Styrofoam cup after 3,100 feet underwater

The coolest thing I own is a Styrofoam cup that went down to the bottom of the Palmer Deep, off the Palmer Peninsula in Antarctica. It was in a net bag tied to an oceanographer's water column sampler. I don't remember the name of the researcher, but she or he let everyone on the research vessel, including hanger-on science writers, send down a cup. The pressure of 10,400 3,100 feet of water compressed the tiny air bubbles inside the Styrofoam and turned a grande cup into an espresso cup. More reasons not to go scuba-diving at the bottom of the Palmer Deep.


  1. Mary, this is indeed a ridiculously cool thing to own. Proof of exploration to one of the depths of the planet? Sweet!

  2. I remember seeing something like this in an old National Geographic, probably something about the Bathysphere, where they sent down a styrofoam mannequin head, which was squished down to the size of a softball. Yikes!

  3. These are really cool. My aunt gave me one of these when I was a kid, with my name on it. A friend of her’s was a deep sea researcher. The pressure, in addition to shrinking it, malformed it and it’s shaped like a boot!

  4. That’s nothing, I have a regular sized Syrofoam cup that was made at the bottom of the Palmer Trench… it’s huuuuuuuuuuuge

  5. Now I’m thinking of the “breathable liquid” from the movie Abyss. Does it actually exist?

    And how deep have people dived to, either way?

  6. I just want to thank you for writing SPOOK – it’s one of the best books I have read in years (and another is STIFF).


  7. I have a couple of those from the Arctic Ocean, made for me by my parents when they were on the SHEBA/JOIS expedition. I seem to recall they also did a bunch for some school kids with whom they were corresponding.

  8. ok-so… why doesn’t it return (approximately) to its original size when brought back up to sea-level? that is, where did the “tiny air bubbles inside the Styrofoam” go?

    1. #8,

      Packing material similar to Styrofoam was known to explode and rocket across the sky during the Apollo missions. So I suppose the air has been squeezed out of the bubbles and is unable to return.

  9. How do we know that’s not a normal sized, yet slightly skewed Styrofoam cup being held by a giant? We need something to give a sense of scale.

  10. We actually did this at Sea Camp when I was a kid. We got a similar result when we went down to just ~800 feet. Also fun: styrofoam and autoclaves.

  11. We got to do that in high school. Our Marine Sciences teacher knew some oceanic scientists. We each got to design a cup and a month later, voila! they are very cool. It only takes about 1000′ for maximum pressure on styrofoam

  12. Why does the thumb and long finger holding the cup appear distorted? Have they been to the Palmer deep too? .. I call photoshop on this.

    1. Mary told me that’s her husband’s hand. I don’t think those digits are digital.

  13. Hey, I’ve got one too. It was decorated by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute scientists and sent down to the Monterey Canyon with one of their ROVs.
    As it happens, MBARI is holding it’s open house on 14 August 2010. If you can get to Moss Landing, California on that day, you may be able to get one of your own.

  14. Mary, if you weren’t married would you consider dating a semi-attractive 27 year-old? And if so, what are your husband’s weaknesses?


  15. We’ve made these at my work. We do hydrostatic pressure testing, we have pressure vessels that can reach 10,00 psi.

    But, I guess that’s like farmed oysters or fake diamonds.

    Maybe we could pass them off as authentic and sell them! :-)

  16. Grrrrrrr!!!! I had one of those, but the naval investigative service took it away from me during one of their *very* *many* wrong turns in the hunt for the man who turned out to be Johnny Walker. keep meaning to make one for myself…

  17. I work as an oceanographic technician, and we make these frequently for kids/kids at heart. It’s funny to see something that’s somewhat commonplace in our field become an object of wonder to those outside of it.

  18. What people seem to fail to realize from these kinds of demonstrations is that people are not made of styrofoam.

  19. you can make one of these at home. You just need a pressure cooker. The trick is to put some water and not to let the cup touch the sides or the water (or it will melt). You can put a can inside the cooker, and put the cup on top of it.

  20. I have two of these cups made by my Dad, who is an oceanographer. Did them when I was little (almost 30 years ago). They’re really awesome. One was sent down 6000m, another 3200m. I heard someone on his research vessel sent down a styrofoam wig form. Would have loved to see that – a socially acceptable shrunken head!

  21. But is it recyclable? As cool as this is, I can’t help but remember the huge trash buildup consisting of various plastics and styrofoam items already clogging up our oceans. Novel, yes – but meaningful to humanity, perhaps not?

  22. That’s a strange coincidence. I was vacationing in Gloucester, MA recently and we took the kids to the Maritime Heritage Museum. One of the things we saw was a collection of diving gear, and the fun old guy answering our questions and generally being entertaining for the kids produced a similarly smooshed styrofoam cup. I assure you, it’s not Photo-shoppery. I held it in my hands.

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