An 82-year-old Chinese scientist dived more than 1,400 metres beneath the waves in a disputed part of the South China Sea on an unprecedented research mission that he compared to Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Wang Pingxian, a senior marine geologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, boarded Deepwater Warrior, China’s newest vessel for deep sea exploration, and spent more than eight hours on an uncharted seabed near the Paracel Islands, known as Xisha in China, on Sunday. The mission reinforced the belief that there are valuable natural reserves in the area, with evidence suggesting there are large reserves of liquefied natural gas on the seabed, some of which was seen seeping through the cracks and rising from the sea floor. Beijing explores energy-rich area of South China Sea where ‘flammable ice’ – a potential new gas source – is found Wang, along with another younger scientist and pilot, recorded a rich range of marine life in the area, including thriving colonies of giant worms, mussels, sponge and coral reefs that feed off a steady supply of nutrition around the cold springs. “This journey was just like Alice in Wonderland. I was in heaven,” he told Xinhua after returning to the surface. Given Wang’s age the expedition needed careful planning to ensure it could be carried out safely. The Deepwater Warrior, commissioned last year with a maximum operation depth of 4,500 metres (14,760 feet), used some of China’s most advanced deep-sea technology, including an enhanced life-support system. In the event of an emergency, Deepwater Warrior has a powered ascent system that means it is able to get back to the surface much more quickly than other submersibles, which generally float back to the surface. Wang, one of the key architects of China’s ambitious exploration programme in the South China Sea, said his journey marked the success of a years-long effort to establish China’s dominance in the region. The programme, launched by Beijing in 2011, employed more than 700 ocean researchers to survey the floor of the South China Sea and beyond. He told state news agency Xinhua that China was now leading scientific research in the South China Sea with all goals met or exceeded. China’s claims in South China Sea ‘proposed by continuous boundary for the first time’ The Paracel Islands are claimed by mainland China, Vietnam and Taiwan, and state media described the mission as helping to strengthen Beijing’s claim to the area. In 2014, the Chinese and Vietnamese navies engaged in a heated stand-off as Vietnam tried to stop the operation of a prospecting oil rig in the Paracels. China has also generated tension by launching large-scale construction in the area including land reclamation work and expanding its military facilities in recent years.