For at least the last 15 years, I have dreamed of travelling to the deep sea. If you read this blog regularly or have ever watched a documentary about the deep sea, you understand why. As marine biologist (and co-sighter of the first underwater giant squid) Edith Widder says in one of her many fascinating TED talks, "if you ever, ever get an opportunity to take a dive in a submersible, say yes -- a thousand times, yes -- and please turn out the lights. I promise, you'll love it."
In fact, one of the reasons that I started this blog was the hope that as a respectable science blogger/journalist, someone might consider me worthy of taking along on one of their research dives to the deep. I knew it was a long shot. But I held on to my dream. As you read this, I am finally achieving it.
But it wasn't easy to figure out how. For most private citizens, travelling more than 100 or so feet below the surface of the ocean is nearly impossible, and yet we are already selling tickets for commercial space tourists. To me, the ocean is by far the more mysterious and exciting frontier, and it's conveniently located right here on Earth. Instead of needing to be shot into the sky by thousands of pounds of rocket fuel, all you need is a pressure-safe tube with its buoyancy properly adjusted. How hard can it be?
Pretty hard, it turns out. Although I got certified to dive in 2010, most recreational divers can't explore more than about 120 feet down due to the amount of air you need to keep your lungs pressurized at depth and to nitrogen narcosis, an intoxication by nitrogen that starts to set in around that depth (most of our atmosphere is nitrogen, not oxygen). Technical divers can extend that to 500 feet or more, but this requires a dizzying array of tanks with different gas blends, a mind like a steel trap to keep all the switching between them straight in the disorienting depths, and the patience of a tortoise to endure the decompression times needed to safely ascend (a cave diver whose talk I attended who'd gone to 800 feet or so kept copies of Popular Science at his multi-hour decompression stop. He read it one page at a time and would tear each waterlogged page off when he was finished).
That leaves the submarine. There are several tourist submarines that can take you to the same depths that recreational divers can reach -- but why bother? Diving is so much better. But what about the deep sea? You can obviously buy a submarine if you have access to a comfortably padded trust fund to or other loaded bank account. There are an array of submarines available for purchase, provided you have a few million dollars on hand. Or you could build your own, if you have lots of time -- and still a considerable amount of money -- on your hands and are willing to risk riding to the deep sea in your own creation. Obviously, these solutions are for the few.
But what about the rest of us? Are there any tourist subs that can take you there? It wasn't a possibility I'd ever considered before this spring. My "plan" was that someone would see my blog, be suitably (of course) impressed, and forthwith offer me a seat and the job of describing the experience on their next deep submersible dive. Riiiiiiiiight. In these days of near-universal government budget cuts to science, marine science, never a US government darling, has taken a hit. Research vessels have been retired and not replaced. My impression -- and I could be wrong -- is that seats on those coveted submersible trips are getting fewer and harder to come by, even if someone deemed me dive-worthy. My dream seemed to be drifting out of reach.
Then last spring I wrote about two fish that turned out to be one fish. One, found near the surface, was the larva of the other, discovered in a deep reef off the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao by Smithsonian scientists riding in something called the Curasub. Curiosity piqued, I looked it up. Not only was the Curasub real, it took paying tourists down to 1000 feet. For an hour and a half at 800 feet, I'd pay just $650 -- just a few hundred more than I'd paid for a helicopter tour of Kauai a few years ago. Great Gates of Poseidon! Maybe this could actually happen for me! With the tickets on the first space tourists flights going for a cool 250 Gs, a mere $650 seemed like a real bargain.
But what about the sub? We're not talking some cobbled-together, back-woods South American drug sub jury-rigged for the deep sea, are we? Nope. The Curasub was built by Nuytco Research out of North Vancouver, British Columbia, holds four passengers and one pilot, weighs 6-tons hoisted out of the water, and measures about 7 feet high by 14 feet long. The company also builds two-person submersibles that can take you down to 2000 feet and look like something out of early 20th century sci-fi films, and armored dive suits that are the deep-sea equivalent of a space suit. I was especially heartened when I read that Nuytco president and inventor Phil Nuytten was senior technical advisor for the "The Abyss" (one of my most favoritest movies). His company also provided the submersibles and other subsea devices for the movie, is the builder of the military sub rescue system used by the US and British Royal Navies, and helps train astronauts for NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. If I'm going deep, I think I want to do it in one of this man's boats.
But as it turns out, the Curasub is not the only option for would-be deep sea tourists. Nor is it even the most affordable.
Your second option is the remarkable submarine Idabel built by American Karl Stanley in Idabel, Oklahoma (and tested in Broken Bow Lake, where I went fishing earlier this year and met the guide who had the client who didn't know what a pine tree was), and currently located in the diving mecca of Roatán, Honduras. Stanley, an American Studies major, has built two submarines himself and started taking tourists down in one of them at the tender age of 24. This is a man with a passion.
