Race to the Bottom of the Ocean

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May 8, 2012 by Dan Swinhoe

Around 1870, Jules Vern’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea captivated the world.

It was the story of a rich and powerful man under the ocean, exploring nature and fighting giant squids. Come 2012, It’s a strikingly similar story. But instead of Captain Nemo, the rich & powerful are James Cameron, director of Avatar, and Virgin founder Richard Branson. There’s no Nautilus, and no sinking of ships, but there are a range of different organisations vying to claim their stake under the sea.

Twelve men have walked on the moon, around 500 have gone to space, but only three have been down to the Marina trench, the deepest point in the ocean. Natural light stops at around a thousand metres, and by the time anything reaches the 11,000 m depth the atmospheric pressure is roughly the same as having 48 Boeing 747s weighing down on you. Challenger Deep, located towards the south end of the trench, is where you can reach the 11,000 m mark. Located between Japan and Papua New Guinea, life that deep is sparse, made up of simple, soft-shelled creatures, while the ocean floor comprises of an ooze made from the remains of all the ocean life sinking from above, as well as mud volcanoes and hydrothermal vents to contend with.

Race to the bottom

The four teams all in the process of making the plunge are; James Cameron’sDeepsea ChallengerVirgin OceanicTriton and DOER Marine. Here’s a handy breakdown of each team.


Virgin Oceanic’s Deep Flight Challenger was originally built for billionaire adventurer Steve Fossett, but after he sadly died in a plane crash, it fell into the hands of property investor Chris Welsh. Welsh will pilot the first dive, while Branson will take the helm at a later date. Welsh has said, “I’ve been working day and night for two years pursuing this. I’m really excited to get out there and do it – I can’t wait. The rewards of this are breaking ground in so many ways – in raw human exploration, on bringing back science, and in getting a better understanding of our world.”

Designed by engineer Graham Hawkes, the submarine is shaped like a small aircraft, and glides in the water, and the dome covering the pilot isn’t made of glass, it’s carved from a single chunk of solid quartz. The Virgin project is also more ambitious than the other; the Marina trench will only be the first dive, with others planned for five other trenches around the world, including the Arctic, Southern and Indian oceans.

Virgin’s Deepflight Challenger


San Francisco-based DOER Marine are known in the press as the team backed by Google’s Eric Schmidt, and the team with the least glitz and glamour around their dive. The website claims their project ‘It is not an experiment or stunt,’ and DOER president Liz Taylor has said “This isn’t just a flag-planting exercise,” but more of a development project to test technology and equipment. They say their Deepsearch Submersible will be testing glass, batteries, floatation, diving profiles, and human factors.

Their design is a horizontal torpedo shape, with the pilot housed in a glass dome at the tip, with the aim of 8-12 hour dives, taking 90 minutes to reach the trench.

DOER’s Deepsearch submersible


Florida’s Triton Submarines stands slightly apart from the rest for a couple of reasons. Firstly, their Triton 36000/3 is essentially a big glass dome that opens like a clam to let passengers in, with yellow engines at the rear. Secondly, they are the only team planning on charging the public $250,000 a ticket to come on board.

Triton’s submersible, with it’s huge glass dome

Deepsea Challenger

The details surrounding Cameron’s Australian-built Deepsea Challenger were kept secret, but the 23ft, 11-ton vertical green torpedo was finally revealed earlier this year. Fixed with tiny, specially built HD cameras, Cameron said this project is separate from his film career, but documentaries are expected, and he’s said any particularly ugly specimens may make it into the next Avatar film.

Cameron’s Deepsea Challnger

Over before it began?

As film directors go, Cameron has got closer to his subject material than most. But he plunged further than the shell of the Titanic, more than twice as far, down to depths of nearly seven miles, and became the first man to dive down the trench solo. His decent took two hours, and he spent three hours exploring, though due to a hydraulics failure he wasn’t able to bring back any samples.

After Cameron’s success, the other companies congratulated him in public through the likes of Twitter. Marc Deppe, Vice President of Triton Submarines, says “It will inspire more people to reach the depths while bringing much-needed attention to the world’s oceans,” while Liz tells ATE, “It matters because Cameron knows the value of conveying the human story of exploration, it proves that it can be done and done safely and it brings attention to the Avatar-like reality we are facing today – well funded commercial interests are rapidly exploiting the oceans before we have even begun to understand their critical importance as our over arching life support system.

