The first time I met Richard Branson, we were in the kitchen of a small bed and breakfast in the high-Arctic Inuit village of Clyde River. Taller and blonder than I expected, the Virgin entrepreneur was dressed in full cold-weather gear and had just flown in by private plane to join a dogsled expedition. Slightly bemused, he was struggling to figure out how to microwave a cup of tea.
I picture that scene whenever Branson announces that he’s setting off on a new adventure—whether by hot air balloon, cigarette boat or, as of last week, in a one-man submarine. While the intention to explore the bottoms of the five oceans, by diving deeper below the surface than any man or woman before, is exceedingly bold, Branson's microwave fumbling worries me that technology may not be his strong suit.
His $10 million Virgin Oceanic continues a project begun by Branson’s friend and former ballooning partner Steve Fossett (whose small plane mysteriously disappeared over the Nevada desert in 2007). The goal is to take the ultra-lightweight sub to the deepest, least-explored parts of the planet. These dives might be conducted simultaneously with the launch sometime later this year of the first Virgin Galactic rocket carrying paying passengers ($200,000 per seat) into space.
Branson’s become the Steve Jobs of high-end adventure. Anything he proposes is quickly bought up by wealthy folks who seem ready to follow him anywhere. Sir Richard's attitude is equal parts measured and cavalier. “I have a great difficulty saying no,” he admits. “Life’s so much more fun saying yes.”
The Deepflight Challenger is the brainchild of renowned ocean engineer Graham Hawkes and was built by Hawkes Ocean Technologies of Point Richmond, California, the leader in sophisticated submersibles. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Moss Landing Marine Labs have signed on to support what Branson's calling the Virgin Oceanic Five Dives project. The 18-foot-long, 8,000-pound craft will study marine life, the tectonic plates and help Google Ocean map the ocean floor in 3D.
Hawkes has constructed submarines for explorations of the Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan, and a multi-year ocean expedition led by venture capitalist Tom Perkins.
“I love a challenge,” says Branson. “When I learned that only one person had gone below 18,000 feet under water and the sea goes down to 36,000 feet, it seemed too unbelievable. And talking to scientists and finding out that 80 percent of species on earth haven’t been discovered yet—that’s unbelievable. Knowing there are thousands of shipwrecks on the bottom of the sea that never have been discovered is pretty good fun as well.”
A leak or engine malfunction at depths where pressure is 1,000 times normal won't be much fun, for man or machine.
The first of the Five Dives—which are intended to set 30 world records—will take place as early as this summer. Explorer Chris Walsh is expected to captain the sub to the bottom of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, more than 30,000 feet below sea level. Branson intends to captain the next trip, to the bottom of the Atlantic’s Puerto Rico Trench, a mere 25,000 feet below.
The other three areas to be explored are the Indian Ocean's Diamantina Trench (26,041 feet), the southern Atlantic's South Sandwich Trench (23, 737) and the Arctic Ocean's Molloy Deep (18,399).
The carbon fiber and titanium submarine should be able to drop seven miles below the surface and snoop around for up to 24 hours. The hope is that each descent and return will take no more than five hours. The craft's "wings" will essentially allow it to "fly" over the ocean floor collecting data.
Before each dive, remote-controlled vehicles (ROVs) armed with bait will be sent down to stir up marine life, which will be filmed by the submarine that follows.
Branson already owns a three-person version of the sub, also built by Hawkes—the Necker Nymph—which he rents for $2,500 a day at his Caribbean island resort.
“This experimental trip to the bottom of the ocean could lead to bigger crafts,” said Branson. “We’ve coined the phrase aquanaut—anyone who goes below 20,000 feet—there’s only one person at the moment, and it would be fun to make as many aquanauts as there are astronauts.”
Branson is familiar with adventuring risks. In 1972, marlin fishing off Cozumel, he swam two miles to shore when his boat was swamped by 10-foot waves. He’s been nearly killed skydiving and rappelling down a Las Vegas hotel, and plucked from the ocean on numerous occasions when his balloons went down. In 1977 he was the first to fly a kind of tricycle with wings and managed to land it after soaring hundreds of feet off the ground; its inventor was killed a week later doing the same thing.
When we traveled together in the Arctic, Sir Richard (only his mother still calls him Ricky) told me about getting lost in the north woods of Canada when one of his ballooning adventures went awry. “We called on the radio and told the guy who responded that we were on a frozen lake surrounded by fir trees. He paused a minute before saying, ‘Well, this is Canada … you could be in any of 10,000 places.’ “
A rescue chopper picked up the expedition eight hours later.
Swooping rescuers won’t be an option at 25,000 feet below; if something goes wrong down there, dashing Sir Richard will need an extra set of wings.
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook.