pulse strength to determine topography. Wright and her team hoped to use the device to collect data to help make a high resolution map of a particular area of the Challenger Deep. “Sort of like an aerial photograph of part of the trench,” she said.  

An ocean topography notepad sits on Dawn’s desk at Esri where she is Chief Scientist. Wright played a critical role in integrating GIS technology to ocean and coastal science and worked to create the first ocean GIS data model. (Aryana Noroozi for Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local) July 28, 2022.

The use of sidescan sonar was successful. Wright says this is a tool for more precise scanning and mapping of the seafloor.

Along with the other technology onboard their submersible ship, designed and piloted by Victor Vescovo, Wright’s colleague who completed the expedition with her, Wright also brought along styrofoam cups as she often does on deep sea expeditions. The cups shrunk to the size of a finger knuckle from the pressure of the nearly seven mile deep dive.  She says that the common item– turned trinket– makes for a great souvenir.  Wright keeps one on her desk at Esri.

Dawn holds a styrofoam cup she brought on the Challenger Deep expedition. It shrunk to the size of a knuckle. She likes to give them away as gifts, she says. (Aryana Noroozi for Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local) July 28, 2022.

“I’ve been asked a lot about the significance of being the first Black person [to complete the Challenger Deep dive]. And I know for me it is to be able to see other women doing science,” Wright said. “Because growing up, there were no other Black women in oceanography.”  

Left: A robot travels through the mapping demo wing of Esri. Middle: Dawn Wright poses for a portrait in her office at the Esri campus in Redlands, California, where she is the Chief Scientist. Right: Figurines from Spongebob are displayed in Dawn’s office at Esri. She loves anime and using her sense of imagination. (Aryana Noroozi for Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local) July 28, 2022.

Growing up, Wright was encouraged by Mae Jemison, an engineer and former NASA astronaut. Jemison was the first Black woman to travel to space. “To see her be an engineer and go into space, that encouraged me to go into the ocean,” she shared.  

“For young Black women in the Inland Empire, if they are dreaming of doing something big and adventurous or scientific; if this encourages them to do whatever it is that they want to do, I think that would be really cool and important. People don’t necessarily have to do what I did.”

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Aryana Noroozi

Black Voice News photojournalist Aryana Noroozi was born in San Diego, California and graduated with a master’s degree from The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her love for visual storytelling led her to document immigrant and deportee communities and those struggling with addiction. She was a 2020 Pulitzer Center Crisis Reporting Fellow and a GroundTruth Project Migration Fellow. She is currently a CatchLight/Report for America corps member employed by Black Voice News. You can learn more about her at aryananoroozi.com. You can email her at aryana@blackvoicenews.com.