In the farthest realms of wealth, where mega-yachts rule the sea, it is de rigueur to own your own submarine. Or personal submersible. As sea-faring billionaires are wont to say, “scuba diving is great for people who don’t own a sub.”
A quick pause to get our nomenclature straight: a submarine moves quickly from one point to another with no assistance from a support vessel. A submersible moves slowly, and begins and ends its journey at the same spot: a support vessel, which serves as its home base. It is said that the enemy of observation is speed; due to its languid pace, a submersible is the preferred vessel for undersea exploration.
For many years, luxury yacht owners like Richard Branson, Roman Abramovich and Ray Dalio have berthed personal submarines or submersibles on their vessels, along with an assortment of water toys. Film-maker James Cameron is also a recreational submariner, and four years ago led an expedition 7 miles under the sea. Paul Allen’s $12 million, 40-foot sub, Pagoo, is kept in a garage on his yacht the Octopus. It holds up to 10 people, and it is actually yellow. Allen also owns a remote-operated submersible, the Octo ROV, which was used last year to find the wreck of the Japanese battleship Musashi, which sank in 1944. (By the way, if you have to inquire too intently about the price of a personal submarine, you’re already in over your head).
It was estimated before the great financial crisis that there were about 100 private personal subs and submersibles roaming the world’s oceans. No more recent census seems to have been conducted, but following a pause after the crisis, personal subs have once again become a growth category. It seems that they’re a great cure for boredom after you’ve lounged around on a mega-yacht for a few days. They’re also a way to have “a life-changing experience, fast,” which according to one of our sources is apparently one of the things the ultra-rich are after.
But it’s not just the ultra-rich; this phenomenon plays into a broader theme in the tourism industry, as well. Adventure tourism is the fastest-growing global market segment. The very top of the adventure tourism segment (trips costing $100,000+) is estimated to be a $4 billion market. In addition to heli-skiing, mountain-climbing and space tourism, there’s a burgeoning underwater tourism market. Currently, you can charter a personal submarine or submersible in Monaco or the Caymans, and some charter yachts come already equipped with them. Crystal Cruise Lines and some of the Four Seasons resorts are now providing personal submersible day trips for their guests.
Why the sea? The growing fascination with underwater exploration seems to be driven by the fact that the world’s oceans are still essentially the great unknown. An expert informed us that:
–there are three planets’ worth of oil, minerals, and precious gems yet to be discovered in the world’s oceans
–less than 5% of the ocean floor has currently been mapped – we have better maps of Mars than we do of the world’s oceans
–more human beings have been to outer space than have reached even half the full average depth of the oceans
At the unexplored depths of the sea, there is no light, but there is plenty of aquatic life; the creatures rely on chemosynthesis, not photosynthesis. The goblin shark (aka the vampire shark, known for its avoidance of light), the Dumbo octopus (named for its resemblance to the Disney character), and the barreleye fish (also known as the spook fish, its extremely light-sensitive eyes can rotate upward to see through its transparent head) are all deep-sea creatures rarely seen; there are potentially over 250,000 other species in the deep ocean that we don’t yet know about. There are also almost certainly hundreds of thousands of shipwrecks yet to be found. So if your goal as a modern explorer is to find undiscovered life, you might do well to look to the sea, and not to space.
The oil industry has a big stake in manned submersibles, as well. The deep platforms used for oil drilling, like the ones in the Gulf of Mexico, currently sit above oil fields that are monitored by a tanker tethered by anchor cables to the ocean floor. The complex web of cables makes inspection and maintenance expensive and difficult. Having an autonomous underwater vehicle (basically a very smart robot with no tether) would be a game-changer. If you’re wondering about why underwater drones can’t fulfill this need, it’s because so far none exist that can receive signals from above in the deepest ocean.
There’s even a geo-political angle to small manned subs and submersibles. A little-noticed arms race is underway between China and the Western allies in terms of deep-sea technology. The U.S.’s best manned submersible is the Alvin. Its 50 years old, and it can go as deep as 14,700 feet. The Japanese and the French have manned submersibles that can go to 19,700 feet. But the Chinese already have one that goes 23,000 feet deep (the very deepest part of the ocean is 36,200 feet – it’s called the Challenger Deep, and is located in the Mariana Trench off the coast of Guam). It’s well known that China is investing heavily in the ocean (building islands, focusing on subsea mining). It’s like the space race all over again, only underwater. And it’s far from over.
The various forces at work driving the growing demand for manned deep-sea exploration – scientific research, oil exploration and drilling, national defense, and tourism – has happily led to a new wave of innovation. There are a number of manufacturers serving the private market, each working on various enhancements. If you happen to be in the market for a submersible, you’ll need to ask: (1) How deep will the sub go? (2) How many passengers will it hold? (3) What’s the battery life? (4) How easy is it to board?