As exciting as the press made it sound, the reality is that there was no big race. Virgin and Cameron were the only two in real contention, and once the latter revealed his Deepsea Challenger, it was pretty clear who was going to be the first to make the plunge. Both Triton and DOER are at least a couple of years off from taking the plunge, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less interesting. With DOER it’s about the research and the science and the environment, while Triton are a company with an eye for tapping into the super-rich’s adventurous side.

DOER’s Platform

DOER was founded in 1992, and across the website, throughout our interview and in the press, the same message comes through- The Deepsearch vehicle itself is a scientific platform- “a platform that support a wide variety of tools, sensors, samplers assuring maximum data collection per hour of operational time.”

The estimated $40 Million cost for the whole project and thousands of hours already put in by the DOER team will result in two submersibles, improvements to glass an batteries, new pressure chambers, and science papers.

The Deepsearch programme is a part of, and funded through the SEAlliance, who are working towards creating a “blue bank account,” preserving large swaths of the ocean and protecting and repairing depleted fisheries, damaged coral reefs and sea floors. “The biggest problem to solve in the oceans is overcoming ignorance,” says Liz, pointing to the huge investments being made to extract oil, gas, rare earth minerals and deep-sea fishes while budgets and interest in science have dwindled. “The SEAlliance, like DOER, is interested in making an enduring difference. The SEAlliance and the Marine Science Technology Foundation have been the two non profits to provide grants towards the Deepsearch Programme to date.”

One other way that DOER benefits the SEAlliance is via our ongoing work with Google Earth and making new content connections. Via a research and development agreement that DOER has with Google and the US Navy, the can assist with requests for the release of bathymetric data in the SEAlliance Hope Spots and other areas where expeditions may take place, helping to identify areas of interest.

The other link to Google is the investment by its chairman, Eric Schmidt. “Mr. Schmidt first openly talked about his support for the project, like Cameron and Branson, he surely has the means to fund nearly anything of his choosing,” Liz says. “Clearly he recognises the importance of knowledge, innovation, and the need to inspire students to pursue science and engineering.”

Triton’s Yellow Submarine

Triton have a very different approach. While they promise they will be ‘working with a number of scientists to maximise the impact of our expeditions,’ they are the only company approaching the trench with more of a businessman-like eye. The project will cost an estimated $17 million, and once up and running the subs will sell for around $15 million each.

Tourists will then pay $250,000 for a ticket, but Mark is confident there’s a market out there. “They are the same people who have paid to visit Titanic and Bismark, purchased trips to the international space station and purchased seats on Virgin Galactic.”

The private submarine market is booming. The super rich who are bored with mega-yachts are now purchasing submersibles of all shapes and sizes, ranging from around $1million up to a staggering £80million. While the business is ‘booming’ with maybe a dozen of them being sold a year, there are now around 100 of these privately owned machines floating around the oceans.

Companies selling include SEAmagine, who’s Ocean Pearl costs around $2.5 million, Virgin’s sub designer Graham Hawke’s Super Falcon retails at $1.7 million, and if you’ve really got money to burn, there’s the Phoenix 1000. Manufactured by US Submarines, this 210ft, four-storied monster is the real life equivalent to Nemo’s Nautilus. Its 5000 square foot interior can hold 20 people and costs $80 million.

The $80 million Phoenix 1000

But to Mark it’s not just about the price tag on the ticket. On why so many companies are converging on the trench around the same time, he says, “I think each team believes that the deep ocean could hold answers to many of science’s great mysteries and also potentially solutions to some of mankind’s greatest challenges.”

Triton Multimedia Productions was formed to help change people’s perceptions on the ocean. “Our goal is to use our transparent hulled submarines to film the deep ocean and to inspire people to learn more about our water planet,” Mark also explains their machine can be purpose-built for wide range of applications including scientific research and exploration.

In the wake of the Trieste

While he was the first man to go down solo, Cameron isn’t the first man to make the trip. Now on display at the U.S Navy Museum, the Trieste took Jacques Piccard and Lieutenant Don Walsh to the bottom of the ocean back in 1960. Designed by Piccard’s father Auguste, the 50ft long, 12ft wide bathyscaphe was essentially a massive balloon filled with gasoline to make it buoyant (Gasoline is lighter than water) and nine tonnes of iron shot to make it sink. It was only capable of travelling vertically, with the trip close to five hours with 20 minutes spent looking through cracked plexiglass into the deep.

But since then, no human has returned. The trench hasn’t been completely ignored, with the Japanese robotic submersible Kaiko making the dive in 1995 and the US-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s vessel Nereus following in 2008. But sending an unmanned craft to do an explorers job is never as exciting.

