Submarines: Sunken Treasures

SLIDESHOW: Florida-based Triton Submarines is readying a vessel such as this to make the seven-mile plunge to the bottom of the Mariana Trench — the sea’s deepest spot. Click above for more views.

A small group of plucky companies is designing, building and testing small and very expensive underwater craft, hoping to reach parts of the ocean other subs cannot reach.

When a canyon 800-foot deep was discovered on the floor of the Red Sea by the UK Royal Navy’s HMS Enterprise recently, the news travelled round the world at lightning speed. As agencies buzzed and oceanographers lined up to offer their insights, somewhere, some very wealthy men were taking notes.

Like others, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Virgin’s Richard Branson and film director James Cameron are interested in what happens at the world’s deepest — and most mysterious — places.

But unlike most of us, they have sunk extreme sums of money to pursue their curiosity. Each has pumped millions of dollars into extreme submarines, vessels equipped to dive these inky depths to discover what goes on down there. Each billionaire says he hopes to “benefit science” by doing so. But, of course, if they have a lot of fun along the way, that is just a bonus. “It’s a fun Boy’s Own adventure, like travelling into space, but on a slightly smaller budget,” says one anonymous deep-sea submariner.

Helping these billionaires live out their school-boy fantasies is a handful of plucky companies that is designing, building and testing small and very expensive craft, each hoping to reach the parts of the ocean other subs cannot reach. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt’s backed outfit is called DOER Marine. It launched in 1992 with the aim of opening up the deep to oceanographic researchers. Its submersible includes a robot arm designed to pick up interesting bits and pieces from the sea bed, the kind of matter of intense interest to scientists. Despite president Liz Taylor boasting that her submarine will be able to travel “anywhere in the ocean”, Doer says it is some years off making its first-ever dive.

Richard Branson’s sub is called the DeepFlight Challenger. It has a design that enables it to ‘fly’ down to the world’s deepest point. The design is based on that of a plane and was the brainchild of UK engineer Graham Hawkes. Originally built by billionaire Steve Fossett before he died in a plane crash, the project was saved by property investor Chris Welsh, who plans to pilot the one-man sub himself.

Patrick Lahey, the man behind US-based Triton Subs, has an altogether different vision. “We need to do a better job of sharing the ocean with the world,” he says. He hopes paying customers will join Triton on a ride of a lifetime, sitting in the tiny, three-man cockpit in a yellow submarine for a trip 40,000 leagues under the sea.

The as-yet untested vessel has a six-inch-thick glass sphere that offers passengers a 360-degree view of the deepest parts of planet Earth. Lahey says that this craft will be able to travel seven miles down to explore the Mariana Trench. Right now, its deepest-diving submarine can go down just 0.6 miles. But will people really want to make this trip?

“Thousands of people climb Everest and Richard Branson is offering trips into near-Earth orbit,” says Bruce Jones, the company’s chief executive. “We think you can get $250,000 from some real adventuresome types to say they’re one of a handful of people who’ve been to the deepest spot in the ocean.”

The Discovery Channel has used a Triton sub to plunge the depths for the first-ever footage of the giant squid in its natural habitat. But Triton is not the only company trying to make deep-sea subs a viable commercial enterprise. A company such as U-Boat Worx from the Netherlands says its bright, well-built deep-sea subs can be “used for research missions and for private recreation”, as well as operated from yachts. Indeed, while the speedboat or helicopter may have been the mega-yacht owner’s toy of choice, that is rapidly being replaced by the submarine: a toy designed more for wide-eyed wonder rather than the more prosaic needs of speedy travel to shore, or beyond.

But the only billionaire who has achieved any real concrete success diving to such extreme depths is movie director James Cameron. Notorious for straying way over budget and over schedule in his movies, Cameron spent $8 million building a sub that would allow him to be the first person to reach the Marinara Trench in 50 years. He reached the ocean’s deepest point in March last year.

After a descent that lasted two hours and 36 minutes, the director spent three hours on the desert-like sea bed collecting samples using a robotic claw and a ‘slurp gun’ to suck up small sea creatures for later study. The 57-year-old director also took the opportunity to shoot footage for a 3D film of his dive that will be released soon.

After a 70-minute ascent back to the surface 300 miles southwest of Guam, the Deepsea Challenger was spotted by a helicopter owned by yet another billionaire, co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen. Allen, a long-time friend of Cameron, had been present for the historic dive. In fact, he posted live updates of the event on his Twitter feed, while he stood on the deck of his mega-yacht — the Octopus — which he lent to Cameron as a support vessel for his dive.

And what a support vessel. The Octopus is the fifth-largest mega-yacht in the world not owned by a head of state, boasting two helicopter pads, two submarines and a permanent crew of 60. U2’s Bono, an occasional passenger, once remarked: “It’s not a yacht, it’s a ferry.”

Allen’s yacht cost $200million to build. Cameron’s sub cost $8million. So, after spending all that money, what did Cameron discover down there, at the bottom of the world? The submariner told the BBC: “It turns out to be quite a sterile, almost desert-like place.”

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