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What is the experience of riding in a submersible during deep sea exploration?
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What is the experience of riding in a submersible during deep sea exploration?

“When we board the vessel, we are greeted by the waiting submersible on the deck. It possesses a shiny and modern appearance, resembling a miniature spaceship. With its vibrant yellow deck and a large, futuristic cockpit encased in a clear, spherical acrylic bubble, it appears almost comical. Currently, a grey cover is shielding the interior from the intense heat of the Bahamian sun.”

This car is both extremely futuristic and surprisingly sturdy – unlike any vehicle I have encountered before. It fits strangely well with my current environment, which is undeniably confusing. I am not accustomed to spending time on luxury yachts, so all of this feels unfamiliar to me. The deck is equipped with flashy gadgets and displays of information. The bright, clean kitchen is stocked with an abundance of food. Energetic and tanned crew members are bustling about, attending to ropes and fenders and carrying knives on their ankles. They are even offering to quickly make us margaritas upon request.

Patrick Lahey, one of the creators of Triton Submarines, is sitting on a covered patio, leading a discussion. The engaging CEO has a tough job ahead of him: following the catastrophe in June 2023 where the Titan, a test submersible, collapsed while attempting to dive to the Titanic wreckage, resulting in the loss of all passengers on board, potential new clients have been hesitant. However, they are not completely disinterested. A few people are present with me today. They nod, lost in thought, contemplating a potential future as the next Jacques Cousteau, the next James Cameron, or simply as a casual enthusiast.

Deep-sea explorer: Triton’s 1000-2 MKI Antarctica.View image in fullscreen

Lahey’s background is far from that of a typical hobbyist. He began his career as a saturation diver in the oil and gas field, but transitioned to submarines in the 1980s as a pilot and eventually a producer. In 2007, he co-founded his company, which has since pushed the limits of what is possible underwater. One of their vehicles, the Triton 36000/2, is made of titanium and is the only one certified to reach “full ocean depth.” This impressive feat has allowed them to explore the deepest trenches on Earth.

For those unfamiliar with the ocean, it can be difficult to grasp the enormity of this accomplishment. Scuba divers, for instance, must carefully consider the danger of decompression sickness (also known as “the bends”) when diving below around 10 meters. At depths of approximately 30 meters, there is also a risk of becoming inebriated by nitrogen narcosis. Without extensive training and specialized equipment, most individuals would become incapacitated upon reaching a depth of 90 meters due to the high “partial pressure” of oxygen, making air toxic. This was also the limit for early naval submarines, such as the German U-Boat, although in extreme cases, individual subs were known to have descended as far as 100 meters.

At a depth of 300m, the ocean has absorbed a significant amount of sunlight from above, resulting in a darkness equivalent to a moonlit night even during the day. At 1,000m below the surface, it becomes completely dark, impossible for any living eyes to see due to intense pressure similar to having 100kg pressing on every square centimetre. It’s important to note, however, that this is still only a fraction of the way down, depending on the location in the ocean. The ocean floor remains mostly unexplored, with fewer individuals having descended into ocean trenches than those who have walked on the moon. Lahey is among the rare few who have achieved this feat.

Submersibles have been his primary focus. He has a strong passion for the limitless potential of submersion, which he exudes to others. However, obtaining a sub is not affordable. In order to create these impressive vehicles, Triton must secure supporters, financiers, and customers. In their brochure, which features a luxurious navy texture and copper lettering, I discovered a collection of fantastic submersible designs. Some have been tried and proven, while others are waiting for a wealthy sponsor to bring them to life: a cozy lounge-style sub perfect for romantic dinners or intimate weddings; a lengthy, cylindrical vessel that could serve as a venue for cocktail parties or even a casino; and upgraded subs resembling starfighters, available in camo or clownfish patterns.

The perfect client for Triton would be a rich individual who enjoys attention and is driven by a desire for scientific or exploratory success. These clients are quite common and have helped to sustain a small industry. Lahey can confirm this, although I personally do not know any of them. For instance, the bright yellow vessel currently on deck belongs to one of these content Triton clients, Carl Allen, an American entrepreneur whose wealth comes from the waste management sector. Clearly, it is a profitable business for him as he owns an entire “exploration fleet” made up of the lavish 50m superyacht Gigi, the 55m support vessel Axis – the stunning white boat I am currently aboard off the coast of New Providence Island, and an Icon A5 seaplane. Allen uses his Triton submersible to search for sunken Spanish ships in the crystal clear Caribbean waters and displays the treasures – like gold chains, silver bars, and emerald pendants- they find in a local museum.

