Challenger Deep as a tourist site? Modern-day Jules Vernes say 'yes'
There's not much to see in the blackness seven miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. But enthusiasts can envision the day when citizen adventurers would descend to Challenger Deep and other deep-sea destinations.
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Through Virgin Oceanic, the company he set up with California businessman Chris Welsh to advance development of a submersible engineered by British sub designer Graham Hawkes, he claims he could dive the Puerto Rico Trench within six months. Thereafter, chief pilot Welsh will dive Challenger Deep and three others will plunge abysses in the Arctic, Indian, and South Atlantic oceans. So the plan goes, at least.Skip to next paragraph
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Within the submarine community some express doubts about his ambitions and concerns about the craft, which has yet to pass pressure tests and gain regulatory approval.
Sir Richard is enthusiastic and talks of the sub being a stepping stone to bigger but lighter vehicles with future potential for both scientific exploration and tourist thrill-rides into the trenches and elsewhere.
“If you look at the history of exploration, you get people perhaps like Jim and myself who are lucky enough to be able to pioneer new frontiers and, as a result, other people can follow,” he says in a phone interview. “What’s exciting is the very fact that the oceans haven’t been well explored and we know very little about them… Under the sea we’ve got mountains and valleys, giant vents coming out of the depths, and species that have never been seen by mankind. There’s also thousands, literally thousands of shipwrecks, Spanish galleons. Magnificent exploration potential.”
Of 500 astronaut wannabes he has signed up at Virgin Galactic for $200,000 flights to the edge of space, 150 have expressed an interest in also becoming aquanauts. “I can see it happening,” says Sir Richard, somewhat vaguely.
Capt. Alfred Scott McLaren, retired from the US Navy, has a little more experience underwater. A former nuclear attack submarine commander, president of the American Polar Society, past president of The Explorers Club, and currently chief pilot of the Super Aviator submersible, his hours spent below the waves add up to a stunning 5-1/2 years' worth. He has also journeyed to the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck.
“The question that often comes up is ‘Isn’t it more important to take scientists down than nonscientists?' Well, it’s a trade-off. I tell people that those who can afford to make these dives from the general public, they are also influential with politicians and potential funders. The more we do to make the oceans accessible to the general public, the more pressure and demand will be put on governments and institutions to gear up and conduct research,” he says.
Cameron, whom McLaren describes as “the Steve Jobs of the underwater world” for his innovation and consummate grasp of engineering, has “opened up a vast new horizon for everybody,” he says.
“There’s an estimated 2 million species of marine life, and today only about 300,000 of these have been identified – everything from microorganisms to large marine mammals, fish, giant squid, and the newly discovered colossal squid," says McLaren. "Who knows what’s under there yet – we might find things that reach back into prehistoric times.”
Expeditions on Cameron’s level require years of effort, millions of dollars, and technical, engineering, and scientific prowess that most explorers or scientists could only dream about.
At The Explorer’s Club, president Alan Nicholls predicts receiving an upsurge in grant applications for smaller ocean exploration projects over the coming weeks, inspired by Cameron’s success.
Separately, he says, the Cameron effect could also galvanize the growth of deep-sea tourism.
“We’ve seen it with space travel, people paying $30 million to go into space,” he said.
“Could we see the day someone starts selling tickets to go down the Mariana Trench? Sure.”
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