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TRAVEL

Explorer Victor Vescovo says reaching the bottom of the world’s five oceans was “incredibly cool”

Words by Rob Chilton

The Texan is the first person to achieve the feat

While many expeditions are about going up, Victor Vescovo’s adventure saw him going down, way down to the deepest point of all five of the Earth’s oceans, reaching distances of almost 11,000 metres in a $35m two-seater submersible. The challenge was documented in Expedition Deep Ocean, which premieres on Discovery Channel on June 8 to coincide with World Ocean Day. Vescovo, a billionaire equity fund manager and retired US Navy Reserve commander, spoke to EDGAR about his epic mission.

Hearing about your expedition underwater fills me with fear and dread. I guess you don’t share those feelings?

Haha, no. This certainly isn’t something for people who suffer from fear of water or claustrophobia.

When did you start to become fascinated with the oceans?

When I was a little boy, one of the first books I read was Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne. That put the seed of ocean exploration into my head from an early age. I loved looking at big National Geographic atlases which made me want to see the world for myself. I then spent 20 years in the US Navy Reserve. All that combined gave me a love for the ocean.

Vescovo dived in the Deep Sea Vehicle Limiting Factor, weighing 12 tons

What do you feel as you make the descent underwater?

In the early days, there was anxiety as I was diving in a prototype submersible to depths people had never reached regularly.

As you made more descents and gained more experience, what did you feel?

Anytime you are taking a prototype submersible to the bottom of the ocean, I think it’s natural to feel a bit of anxiety because no matter how much you test, and how confident you are in the math, there is part of your mind that wonders – did we miss anything? So it was a great feeling to get to the bottom and have everything working just as expected. The more we dove the submersible to the ultimate depth, the more relaxed I felt. Naturally, I still watched everything happening in the sub like a hawk, but it was more familiar, and comfortable to dive in the later missions.

When you’ve reached the bottom of an ocean, do you punch the air in triumph or do you feel something else? A sense of peace perhaps?

No, I’ve never pumped a fist, perhaps because there just isn’t that much space in the submersible to do that! But I definitely felt a very strong sense of achievement and frankly, relief, that we had succeeded in building the first commercially certified vessel that could repeatedly go to the bottom of the ocean. It is actually very quiet and peaceful to be in the sub, and when I have dived it solo, it is a wonderful feeling of independence and exploration. You’re in this amazing, hostile place but you’re cocooned in the latest of human technology and going places no human has ever gone before. It is just so incredibly cool.

Vescovo has also climbed Mount Everest and skiied to both poles

Would you say the bottom of the ocean is beautiful?

Yes, it absolutely is beautiful – but in a very sublime, sometimes even brutal way. I mean, when you are looking at a massive volcanic wall of boulders at 4,000 metres, or a soft, undulating desert-like plain at 10,000 metres, they are pretty unlike how you could ever encounter them on land. The very deep ocean is beautiful like a terrestrial desert, or mountain top. They are extreme places that are not like a lush garden, but to me, anyway, are beautiful for the unbelievably hostile and unusual conditions in which the scenery is taking place. It was extraordinary to be at the very bottom of Challenger Deep, skimming the rocky surface just two metres off the bottom, where two enormous tectonic plates are slowly but inexorably crashing into each other. Seeing the actual V-shape where these titanic plates are colliding – it is just amazing.

Was there a moment during the expeditions when something went wrong?

Oh, heavens yes. This was a prototype, multiple-dive-to-the-bottom-of-the-ocean vehicle. There are so many systems, all being subjected to eight tons of pressure per square inch, in saltwater, at freezing temperatures. Mechanical and electrical systems don’t like one of those conditions, much less all three at once. So yes, things got pushed beyond their limits, they broke, but we always have back-ups and used the failures to learn the weak points and how to harden them for future dives. After 70 dives, we think we’ve made the submersible pretty bulletproof.

What was the weirdest looking creature you saw down there?

A stalked Ascidian that one of the robotic landers recorded on video looked like a large, gelatinous dog’s head trailing a wire. It just drifted across the camera and my chief scientist exclaimed ‘I have no idea what that is.’ Those are cool moments in exploration when a world expert tells you that you found something no one has ever seen before. But the strangest thing I personally saw with my own eyes in the sub was a really large siphonophore colony, wrapped up in a strange almost double-helix shape, just drifting along at the bottom of the ocean. It looked totally alien, like something you might find deep in the ocean of a different planet.

Mapping and exploring the sea bed

Did you see any man-made objects that have sunk to the bottom of the ocean?

Yes, unfortunately on my first dive to the bottom of Challenger Deep I came across what appeared to be a piece of plastic with a stylised S printed on it – definitely man-made and at the absolute bottom of the ocean.

Could an empty Coke can reach that far?

I have, indeed, seen other soda cans in other, very deep places. Just because you throw something into the ocean doesn’t mean it vanishes. It can take a very, very long time for them to degrade or be buried. We can’t treat the ocean like a garbage can. It’s home to most of the biomass on the planet and we need to take better care of it.

What was your primary emotion when you completed all five expeditions?

Haha – relief! I mean, to coordinate all of the technology, crew, permits, make the weather windows… we had to get everything done in a 10-month window which was extraordinarily ambitious. But then immediately after the relief, I felt a very quiet but powerful sense of accomplishment. And thanks, really, to all the people that made it happen and invested so much of themselves in the project as well. It was a very, very happy and warm feeling to take the submersible to the bottom of the Arctic – a first in and of itself – and complete the Five Deeps expedition.

The crew prepare for another dive

What’s next, would you like to go into space?

Hell, yes. As soon as I can afford a ticket. Fortunately, more than one commercial operator is already offering paid trips up, and more are coming. I think in 10 to 15 years it will be very common to have people launching into space for visits, or even using them to travel cross-ocean in less than an hour. I can’t wait.

Did you take a few personal items on the expedition? Camera, notebook, glasses, that sort of thing...

Funny, I never took a spare set of glasses down with me – even though I wear contacts. I guess I should start! I always take my titanium Omega Seamaster watch, my Samsung smartphone to take back-up pictures and do calculations, my Omega marine logbook and pen, and my traditional lunch of a tuna fish sandwich and potato chips.

Any sentimental mementos?

A small stuffed penguin that my sister made for me before I went to the Southern Ocean. It’s nice to have a memento from family to help you feel connected even when you are in some of the most remote and hostile places on the planet. It reminds you that even when you’re physically alone and very, very far from home, you’re still connected to those who care about you.

Expedition Deep Ocean premieres on June 8 at 10.40pm KSA on Discovery Channel in the MENA region

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