In the depths of the Marianas Trench
On a sunny day in Apra Harbor, with the port full of shipping containers and cargo vessels, a modest yet mighty ship housing the Five Deeps sits patiently as its next journey is planned.
The Five Deeps is a reference to the five deepest parts of the ocean, with the Marianas Trench being the deepest point that this submersible vessel will map.
Victor Vescovo and his trench ride
With almost two-thirds of earth unexplored, businessman Victor Vescovo has made it his passion to explore the deepest parts of the oceans. “We're here now in the Challenger Deep, the deepest and most dangerous place we've attempted to dive yet. We're going to dive it more than once, four or five times, which has never been done before,” said Vescovo. “We'll try to send me down in a solo dive in a couple of days and within a day or two of that I'll go down again. It's a very ambitious agenda that we have, but we're bringing to the Challenger Deep more technology and more assets than we think anyone has ever brought before.”
Since a vessel has never visited Marianas Trench more than once, Vescovo hired Triton Submarines to create the Triton 36000/2, which Vescovo named the Limiting Factor. The Limiting Factor has three robotic landers and the most powerful sonar on a civilian level that currently exists.
Rob McCallun, co-founder of Triton Submarines was honored to be a part of the Five Deeps. “The original request from Victor was that he wanted to be the first guy to dive into the deepest point in each of the world's five oceans,” said McCallun, who is also expedition leader. “It's as important to rediscover the same trench. The other four, no one has been to. In the Marianas Trench, what we’re interested in is not just getting to the deepest point but also coming up the slope and looking at the walls. The trench walls are where great scientific achievements will be found. Like standing at the top of a mountain, there's not much there. To see interesting life of a mountain, you need to see the slope with the animals and plants. Like the trench, at the bottom there isn't much there.”
The whole system works as a group. “The ship, the submarine, the landers, the laboratory spaces, the handling system, the boats--it's what we call the Hadal Exploration System,” said Lahey. He also mentioned that the submarine represents about $30 million dollars of that total and the entire system totals about $48.5 million.
Alan Jamieson who has worked in deep sea biology for 20 years, was called to help Vescovo with his journey to the deepest parts of the ocean. “We decided that there should be a science component to this, because originally this was just about doing the five deeps and wasn’t necessarily science,” said Jamieson.
The Marianas Trench will be the deep number four for Triton, which went down to the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest point in Antarctica and the deepest point in the Java Trench. “We've proven the sub works. We haven't been as deep as the Marianas yet,” said Jamieson. “The big technology is the submarine. We have new landers onboard and a new sonar. The submarine is a real game changer--there's nothing in the world like it.”
The Five Deeps is also fortunate to have Stuart Buckle as captain, given his experience with the Marianas Trench. “I was lucky enough to be captain of the Mermaid Sapphire when James Cameron came in 2012. On my resume, I'm the captain who's gotten someone down and back,” said Buckle.
Buckle is also proud to be working with the most expensive sonar in the world. “It cost around $2 million dollars. On the way to Guam from Indonesia, we mapped the seafloor,” said Buckle. “Now we know more accurately than we've ever known before how the terrain looks, what depth is there. Now we have found the deepest point and will send Victor down there in the submarine. Victor is being very generous with all the maps we are creating. They will be out for free so the whole word can see.”
While the Marianas Trench attracts research as the deepest point in the ocean, Buckle hopes that others will take interest in researching the other trenches.
“It's important to research all the trenches. Only less than 20 percent of the world's ocean has been mapped,” Buckle explained. “The planet is 80 percent water, so there’re vast areas that haven't been explored or measured correctly—no one has been there to collect things. We don't know what's down there but that's what makes it exciting. There's all sorts of opportunity and potential. We've found about 15 new species so far. There's potential for medicines to cure diseases—like the Amazon rainforest when it was explored, Westerners learned from natives about medicines from the plants there.”
Another vital member of the Five Deeps is oceanographer Cassie Bongiovanni. “This is a once in a life time opportunity for someone to map something for the first time in the world—to do it repeatedly, multiple trenches that haven't been mapped before. This was too cool to pass up,” said Bongiovanni. “What's interesting is the technology used to map Marianas has evolved so much over the last five to fifteen years, even within the last few years. The system we have is brand new, best of the best. We're able to get very high resolution with pretty decent uncertainties and have a track record of being accurate with the previous dives in the previous locations.”
With the new technology, Bongiovanni looks forward to putting to rest ambiguities about the deepest point and pinning down calculations that are more concrete. “It's interesting to keep mapping to see the evolution of technology or the evolution of the trench,” she said. “It's nice to have for geologic purposes when you have that kind of baseline of data you see things change. I don't remember reading that Marianas Trench is too dynamic of an area but there are geographic processes that change the formation of the seafloor down there.”
Being one of the youngest and one of the only females on the ship, Bongiovanni believes that more young women should consider doing STEM. “Just because you have a teacher that made you not like something, don't give up on it,” Bongiovanni said. “I hated science with a passion growing up then I went to college and took a couple sciences classes because you had to and I loved it. Don't write off a bad class because it’s a bad class.”
Also aboard is Dr. Don Walsh, an oceanographer who assisted Jacques Piccard and James Cameron on their expeditions. “If we're not curious, we’ll die as a civilization. We really need to understand how our planet works,” said Walsh. “People want to go to Mars and the moon but we really only explored 10 percent of the oceans. The deep trenches, they don't cover enough area as seafloor—they’re just 2 percent of the seafloor. To understand how the planet works, we must also understand how the trenches work. It's all hooked together like a chain and you have to know each hook in the chain. We do this because humans are curious about the world around them, not necessarily the entire global ocean, but maybe just plants in the backyard. We are born with the exploration gene. Babies explore their mother's arms or under the kitchen table. But becoming a teenager, you're driven by hormones and peer pressure. You begin to sublimate the explorer gene. By the time you become a young adult, you may not have survived as an explorer or a curious person. A few of us maintain that curiosity.”
After the mission, both the ship and the submarine will have a new owner by September. Vescovo hopes the buyer of his vessel will put its systems to strong scientific use. “So many of the people who have worked with the system hopefully can continue to work with it on periodic basis. I personally won't be involved that much, but I know that many of the geologists, the scientists and the technicians will be involved going forward,” said Vescovo.
As a child who had been fascinated with the unknown, this expedition is certainly a dream come true for Vescovo. “I've always been inspired to explore, even as a little boy, I'd run up the hills or run into alleys looking for things. In my 20s and 30s I was heavily into mountain climbing,” said Vescovo. “As I got older, I decided to explore something different. I was in the Navy for 20 years, so I've been a little drawn to the ocean. I discovered that no one had been to the bottom of four of the five oceans. I decided to do that.”
Lahey admires Vescovo’s adventurous spirit. “If it weren't for him, none of this would've happened. We wouldn't have the opportunity to pilot this remarkable craft,” Lahey said. “People who gravitate to this working environment are interesting, a little bit unusual, maybe even eccentric. It's a fascinating group of people that I'm proud to work with.”
As the co-owner of Triton submarines, this was the most difficult project Lahey has ever undertaken, but the most rewarding. “Difficult things are usually the most rewarding. Those two things usually go hand in hand,” said Lahey.