During Cameron’s dive Walsh told the BBC; “I take no pride in the fact that no one has gone back in more than a half Century. At the time we did our dive, our best guess was that it would be about two years before scientists would be back into the trench.”

So why the long absence? “There has never been sufficient public interest or funding to allow for deep ocean projects to proliferate,” says Mark. “Perhaps it’s because you can sit on your back porch and look out into space and imagine what it would be like to fly in a rocket to visit the far corners of the galaxy, the ocean on the other hand, looks like a big flat plane unless you can dive into it.”

Liz also points to the price tag, explaining that as robotics improved, the risk to human life seemed too expensive. While there are a fair number of none-military submersibles around, many are relics from the eighties, and others projects are suffering budget challenges. That leaves a few BRICS countries like India and China developing their own systems, but for the most part the future of the submarine lies in the hands of private companies.

“Our approach was focused on the technological advances since the 1960s that could be applied to the problem of safe, repeatable diving to all areas of the ocean, including the Mariana Trench,” says Liz. These included little details such as being able to transport the vessel in any standard ISO containers, reducing the need for special ‘motherships’.

“We consulted with Don Walsh and other submariners, scientists, materials experts and more – seeking to meld the proven past methods with modern innovation. The shape of the Deepsearch vehicle evolved from our “orca” like concept vehicle to more of a “torpedo” form based on feedback from our science advisors and their desire to push ahead with glass as a personnel sphere.”


The cold temperatures and rapid pressure changes are some of the biggest challenges faced by engineers, especially as most submersibles are tested to one and half times their working design depth, meaning the computer modelling and chamber-testing has to be top-notch. While no single breakthrough has created a new wave of Aquanauts, a host of technology advances, including pressure-resistant syntactic foam, lightweight lithium batteries, computer modelling, predictive failure studies, engineering software, computer assisted machining have made this new generation of subs as different from the Trieste as your iPhone from Morse code signals.

Cameron’s sub even developed a way to make the condensed water vapour from the pilot’s breath and sweat on the cold metal sphere drain into a space where it’s sucked into a plastic bag so in an emergency, the pilot can drink it.

Triton’s glass clamshell looks deceptively simple, and relies on a natural characteristic of glass. “Since glass is incredibly strong under compression but performs poorly under tension and/or shear, our design has no mechanical or electrical penetrations and instead uses fibre-optic and radio frequency signals through the glass for control of the external equipment and systems,” explains Mark. Rayotek Scientific are the manufacturers of the glass domes, and he says their biggest challenge was to make a sphere large enough to carry human passengers without imperfections.

A dive too far?

After Cameron’s dive Dr Alan Jamieson, from Oceanlab, told the BBC: “I think what James Cameron has done is a really good achievement in terms of human endeavour and technology. But my feeling is that manned submersibles like this are limited in scientific capabilities when compared to other systems, mostly due to the fact there is someone in it. Remote or autonomous systems can collect a far greater volume of useful scientific data for far less money.”

Which is a good point. Why send people when robots can make the same journey? Understanding our Oceans is key to helping protect them, but surely sending people down is only hampering the progress? As Stephen Hawking once said: “Humans are an adventurous species. We like to explore and are inspired by journeys to the unknown. Science is not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion. Exploration by real people inspires us.”

“Direct human exploration has been critical to our understanding of the terrestrial part of the world and it is an important component of ocean exploration,” says Liz, continuing that robots compliment the human touch. “Imagine the difference between exploring a forest or mountain on land directly versus trying to understand the same area by lowering cameras and sensors from above. Imagine if we never conducted an air search by helicopter or aircraft but only ever sent up radio-controlled versions armed with cameras. Safer perhaps, but not better.”

“Any kid can envision operating an ROV – it is not much more complicated than a video game. However, piloting a submersible conjures up a much more exciting vision – actually going into the sea and exploring with one’s own eyes, wins every time. During every submersible operation that we undertake, new things are observed, even in areas where we have been repeatedly. A submersible acts as an underwater blind for scientists giving them the gift of time to really take the time to observe without the constraints of a cable back to the ship as with an ROV, or bottom time restrictions as with SCUBA. ”

Mark agrees, adding that sending people and submersibles down shouldn’t present any threat to the environment as long as everything is built and operated responsibly. But with so much focus being given to one tiny part of the ocean, it’s easy to forget just how much about the blue planet we don’t know. “Given the immense size of our oceans, the small group of companies involved could never put a dent in exploring the deep ocean.”

Original at http://www.asktheexperts.org.uk/race-to-the-bottom-of-the-ocean.html


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