Here are just a few of the latest models to be introduced by the largest sub builders (you can see all of these and more on our Pinterest board at the end of the post):
—Deepflight Adventure’s Super Falcon 3S debuted at the Monaco Yacht Show this year; it carries three passengers, and can go 400 feet deep
—SEAmagine Hydrospace Corp’s Aurora-5 promises “deep sea exploration with the family in tow;” it seats four passengers and a pilot, and its weight, size and color can be customized to coordinate with your super-yacht
–The U Boat Worx C-Explorer 5 holds four passengers and a pilot – it’s air-conditioned, goes 985 feet deep, and claims to be so easy to operate that passengers can take a turn piloting it (most submersibles are controlled by a joy stick)
—U.S. Submarines’ crown jewel is the Phoenix 1000: it can descend to 1,000 feet, has four levels, and can be outfitted with up to 10 bedrooms. The price? $80 million.
–Florida-based Triton’s 1000/7 “tourist submersible” holds seven passengers and can operate from a cruise ship or mega-yacht; its 6600/2 can take two passengers 6,600 feet deep – it seems to be the gold standard for depth at the moment.
As glamorous as all of this sounds, there are limits to what these underwater playthings can currently do. The most significant one is how deeply they can safely descend. Most are considered “shallow,” meaning that you can descend 300-1,000 feet. Going to 3,300 feet is a lot more costly, but a lot more rewarding. At that depth, you might see a giant squid, hydrothermal vents (fissures from which geothermally heated water issues), seamounts (a mountain rising from the sea floor that does not reach the surface), and shipwrecks rarely seen by the human eye.
The risk of going even deeper than that is the extreme water pressure at lower depths. That’s been the constraint on developing personal submersibles that can truly delve to new territory underwater. Currently, there are only six research submersibles in the world capable of diving to 13,000 feet (roughly the average depth of the world’s oceans) and all are government-owned. Because these subs were built by the government with no real regard to cost, they are quite expensive, and therefore impractical for personal or commercial use.
But that may all be about to change. I recently attended a fascinating presentation about what the future of personal subs and submersibles may be, and its way cool.
Stockton Rush, a Princeton-educated entrepreneur, is the CEO of 7-year old manned submersible company Ocean Gate. An aerospace engineer by training, as a boy he dreamed of being an astronaut and exploring outer space. But as his career progressed, he became fascinated by the possibilities of deep-sea exploration.
The first-generation sub built by Ocean Gate is the Cyclops 1. It holds five, and goes to a depth of 1,640 feet. Its longest trip is 8 hours, and in it, Rush recently led a week-long manned submersible expedition to explore the Andrea Doria, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Because wrecks attract marine life, passengers on the trip saw numerous dolphins and whales. He’s also led expeditions to a Nazi sub wrecked in Long Island Sound; to British Columbia to film the elusive bluntnose sixgill shark (also called the cow shark, it can be as long as 20 feet); and to a sunken gold-rush-era paddle wheeler in Lake Laberge in the Yukon Territory.
Ocean Gate is now hard at work completing the Cyclops 2. Scheduled to debut in November 2017, it would be the only privately owned submersible in the world capable of taking 5 crew members to depths of 13,000 feet. With a lightweight carbon fiber hull, and the largest viewport on a private submersible, it will employ a controlled submersion technique that will make embarking and disembarking far easier and safer (the sub will essentially launch underwater, rather than on the surface in potentially choppy seas.) BlueView provides the sonar necessary to improve visibility at lower depths.
In addition to the ocean life at this much greater depth range, coveted new dive targets would become accessible, including the Titanic, wrecks of the Battle of Coral Sea, many hydrothermal vents, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and Galapagos Rift, Ecuador.
If all goes according to plan, Ocean Gate intends to offer a May 2018 four- to seven-day “mission” to the wreck of the Titanic. No excursion has been made there in a manned sub since 2005. There’s a limited window each year – from May to August – in which the visibility is good enough to make such a mission worthwhile. If this sounds like a trip of a lifetime to you, it’s not too early to reserve a spot. The cost is $105,129 per person.
Safety concerns are a clear focal point as this personal sub category grows. Ocean Gate’s Rush reassures us that he keeps 4 days of life support on his subs (food, water and blankets). There’s a tracking system on the sub and another on the support vessel, so the two are in contact at all times. He says that there have been no serious injuries in a personal sub or submersible for 35 years, with 15 million passengers having made trips safely.
Of course this next generation of subs and submersibles could potentially be used to bad ends. Many years ago, the Columbian government discovered two drug-smuggling subs that could remain underwater for 10 days straight. One can imagine pirates finding these quite useful. So expect government regulation to try to keep pace with the technology.
But let’s end on a brighter note. It seems fitting to conclude our underwater explorations with a thought from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “oh, brave new world!”
The sea is calling. We’re off to practice our barrel rolls with the whales.