The value of 3300 divided by 3 may not be as high as Triton’s other models, but a brand new one still costs US$4.75m (£3.75m). However, this price assumes that you already own a superyacht to launch the submarine from. As Lahey playfully mentions, “A sub is cheaper to run than a jet ski,” although this is only true on a daily basis and does not factor in additional expenses. In order to launch the little yellow sub, it requires a team of eight staff members who will winch it from the deck into the waves. One staff member will cling to the roof like a rodeo rider while it moves to the platform at the back where we will board.

Owning a Triton submersible demands thorough testing to guarantee adherence to global safety standards. Safety is a significant concern, as highlighted in this situation. In the past, Lahey could confidently boast that traveling in a submersible was statistically safer than traveling in a car, and this remains true. However, the recent OceanGate disaster has shifted the perspective from carefree visionary boasting to defensive measures taken by a company director navigating a PR crisis.

Prior to the unfortunate event, which received widespread attention from the global media after four days of intense speculation, the private submarine industry had maintained a perfect track record for 50 years. OceanGate, the company operating Titan, was transparent about their unconventional approach; passengers were required to sign a waiver acknowledging the potential risk of serious harm or even death due to the submersible not being approved or certified by regulatory bodies and using uncommon materials. (James Cameron, the director of the Titanic and a pioneer in deep-sea exploration, described the use of the “experimental” carbon fiber hull, which ultimately failed under pressure, as a “terrible idea.”)

The OceanGate tragedy brought about unexpected interest towards a micro-industry that had previously received little attention. Responses ranged from cold-hearted satisfaction over the misfortunes of wealthy individuals (each one paid $250,000) to total confusion over the existence of this market. Lahey also suffered the loss of a close friend, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, who was an underwater researcher and had visited the wreck 35 times.

Lahey acknowledges that potential customers might now have reservations about buying submersibles. He hopes this won’t hurt sales, but believes it’s a positive sign that they are asking questions. He emphasizes the importance of thoroughly evaluating the machine if one plans on using it to explore the depths of the ocean. Following their recent dive in the Bahamas, Lahey and his wife will be traveling to Spain to address concerns from a customer who just received their Triton sub, but whose wife is now too scared to allow them to use it.

Like others, I also have to agree to a release form before entering the Triton 3300/3. However, I feel more at ease with the wording, as it declares the submersible as “fully-accredited and certified” for dives up to 3,300ft (1,005m) in sea water and mentions the pilot’s “years of experience”. Nonetheless, my descent will be just a small fraction of the depth where the Titanic wreckage rests at 3,810m.

Triton is capable of producing submarines that can effectively reach the deepest parts of the ocean. These submarines can navigate through different zones including brightly lit shallows, the twilight mesopelagic zone inhabited by wolffish, and the dark abyss. They are able to travel through the bathypelagic zone, where the only light comes from bioluminescent organisms and the ominous angler fish that use their lights to attract prey. Deeper still, they can descend to the eerie abyssal zone, 4,000 meters below the surface, where creatures feed off the remains of the dead. And finally, they can reach the Hadal zone, the deepest and most remote part of the ocean.

This is one of the most hostile environments on Earth. At the bottom of the Mariana Trench, known as the Challenger Deep, the pressure is equal to 8 tons per square inch. Under this kind of pressure, water molecules begin to distort and lose their shape. It is pitch black, the temperature barely above freezing. These are conditions almost wholly inimical to life, where exploration of any kind is fraught with difficulty. In many ways, we know less about the ocean floor than we know about the surface of Mars. To some, this would be a frightening prospect. To Lahey, it is an invigorating one. I’m not sure where I stand. But I do know that I want to go there.

The sub glides almost soundlessly over the sea floor, so smoothly that it might be levitating. We move through a world of blue and not-blue, only the unsettling, almost electric cyan of the water around us, the pale grains of sand swept up as we pass, the shadows of the further, undefinable unknown. The whole scene is lit with the dancing light of the sun passing through the waves overhead. The cockpit tips disconcertingly as we accelerate, like a helicopter.

We pass a small reef shark, slinking silently over the rippled bottom, and a rusting anchor. Ahead, a body materialises from the gloom: the wreck of a ship, perhaps three decades sunk. It lies upright, its sharp lines softened by the commotion of sponges and corals and gorgonians that have grown up across its face. In this flat and featureless area of the seabed, the metal hull has come to serve as an artificial reef and it is crowded with life.

As we approach, we notice the wheelhouse is teeming with a swarm of gnats. Countless small, young fish have sought refuge within the remains of the abandoned ship. Parrotfish with pointed beaks keep watch on the edges. Angel fish glide gracefully above. A colorful lionfish, with flamboyant fins, loiters near the fish sanctuary.

