Victor Vescovo (Photo Wikimedia)
The New Yorker May 18, 2020 pp30-45 A Reporter At Large “Five Oceans, Five Deeps” “The explorers who set one of the last meaningful records on earth”. By Ben Taub.
This story chronicles Victor Vescovo’s $48,000,000 obsession with diving to the five lowest spots on the planet Earth-the lowest being nearly seven miles below the Pacific Ocean. This intrepid project had Victor's team journeying “one and a half laps around the world, to both poles”; from Puerto Rico Trench 5.2 miles deep (Atlantic Ocean), South Sandwich Trench 4.6 miles deep (Southern Ocean), Java Trench 4.5 miles deep (Indian Ocean), Mariana Trench 6.8 miles deep (Pacific Ocean), and finally Molloy Hole 3.4 miles deep (Arctic Ocean).
Vescovo, a Stanford and MIT trained former naval officer, made his fortune in finance, consulting and from his firm Insight Equity. By his own admission, his social life is lacking as “life is too interesting” and he fully believes the “greatest risk [in life]…[is to] reach the end [of life] without having lived maximally”. Prior to the "Five Deeps" he had been a mountaineer reaching the highest peaks on every continent. His “philosophy…[is] centered on calculated risk. Control what you can; be aware of what you cannot”. Tired of hearing an endless stream of incremental new explorations, Victor wanted to log the last truly significant exploration available on earth-going where no man ever had-the five deepest trenches.
Vescovo teamed up with Patrick Lahey of Triton Submarines, Kongsberg Underwater Technology (EM-124), John Ramsey (Engineering) and others to execute the project. Ramsey loved being 100% in charge of design and manufacturing as this contrasted with the modern world where large teams collaborate and compromise to build an automobile. His approach for this project was pure, nobody had done this-there were no relevant prototypes, “what’s it [the dive vehicle] got to do [endure] ….come with solutions”. Ultimately the deep dive vehicle is a titanium sphere, five feet in diameter capable of withstanding enormous pressure, with viewing ports and a mechanical arm for capturing specimens from the bottom.
But what is the bottom depth? That was another key risk requiring better definition. Earlier studies of the bottom depths depended on getting sonar feedback from explosive charges or estimating the depths from satellite images all useful at the time but inadequate for this mission. The EM-124 (Kongsberg Underwater Technology) is a modern multibeam echo sounder fitted below the home ship. The EM-124 was a key instrument in the project being able, for the first time, to accurately quantify the ocean bottom over the dive sites.
Diving at two feet per second, 1.36 miles per hour, one passes through the oceanic zones; epipelagic down to 1,000 ft (all sea life as we know it-plants, fish and mammals), midnight zone 1,000-10,000 ft is dark and only illuminated by bioluminescent electric jellies, fish without eyes, creatures with low metabolism and slimy-gelatinous bodies, the abyss 10,000-27,000 ft a few degrees above freezing is completely unaffected by surface weather and is where animals feed on marine snow-scraps of dead fish and plants, hadal zone below 27,000 ft is home to the “extremophiles”. At the bottom, an inverted mountain range, the silt consists of volcanic dust, sand, pebbles, meteorites, and “billions and billions of tiny shells and skeltons”.
The expedition dealt with extreme surface conditions, 90-foot swells, heat and cold. The most challenging weather being for the Arctic dive. A dive only possible in a two-week ice-free period.
Ramsey and Vescovo performed the first ever sea trials of the vehicle and Vescovo made the deep and dangerous dives alone often without the ability to communicate to the surface vehicle. “A calculated risk”.