Right about now, getting away from it all is a pretty alluring concept. With international travel becoming near-impossible for much of the planet, you might have been hotly following SpaceX's plans to send tourists to the ISS (after all, it is the best place to quarantine). But thanks to a wealthy explorer, come May, a few lucky passengers will be able to escape the pandemic for a short time by diving to the deepest known point in Earth’s oceans.
The Challenger Deep is the deepest known point of the Earth's seabed and is situated at the southern end of the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific Ocean. The high water pressure at this immense depth means that operating a submersible is a delicate operation. The first attempt was made back in 1960 by oceanographer Don Walsh and oceanographer and engineer Jacques Piccard, reaching about 10,916 meters (35,814 feet). In March 2012, the first solo descent was made by film director James Cameron who reached 10,908 meters (35,787 feet).
Victor Vescovo, a wealthy explorer and retired naval officer, made his first solo journey to the trench in April 2019 and beat the world record for the greatest depth, trumping Cameron at 10,928 meters (35,853 feet). In May of the same year, he hopped in his submersible again and became the first person ever to have visited the Challenger Deep twice. This May, Vescovo is set to return to the Challenger Deep with civilian passengers on a retired Navy surveillance vessel that’s been repurposed for scientific research.
The trip will take eight days and include three dives to the Challenger Deep, costing $750,000 per person. So far, they have two fully-booked groups for May. We caught up with the naval officer turned ocean dive record-breaker to find out what it’s like to dive over 10,000 meters in a tiny submersible and what his future passengers can expect from the journey.
What are the strangest sensations you experience when diving to the deepest known point of the ocean?
What is most surprising or strange is just how quiet and calm it is to slowly descend deeper, and deeper, and still deeper. It is like the opposite of a rocket launch. Nothing seems to change in the submersible capsule except that digital depth gauge just showing deeper and deeper, all the while knowing that that water pressure is climbing to almost insane levels by the time you get to the bottom – eight tons per square inch. You know it is out there, absolutely massive crushing pressure, but inside, everything is completely quiet and calm. A very strange feeling sometimes. Especially when you see that digital depth readout cross 10,000 meters...
Do guests attending the Challenger Deep dive in May have to fulfil any criteria to join you on the dive?
No, they just have to be below about 100 kilograms (220) pounds simply to fit through a fairly narrow hatch. But the crew capsule stays at a constant one atmosphere throughout the dive, so there is no decompression or any other physical stresses on the body. Virtually anyone can now go to the bottom of the ocean in this vehicle.
What sort of life can they expect to see at the bottom?
I think it is best described as like going to the open desert. Life there is spare, but certainly present. It can just take some time and good luck to see it. But when you do, it is very unique and special because it is surviving in one of the most hostile places on Earth, and here they are, swimming around in total blackness their whole lives. The usual suspects down there are sea cucumbers – holothurians – and amphipods. However, there is also a very rich collection of unique microbes, but you just can't see them with the naked eye, unfortunately. But they are no less interesting and important, scientifically.
Have you ever had any amazing wildlife encounters?
My favorite was seeing a holothurian on the bottom of the world – the Challenger Deep – within just 10 minutes of getting there. At first I thought it was a carcass, but no, it was gently undulating and swimming away from me with little black eyestalks around its edges. It was fairly small, and totally transparent so I could see its insides like I had X-ray vision. But it was just going about its simple business of finding something to eat, and evidently not real excited about getting close to this brilliant-lit spaceship-thing coming up to it!
How long are you able to stay at the bottom of the dive in the submersible?
The longest I spent down at the bottom of the Challenger Deep was just over 4 hours. It took 4 hours to go down, 4 to get up, so I spent well over 12 hours in the sub. With recent power upgrades, we can stay down even longer, since electrical power is really the limiting factor on our endurance. Now we can have missions probably 14 or even 16 hours long with 6-8 hours on the bottom. We think that is a huge improvement from the 15 minutes they spent on the bottom in 1960 or 2.5 hours in 2012.