‘I experience a fusion of anxiety and delight, an emotional agitation’: Cal Flyn aboard the Triton submersible.View image in fullscreen

As we journey in our submersible, everything appears to float past us in a bubble. The view through the clear acrylic dome is slightly distorted, yet still clear. This evokes both anxious and joyful emotions within me, creating a sense of agitation. When I take out my notepad, I notice that the red cover now appears grey due to the filtered light. Ahead of us, the ocean floor drops off sharply. Our pilot, Troy, maneuvers the sub so that we are perched on the edge, gazing down into the depths. He then turns us around and we slowly descend, giving us a brief glimpse of the immense chasm below. My mind wanders to the idea of sinking further, deep into the unknown abyss, but Lahey reassures me that it’s only a few hundred meters deep, well within our sub’s capabilities.

Close enough, I think, my head spinning, as Troy sends us zipping back up to the surface. It’s all deep sea to me. But when you’ve been 11,000m below, as Lahey has – five times, each one an eight-hour round trip – it is not in fact much of a muchness, but a very different proposition. To do so, Lahey had to go back to the drawing board, adapt his designs to accommodate the incredible stresses of an expedition into the Hadal zone. He was commissioned to do so by the adventurer and former US naval officer Victor Vescovo, who subsequently explored regions never before visited, including the South Sandwich Trench in the Southern Ocean and the Molloy Deep in the Arctic Ocean.

That submersible, the DSV Limiting Factor, has a pressure hull of 9cm-thick titanium, acrylic windows, and 10 powerful thrusters that allow movement in any direction. As the space shuttle changed our relationship with space, “the Limiting Factor changed our relationship with the ocean,” says Lahey. Not only had they gone places where no one had gone before, but they could return the very next day if they liked.

The primary method of exploring the deep sea is through remotely operated vehicles. It is logical to be cautious about sending people to these locations because they cannot easily be rescued if something were to go awry. Despite this, individuals like Lahey and Vescovo who are passionate about submersibles argue that manned expeditions provide a unique opportunity to gain valuable knowledge and appreciation for our planet.

Personally experiencing and witnessing the beauty and uniqueness of marine creatures is highly impactful in instilling a sense of awe for nature. Lahey expresses that while robotic technology can assist, it lacks the soulfulness of a human perspective. It is crucial to captivate the public’s emotions in order to truly value and appreciate the ocean. Those who support exploring the depths of the ocean point to our limited understanding as the reason for its misuse by companies that dig and mine underwater: without knowledge, we cannot preserve. However, Lahey believes it goes beyond that – we will not safeguard something we do not have a deep fondness for.

According to Michael Haley, a marine biologist employed by Triton as a director of special projects, it is impossible to find a substitute for manned vehicles. He admits that part of the appeal is the romantic aspect, but there is also a significant scientific purpose. Early submariners were able to make important discoveries, such as capturing images of newly expelled magma that supported the theory of plate tectonics in the 1970s. Underwater vehicles have also led to the discovery of deep-sea coral reefs and hydrothermal vents, which are hot-water spouts that host a wide range of life forms in complete darkness. In his opinion, there is no replacement for manned explorations.

However, due to budget constraints in research, scientists are disputing over small grants, leaving little opportunities for public funding for large projects. The venture of Victor Vescovo, the Limiting Factor, had a cost of $37 million, not taking into account support vessel and staffing expenses. Ray Dalio, a US billionaire, has devoted $200 million to upgrade a former prospecting ship into the OceanXplorer, a floating research center with four onboard labs and two Triton subs. The possibility of deep-sea exploration being backed by ultra-wealthy individuals may seem absurd, according to Haley.

According to him, he elaborates by using basic calculations on a napkin, “we are referring to individuals with a net worth of at least 250 million.” James Cameron states that he creates movies to fund his interest in submersibles. He and Dalio acquired ownership of Triton in December 2022.

“Absolutely,” I reply. “I comprehend your words.” The sound of a champagne bottle being popped on the deck can be heard.

However, I have doubts. It feels cheap to pursue the wealthy under the guise of science – using submarines as a fancier alternative to speedboats. The Super Sub, unveiled at the Monaco Yacht Show in October by U-Boat Worx, is a sleek and fast underwater vessel with a maximum speed of 10 knots. Forbes labeled it a “Ferrari-red, underwater rocket ship.” Is this truly the way to promote ocean conservation?

Unfortunately, throughout history, martial and commercial motives have been the main drivers of exploration and progress. Whether this is positive or negative, wealth and resources have always dictated the direction of actions. Would it not be beneficial for these influential individuals to also recognize and appreciate the planet’s wondrous beauty?

Astronauts who have journeyed into space have described the profound emotional impact of seeing the Earth from a different perspective: a sudden realization of our fragile existence, existing in close quarters with our means of survival on a small rotating speck in an infinite emptiness. This also brings a sense of determination to protect all that we hold dear.

The Canadian billionaire’s expression as he emerged from the submersible onto the swim boards hinted at a raw sense of excitement, wonder, and even reverence. It was the look of someone who had just experienced the grandeur of nature in its most formidable form. A gaze that could be valued at four million dollars.

Source: theguardian.com