In an interview with National Geographic, journalist James Nestor, who just wrote a book about free diving called "Deep", said he was surprised to find out how difficult it was for a private citizen to visit the deep sea, and describes diving with Stanley.
There was only so far I could get with free diving. We were hanging out with sperm whales, which can dive to 9,000 feet. But you can’t get down that deep. So I wanted to see exactly how deep a private citizen could get in the ocean. It turns out: not very deep.
Most submarines are operated by institutions and won’t take journalists along. Luckily, I found a guy who’d made a submarine in his parents’ backyard in New Jersey when he was 15. He then made another submarine about ten years ago. He had zero engineering experience. He majored in American history in college. But he just wanted to make a submarine.
So he set up shop in Roatan, off Honduras, because there are no real regulations for homemade submarines. So I hopped in this little sub, about the size of a large suitcase, and sat there for four hours as we plummeted down to the netherworld below. It was one of the most shocking experiences I’ve had in my life.
Stanley's Roatán Institute of Deepsea Exploration's mission is "to be the premier location in the world for the public to have cost-effective, direct access to the deep water environment". If you can stomach the fact that Stanley designed and built the sub himself to help keep costs low (an equivalent sub, he says, would cost $1-2 million), you can ride Idabel to 2000 feet for 3 1/2 hours for $900, or to 1000 feet for 1 1/2 hours for $500.
Going Really Deep
If you *really* want to go deep, you may only have to wait a few years. According to an article at Fox News, the five-person Cyclops sub will take paying passengers down to an incredible 9,842 feet below sea level -- nearly two miles down. The bullet-shaped sub is currently being built by a collaboration between the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory and the submersible company Oceangate. The builders of the Cyclops hope it will be available sometime in 2016. We'll see. (To go truly, horrendously deep, you need to hitch a ride on Woods Hole's Alvin, freshly out of the refurb shop and now rated to 20,000 feet. Of course, it's also one of those research subs that never gives rides to tourists.)
The CEO of Oceangate affirmed that there are very few options for private citizens looking to visit the deep sea -- in the article he estimates there are about 600 naval subs worldwide, but only 100 certified private subs, of which most are in storage or on private yachts.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous about my adventure. Of course, I was back when I did my open-ocean night dive off the coast of Hawaii four years ago too. But the article about the Cyclops contained the reassuring detail that "... there have been no serious injuries in nonmilitary submarines in the past 35 years." This article at Slate corroborates this and notes there has never been a recorded death in a commercially made private or tourist sub. On the other hand, those tourist choppers in Hawaii, which I blithely rode in Kauai in 2012, go down all the time, and fatal car crashes happen in every major city every day. I'll just keep repeating that to myself as they seal the hatch.
But I can't not go. I've got to say yes. In Edith Widder's aforementioned TED talk, she describes her first experience of ocean bioluminescence at a depth only 80 feet deeper than I will achieve.
My addiction began with this strange looking diving suit called Wasp; that's not an acronym -- just somebody thought it looked like the insect. It was actually developed for use by the offshore oil industry for diving on oil rigs down to a depth of 2,000 feet. Right after I completed my Ph.D., I was lucky enough to be included with a group of scientists that was using it for the first time as a tool for ocean exploration. We trained in a tank in Port Hueneme, and then my first open ocean dive was in Santa Barbara Channel. It was an evening dive. I went down to a depth of 880 feet and turned out the lights. And the reason I turned out the lights is because I knew I would see this phenomenon of animals making light called bioluminescence. But I was totally unprepared for how much there was and how spectacular it was. I saw chains of jellyfish called siphonophores that were longer than this room, pumping out so much light that I could read the dials and gauges inside the suit without a flashlight; and puffs and billows of what looked like luminous blue smoke; and explosions of sparks that would swirl up out of the thrusters -- just like when you throw a log on a campfire and the embers swirl up off the campfire, but these were icy, blue embers. It was breathtaking.
The National Geographic interviewer asked James Nestor a follow-up question after he said his deep-sea sub ride was one of the most shocking experiences of his life.
The largest colonies of life—the largest amount of biomass—are deep in the ocean, about 2,500 to 3,000 feet. The world that we see on the surface, this blue sphere of green leaves and birds and grass, is only a sliver of the real life on the planet. Most of these deep-sea creatures live in complete blackness, in an environment that’s cold and pressurized. And most of them are very ugly and strange. About half the animals down there are unknown to science. But we just don’t know about them because no one goes down there.
Well, not entirely no one. I'm going, and when I return, I'll report what the experience was like. And now that you know it's possible, maybe some of you will go to Curaçao or Roatán too.
It seems to me that for anyone who loves studying and observing life on Earth, visiting the deep sea is essential. I hope that, like Nestor, I will find it to be one of the most shocking experiences of my life. And if it gets dark enough where we go, I'm definitely going to ask the pilot to turn out the lights.