Part of this trend is that it is cool to have a submarine and part of it is that a private person can support research with it.
Tucked away in an industrial park in Vero Beach, Florida, 34-year-old engineer John Ramsay is painstakingly drafting a design for a submarine that will be able to reach the five deepest points in the ocean.
The catch? It's a personal vessel for a billionaire.
“It’s going to be a world- or certainly industry-changing vehicle,” Ramsay said. The $25m, two-man submarine will take six months to design and another two years to build by Triton Submarines. “Nobody has built a deep-going [personal] vehicle that has been used again and again, but that’s what we are trying to do.”
His client is one of several who see the ocean depths as a new playground. A new breed of billionaires is tapping into their inner Jacques Cousteau — the famous undersea explorer — and they're willing to pay big. With pricetags starting at a $3m, and requiring a yacht to park on, these personal submarines are not only for adventure, but also for their owners to help advance research and exploration in ways that weren’t dreamed about a decade ago.
“Part of this trend is that it is cool to have a submarine and part of it is that a private person can support research with it,” said Charles Kohnen, owner of submarine builder SEAmagine Hydrospace Corp in California. “This is not just an effort to go where no man has gone before. This is going where no man has gone before — and come back to tell about it.”
The way forward
Still nascent, the personal submarine industry comprises four companies that account for just 20 to 30 privately owned and manned subs across the globe, according to Kohnen, an early pioneer who sold his first sub in 2000.
These sub owners frequently offer charters, at a price often up to $30,000 a day. Some of these vessels have been rented out by other billionaires looking for a new holiday adventure, while others have been lent to research groups to discover new sea life or explore shipwrecks.
Few research organisations can, after all, afford to buy a submarine, let alone pay for upkeep and maintenance or cover the cost of the expensive ship that's required to transport it out to sea. So, teaming up with a private owner has proven to be one promising strategy.
In 2013, researchers travelling in a privately owned submarine off the coast of Japan filmed a giant squid in its natural habitat for the first time. And, in March of this year, a team using submarines owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen found the Japanese battleship Musashi, which had been sunk off the coast of the Philippines in World War II.
Sometimes, however, the thrill of discovery lies purely with the submarine owner. In 2012, filmmaker James Cameron broke a record for the deepest solo dive when he used a sub he owned to explore the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the oceans, located in the western Pacific. Cameron’s vehicle wasn’t designed for multiple trips into the extreme pressure of deep water and was retired after its only trip.
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Most private subs reach depths of 1,000m or less. The biggest construction challenge remains the compartment that holds passengers, which become compromised when under pressure at depth. Triton’s subs include a 6.5-inch-thick acrylic passenger bubble made in Germany at a cost of about $1m. To go deeper, the sub must be far more durable, including a sphere of ultra-thick glass that could cost four or five times as much, Ramsay said.
Just how effective these private owners can be at research or exploration is unclear, said George Bass, professor emeritus at the Texas A&M University Nautical Archaeology Program. Bass is one of the world’s most prolific hunters of shipwrecks, especially in the Mediterranean. Using a SEAmagine submarine off the coast of Turkey, he once found 14 wrecks in a month.
But Bass doubts that private owners could have the same kind of luck. “It’s possible [that private sub owners] could stumble on a shipwreck or a new discovery,” Bass said. “But it takes a lot of research and knowledge to make that happen.”
In the name of science
In Costa Rica, a submarine named DeepSee is being used by adventure travellers, researchers, and scientists for dives predominantly around Cocos Island, about 350 miles off the mainland. With its unique cross currents, the water surrounding the islands is rich with rare coral and marine life, from crustaceans to whale sharks.
DeepSee’s owner, an eponymous private company, allows researchers from the University of Costa Rica to take the sub down for free, said operations manager Shmulik Blum, and they sometimes find new sea life never seen before.
Two years ago, the Costa Rican researchers discovered an entire new family of coral, the kind of discovery that hadn’t been made in 40 years, Blum said. The new, soft coral is in waters so deep that it never sees light and lacks any pigment. Using DeepSee’s robotic arm, researchers scooped up a sample that they later analysed in the lab.
“Usually, the lack of access to waters this deep limits the ability to learn about it,” Blum said. “Once we can get down there, it gives us access to an entirely new world.”
Blum was speaking by phone from DeepSee’s office in the small port of Puntarenas. Hours later, he and his submersible team would be making the day and a half journey to the Cocos Island for a new set of dives. “Maybe we’ll find something new this time too,” he said. “You never know.”