Deep sea exploration: what’s it like to take a trip on a submersible? | Exploration

When we climb on board the ship, the submersible is waiting for us on deck. It is sleek and gleaming and slightly comic, like a tiny spaceship. It has a banana-yellow deck and a huge, Jetsons-style cockpit contained within a transparent bubble: an acrylic globe that is perfectly clear and spherical, temporarily shrouded in a thick grey cover to protect the interior from super-heating in the Bahamian sun.

It is at once impossibly futuristic and yet intriguingly solid – like no vehicle I have ever seen before. And it feels oddly in keeping with my present surroundings, which are, admittedly, perplexing. I don’t spend much of my time on superyachts, so this all seems strange to me. There’s a bridge full of glittering equipment and flatscreens of data. There’s a gleaming white kitchen filled with food. Capable, suntanned young staff buzz around, busy with ropes and fenders, knives strapped to their ankles, offering to whip us up margaritas at a moment’s notice.

Patrick Lahey, co-founder of Triton Submarines, is holding court in a shaded porch. The charismatic CEO has his work cut out: after the OceanGate disaster in June 2023 – when an experimental submersible, Titan, imploded while diving to the wreck of the Titanic, killing all those on board – potential new clients have been wary. But they are not wholly uninterested. A few are on board with me today. They nod, thoughtful, as they consider a future as the next Jacques Cousteau, the next James Cameron, or even just the next fair-weather hobbyist.

Deep-sea explorer: Triton’s 1000-2 MKI Antarctica.

Lahey is about as far from a hobbyist as it is possible to get. After starting out as a saturation diver in the oil and gas industry, he got into subs in the 1980s, first as a pilot and then as a producer, co-founding his company in 2007 – a company that has pushed the very bounds of underwater possibility. Triton’s 36000/2, a titanium-hulled leviathon, is the only vehicle ever certified to “full ocean depth”, and has explored the very deepest trenches on the planet.

It’s hard for the landlubber to understand the true scale of this achievement. A scuba diver, for example, must start considering the risk of decompression sickness (“the bends”) when spending extended periods below 10 metres or so; from around 30m down they risk the intoxicating effects of nitrogen narcosis. Without intensive training and special equipment, most would become incapacitated by the time they reached 90m below the surface, the depth at which air becomes toxic due to the increased “partial pressure” of oxygen. This was around the limit of early naval submarines too, such as the German U-Boat, although in extremis individual subs were reported to have descended as far as 100m.

By 300m deep, so much sunlight has been absorbed by the sea above that even in the middle of the day it is as dark as a moonlit night. At 1,000m below the surface, it is already so dark that no living eyes can see; pressure is intense, as if 100kg were pushing down on every square centimetre. Still – depending on where you are in the ocean – you may not yet have made it a tenth of the way down. Very few people have ever seen the ocean floor; fewer people have explored ocean trenches than have walked on the Moon. Lahey is one of them.

Submersibles have been his life mission. His evangelical zeal for the transcendental possibilities of submersion is contagious. But a sub ain’t cheap. To produce their glittering monsters, Triton must find backers, funders, clients. Inside their brochure – cover of textured navy, letters picked out in copper – I find a catalogue of dream machines. Some are tried and tested, others awaiting a wealthy backer to bring them into existence: a comfortable lounge-type sub appropriate for romantic dinners or intimate weddings; a long, sausage-shaped vehicle that could host cocktail parties, even a casino; souped-up subs shaped like starfighters, kitted out in camo or clownfish colours.

Reading between the lines, the ideal Triton client must be a billionaire with a taste for showmanship and aspirations of scientific or exploratory glory. They exist – and in such numbers as to sustain a micro-industry. Lahey can confirm this, although I can’t say I know any myself. The lurid yellow vessel on deck, for example, belongs to the happy Triton client Carl Allen, an American entrepreneur who made his money in rubbish bags. It is, clearly, a lucrative business: he owns a whole “exploration fleet” that includes the 50m superyacht Gigi, the 55m support vessel Axis – the gleaming white boat on which I am currently standing, off the coast of New Providence island – and an Icon A5 seaplane. Allen uses his Triton submersible to search the wrecks of Spanish galleons in the turquoise Caribbean waters; the treasures they recover – gold chains, silver bars, emerald pendants – are displayed in a local museum.

