With Virgin Oceanic, Branson plans to get deep

Billionaire Virgin impresario wants to pick up where the late Steve Fossett left off and send a deep-sea submersible with a single driver to bottom of Mariana Trench.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
With Virgin Oceanic, Richard Branson wants to explore the deepest spots in each of the five ocean using the DeepFlight Challenger from Hawkes Ocean Technologies. Virgin Oceanic

Picking up where the late uber-adventurer Steve Fossett left off, Virgin impresario Richard Branson said today he wants to go to the deepest spot on Earth.

In a press conference today in Newport Beach, Calif., Branson announced his Virgin Oceanic and Five Dives initiatives, which could send a Virgin-branded deep-sea submersible with a single pilot to the deepest spots in each of the planet's five oceans.

Virgin Oceanic will use the DeepFlight Challenger, a submersible built by Hawkes Ocean Technologies of Point Richmond, Calif., for the dives.

The five dives are intended to be to the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, which at 36,201 feet below the surface is the deepest spot on the planet; the Atlantic Ocean's Puerto Rico Trench at 28,232 feet underwater; the Indian Ocean's Diamantina Trench at 26,401 feet below the surface; the Southern Ocean's South Sandwich Trench, which is 23,737 feet down; and the Arctic Ocean's Molloy Deep, which bottoms out at 18,399 feet down.

Virgin Oceanic's deep-sea submersible (images)

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The idea is that by exploring these deepest of points on Earth, Branson's new venture will be able to contribute to the science of the oceans. As Virgin Oceanic (see video below) put it in a release, the expedition "offers an unprecedented opportunity to conduct scientific research and to expand our knowledge of the unique conditions, ecosystems, and geology that exist at the bottom of the oceans."

As part of the announcement, Branson said explorer Chris Welch will be behind the controls of the DeepFlight Challenger for the dive to the Mariana Trench--the big prize, while Branson himself will pilot the submersible to the Puerto Rico Trench. Welch and his company, Deep Sub, bought the submersible after Fossett's death, and Virgin Oceanic is the sponsor of the expeditions.

The DeepFlight Challenger is designed to cruise at up to 3 knots and has the capability to dive 350 feet per minute. The Mariana Trench dive, which is expected to take place later this year, should take about five hours. Virgin Oceanic plans the next four dives over the following 24 months, assuming that it can get all of the certifications and regulatory approvals it needs.

Following in Fossett's footsteps
While attaching the Virgin and Branson names to the first-ever attempt at soloing the Mariana Trench, Branson is only picking up where his late friend Fossett had been intending to go several years ago.

On September 3, 2007, Fossett, who was the first person to fly around the world nonstop in a balloon, and who held 116 records in five sports, died when his airplane smashed into mountains near Mammoth, Calif. At the time, he was working with Hawkes Ocean Technologies to ready the DeepFlight Challenger for the first solo dive to the Mariana Trench.

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Hawkes was just four weeks from putting the vessel through its first real tests when Fossett disappeared. His body was not found until October 2008.

Hawkes made its own announcement today lauding Fossett's "vision and courage in taking the first step to advance manned, deep ocean access technology" and saying that "While we initially began the DeepFlight project with the goal of getting one person to 36,000 feet, now our goal is to get 36,000 people at least one foot down in the oceans."

Hawkes also said today that it has been preparing two of its DeepFlight Super Falcon submersibles: One is for an expedition it will lead in the Gulf of Aqaba, during which a team will try to be the first to explore that area "below diver depths." The second is for a separate, multi-year ocean expedition that will be helmed by well-known venture capitalist Tom Perkins and will begin with dives among the "big animals" of the South Pacific.

Mariana Trench
While first Fossett and now Branson have sought the notoriety of being the first to complete a solo dive to the Mariana Trench, such a success would by no means be the first-ever journey there. In fact, that was a feat that was first completed when Navy Lt. Don Walsh and his co-pilot, Jacques Piccard, made it to the deep-sea spot about 200 miles southwest of Guam on January 23, 1960.

But the fact that no one ever returned to the Mariana Trench, let alone doing so solo, has led many experts to bemoan the lack of serious exploration and research, on par with what is done in outer space, in our oceans. "We were happy to be the first, but we didn't expect to be the last," Walsh told CNET last year as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his dive was about to get underway. "To paraphrase [author] Tom Wolfe, we had the right stuff, but [went in] the wrong direction...In the oceanographic community globally, not just in the United States, we have really failed to make the necessary investments to learn about the world's oceans, which cover 70 percent of our planet."

Another who worries about humankind's middling interest in what is to be found in our oceans is famed explorer and researcher Sylvia Earle, who was awarded the 2009 TED Prize for her work and who started Mission Blue, the goal of which is to "heal and protect the Earth's oceans through the creation and management of essential marine protected areas."

In an interview timed to the 50th anniversary celebration of Walsh and Piccard's 1960 dive, Earle told CNET, "We're far behind the curve from where we need to be...People look at the surface, and they think that's the ocean, and because they can't see what's going on below, they think everything's just fine. But those of us with decades of exploration [experience know that] the ocean is in trouble, and therefore so are we."

And that's a sentiment that Branson seems to share. In today's announcement, Branson offered this thought: "What if I were to tell you about a planet, inhabited by 'intelligent' beings that had, in the 21st century, physically explored zero percent of its deepest points and mapped only 3 percent of its oceans by unmanned craft, when 70 percent of that planet's surface was made up of water. Then I tried to convince you that only 10 percent of the life forms inhabiting that unknown world are known to those on the surface--you'd think I'd fallen asleep watching the latest sci-fi blockbuster. Then you discover that planet is Earth."