Two Teams Prepare for Epic Ocean Battle: a Race to the Bottom

Are there sea monsters 36,000 feet below the ocean's surface? Or just strange, marine invertebrates where sunlight never penetrates? Triton Submarines’ Bruce Jones and Patrick Lahey and Virgin Oceanic’s Chris Welsh and Sir Richard Branson all intend to find out.

As most of the world’s exploratory dialogue has focused on outer space (where do we go next? The moon again? Mars? A comet?) there are a handful of adventurers looking inward. Or, more accurately, deep.

The Pacific’s Mariana Trench is 36,000 feet down; the Puerto Rico Trench is 28,000 feet below the surface. And what exists in the black world where photosynthesis doesn’t happen is one of humankind’s great mysteries.

Branson and Welsh plan to pilot their Virgin Oceanic submarine on five record-setting dives to the deepest spots in five oceans over the next two years. But they have competition.

Triton Submarines, out of Vero Beach, Fla., not only plans to get there first with its soon-to-be-built Triton 36,000-3 sub, it also plans to be the only one to get to the absolute bottom, to then begin exploring, discovering and mapping Earth’s sea floor. Currently, man has only been to the bottom once and that was 50 years ago. To date, only 3 percent of Earth’s sea floor has been mapped (most by remotely operated vehicles). Triton is looking for a financier with about $20 million to do it.

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“It would be difficult to guarantee it, but if I were to guarantee anything, I’d say we’ll be the only ones to the bottom. I don’t think Virgin Oceanic has a chance.”

Team Triton believes it all comes down to their design. The Triton sub has one, completely sealed, glass compartment, a perfect sphere, within which 2 people can go exploring with about 100 hours of oxygen inside.

Virgin Oceanic is partnering with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Google Earth to map the currently unexplored, submersed tundra using what you could describe as a small plane, with wings, and a one-person compartment with a range of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) once on bottom.

Its design meshes a quartz dome with a carbon fiber and titanium. Virgin Oceanic has the head start, unveiling its sub in early April. And make no mistake: the accomplished adventurer Branson has no doubts his sub makes it first, later this year.

“A lot of scientists have approached us, saying they desperately need a research vehicle that can go to the bottom of the ocean so they can find out the numerous species that man has yet to discover,” Branson says. “And that sounded like too big a challenge to resist.”

There is risk, of course, a great deal of it. At Earth’s most extreme depths, the pressure on any craft translates to 13 million pounds of pressure. If the submarine fails, there will be no rescue team and the pressure will pulverize to death anyone inside it instantly. But every extreme explorer will tell you: risk is just an inevitable part of the adventure.