The 3300/3 is far from Triton’s most expensive model, although a new one will still set you back US$4.75m (£3.75m), and that presupposes you already own the superyacht to launch it from. “A sub is cheaper to run than a jet ski,” promises Lahey, with a twinkle in his eye. And it’s technically true, on a daily basis, although there are expensive extras to account for. The little yellow sub takes eight staff members to winch it from the deck into the waves. One clings to the roof like a rodeo rider as it chugs to the platform out back where we will climb aboard.

Ownership of a Triton submersible also requires a regime of rigorous testing to ensure compliance with international safety regulations. Safety, of course, is the spectre in the room. Until recently, Lahey could very confidently brag that it was safer – statistically speaking – to travel in a submersible than in a car, and technically that remains the case. But in the wake of the OceanGate disaster, that no longer projects as the boasting of a carefree visionary but the defensive manoeuvres of a company director facing a PR crisis.

Before the tragedy – which was revealed under the full glare of the global media after four days of feverish speculation over its passengers’ fate – the private submersible sector had an unblemished record spanning 50 years. OceanGate, Titan’s operating company, had been open about its maverick approach; passengers were asked to sign a waiver accepting the risk of “severe injury, disability, emotional trauma, other harm, and/or death” and acknowledging that the Titan had “not been approved or certified by any regulatory body and (was) constructed of materials that have not been widely used for manned submersibles.” (The “experimental” carbon fibre hull, now known to have catastrophically failed under pressure, was labelled by Titantic director and deep-sea pioneer James Cameron as “a horrible idea”.)

The OceanGate disaster attracted startled public attention to a micro-industry that had hitherto gone relatively overlooked. Reactions varied from ghoulish gloating over the misfortunes of the very rich (each client had paid $250,000) to sheer bafflement that such a market existed at all. Lahey himself lost “a dear friend” in the disaster: Paul-Henri Nargeolet, an underwater researcher who had visited the wreck some 35 times.

Potential clients may now be leery of submersibles, Lahey admits: “I hope it won’t affect sales. But asking questions… that’s a good thing. If you’re climbing into a machine to go to the deep sea, you need to vet that machine.” After our dive in the Bahamas, Lahey and his wife will be flying to Spain to soothe a client who recently took delivery of a Triton sub but whose wife is now too frightened to let him use it.

I, too, am required to sign a waiver before boarding the Triton 3300/3, although I find the language comparatively reassuring, stating the submersible to be “fully-accredited and certified… to depths up to 3,300ft (1,005m) of sea water” and noting the pilot’s “years of experience”. In any case, I will be descending barely a fraction of the depth of the Titanic wreck, which sits around 3,810m down.

But Triton does manufacture submarines that can descend right down into the very depths of the ocean: through the bright-lit shallows, and the twilit mesopelagic zone where wolffish roam; down into the dark; through the bathypelagic zone, lit only by pinpoints of bioluminescence, the flickering lanterns of angler fish luring simple creatures to their doom; into the eerie abyssal zone 4,000m below, where spectral beings scavenge from the remains of the dead, which snow down from above. And then, when it seems they can dive no further, down into the deepest trenches of the ocean floor, to what they call the Hadal zone.

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 draw closer, we find the wheelhouse filled with what appears to be a cloud of gnats. Thousands of tiny, juvenile fish have found a place of relative safety in the skeleton of the old ship. Sharp-beaked parrotfish patrol the perimeters. Angel fish ascend in heavenly splendour. A predatory lionfish – flamboyantly finned – lurks in the vicinity of the fish nursery.

