Space was reached by man close to 50-years-ago, yet our planet is 70 per cent water and the ocean remains one of our least explored territories. Virgin Oceanic was formed last year to change that. It will help us study the vast underwater landscape, and witness natural behaviour of species we may not yet have seen.
Over the coming months, Virgin Oceanic’s specially-designed one-person submarine will withstand near-freezing temperatures and pressure equal to around 8,000 elephants standing on a small car. It will dive up to seven miles straight down – to the deepest points in each of our five oceans.
It will take two-and-a-half hours to reach the deepest place on Earth, off the Japanese coast. The bottom of the Mariana Trench is 11km below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Temperatures at these depths can reach 700 degrees Celsius, and the opportunity for geological activity is a scientist’s dream.
Only three humans have seen the secrets of this underwater channel in the last 50 years so robotic vehicles have given us most of the information we currently hold. This information covers just three per cent of the world’s oceans and around 10 per cent of the creatures that dwell below surface level.
Virgin Oceanic’s uniquely-designed sub will spend two hours ‘flying’ almost six miles along the ocean floor, collecting data and cataloguing the species seen. It will also try to locate the landing site used 50-years ago when a manned vessel briefly reached the seabed. Here, tonnes of iron, along with a colony of iron-eating bacteria, are likely to remain because it was dropped to balance the craft as it took off on its return journey to the surface. Because life is slower at such extreme temperatures, it may seem as though it was placed there only a matter of weeks ago, rather than half a century.
The sub’s solo pilot Chris Welsh, who is also one of the Oceanic’s co-founders, is a Californian aviator and sailor. He has swum with Great White sharks and completed several cross country dirt-bike challenges in the USA. His back-up pilot is Sir Richard Branson, who will also be piloting the second of these incredible dives, more than five miles down to the Atlantic’s deepest spot, the base of the Puerto Rico Trench, close to his Necker Island home in the British Virgin Islands.
Further dives will take place in the Diamantina Trench in the Indian Ocean, the Southern Ocean’s South Sandwich Trench and Molloy Deep in the Arctic Ocean. This will allow us for the first time to take full account of the huge variety of creatures and plants living from ocean surface to seabed across the globe.
Among these natural wonders will be, in the words of Dr Edith Widder (Ocean Research & Conservation Association), a “silent fireworks display” of bioluminescence – light generated by living things. This will help us to measure the health of the underwater creatures and plants. In fact, these dives will be fundamental to giving us a greater scientific understanding of everything from the formation of the world’s continents to crucial future conservation.
The sub will also collect footage to be studied by microbiologist Dr Doug Bartlett and his colleagues from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, as well as others from the University of Southern California, the University of Hawaii and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. The teams will look for any previously unknown organisms and use DNA testing and other scientific techniques to spot potentially beneficial enzymes or genes.
The mission will complete the ambition of adventurer and close friend of Sir Richard Branson, Steven Fossett, who commissioned the sub. The project team’s home for the duration of the venture is his specially-converted racing catamaran, Cheyenne. The vessel will cover more than 25,000 miles of open ocean over the next two years as the 12-man crew live and work inside – with only shoulder-width passageways and a tiny kitchen.
Sign up for updates about the dives, and find out more about the teams involved at virginoceanic.com.
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