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

We see all this as if floating by in a bubble, our view through the acrylic dome of the submersible perfectly clear though slightly warped. I experience a strange fusion of anxiety and delight, an emotional agitation in all directions. When I pull out my notepad, I find its red cover magicked an inky grey by the filtered light. Beyond the wreck, the shelf falls away. Troy, our pilot, spins the sub until we are right on the precipice, peering over it. Then he spins back around and we back over the ledge and descend. Just enough to get a sense of it, the freefalling gulf below. The potential to go down, down, down – into the abyss, as I find myself thinking, but Lahey says no: it’s only a few hundred metres deep, that’s all. Well within this vehicle’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.

Largely, deep-sea exploration is the domain of remotely operated vehicles. There is, understandably, hesitance to send people to places that they cannot be easily rescued from should things go wrong. But submersible enthusiasts, like Lahey and Vescovo, maintain that manned expeditions offer something different, an essential avenue of experience and understanding and appreciation of the planet we live on.

Being there in person, seeing the richness and strangeness of marine life unfold in front of you is the most effective way to bring home the wonder of nature. “To me, robotic vehicles have a role. But they are soulless,” says Lahey. There is a need to enchant, to capture the public’s heart and soul. Proponents of ocean exploration cite our lack of knowledge as the root of its exploitation by deep-sea drillers and miners: you can’t protect what you don’t know. Lahey thinks it’s deeper than that: you won’t protect what you don’t love.

Michael Haley, a marine biologist working for Triton as special projects director, agrees that there’s no replacement for manned vehicles. Partly, yes, it’s the romance, he says. But there is scientific purpose, too. Significant discoveries were made by early submariners, he explains: photographs of recently extruded magma acted as proof of plate-tectonic theory in the 1970s; underwater crafts discovered deep-water coral reefs and hydrothermal vents – hot-water jets that support vast biodiversity in the total absence of light. “There’s no substitute,” he says, “for manned explorations.”

But in a time of diminishing research budgets, as scientists squabble over grants of a few thousand dollars here or there, he argues, there are few avenues of public funding for projects of this scale. The Limiting Factor cost Victor Vescovo $37m (£29.3) – not including the costs of support vessels and staffing. US billionaire Ray Dalio has spent $200m (£158m) retrofitting a former prospecting ship to create a floating oceanographic research hub, the OceanXplorer, which boasts four onboard laboratories and two Triton subs. “It sounds ridiculous,” says Haley, “but it’s likely that the future of deep-sea exploration will be financed by ultra-high-net-worth individuals.”

Largely, he explains, running me through a few sums on the back of a napkin, “we are talking about those people worth a quarter of a billion, minimum.” James Cameron maintains that he makes feature films to finance his submersible habit. He and Dalio became co-owners of Triton in December 2022.

Sure, I say. I can understand what you’re saying. From outside on deck comes the pop of a champagne bottle.

But I hesitate. There’s something tawdry in it: in the courting of the rich in the name of science – submersibles as a step up from speedboats. At the Monaco Yacht Show in October, U-Boat Worx debuted their Super Sub, a sporty little number with a top underwater speed of 10 knots. (Forbes called it “a Ferrari-red, underwater rocket ship”). Is this really the path to ocean conservation?

Still, martial and commercial interests have historically acted as drivers of exploration and innovation. For better or worse, those with money and resources have long driven the agenda; is it not better they should come to value the planet in all its fantastical glory, perhaps?

Astronauts who have travelled into space have spoken, with reverence, of the intense emotional experience that comes with viewing the planet from the outside: the sudden comprehension of our own frightening vulnerability, living crowded alongside our life support and everything we know on a tiny spinning dot in an endless void. And protectiveness, too – a desperate urge to save all that we can.

There was something of that in the expression of a Canadian billionaire as he stumbled from the submersible on to the swim boards: a raw kind of exhilaration, amazement. Even awe. The look of a man who had just come face to face with the sublime, with nature in her most powerful incarnation. A look that’s worth four million bucks.

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