“At Bottom. Repeat. At Bottom.”
Outside Magazine|December 2019
Multimillionaire Victor Vescovo committed himself to one of the world’s craziest remaining adventure quests: to reach the deepest points in every ocean, in a dangerous mission called the Five Deeps. What does it take to get there? A radically high-tech, $30 million Triton submersible, a team of crack engineers and scientists, and one very gonzo explorer.
Susan Casey

IT WAS A SUNDAY IN TONGA, so the kingdom’s business had come to a halt. Stores were shuttered, traffic was quiet, even the airport was closed. King Tupou VI strolled out of his oceanfront palace and down the main street of Nukualofa, capital city of the island of Tongatapu, to attend church along with the rest of his South Pacific nation. Men wore their best sarongs; women wore taovalas—coconut-fiber aprons—over long dresses. The scene was all very ordinary except for one thing, and it was visible from the palace’s front lawn: a 224-foot ship moored at the pier, bristling with heavy cranes, stacked with high-tech equipment, and carrying a mysterious $30 million cargo.

“Welcome to the good ship Pressure Drop,” said Rob McCallum, who stood on deck in khaki shorts, river shoes, and a polo shirt emblazoned with the emblem of the Five Deeps Expedition, a black shield bearing the Latin phrase IN PROFUNDO: COGNITIO (“In the Deep: Knowledge”). A former New Zealand national park ranger who grew up in Papua New Guinea, 54-year-old McCallum is a legendary expedition leader. He specializes in bespoke trips to far-flung places, some of which happen to be underwater, like the wreck of the Titanic. Five Deeps, however, was something even more extreme: a global mission to dive a manned submersible to the deepest point in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic, and Southern Oceans. This had never been done before— which is exactly why McCallum’s client, Texas businessman Victor Vescovo, had set out to do it.

If you were to draw a Venn diagram of people who want to dive seven miles underwater, people with the skills to test-pilot a deep submersible, people with the means to fund the most technologically advanced ocean expedition in history, and people willing to devote several years of their life to such an expedition—you wouldn’t find many names in the middle. But Vescovo qualifies on every count.

His résumé is unusual. As a student, Vescovo earned degrees from Stanford (political science and economics), MIT (defense and arms-control studies), and Harvard (MBA). At 53, he runs his own private equity firm and sits on the boards of ten companies. He is the 12th American to have completed the Explorer’s Grand Slam, standing atop all of the Seven Summits and skiing to the North and South Poles. (On Mount Everest, he survived what he calls a “minor avalanche” in the Khumbu Icefall.) He’s made millions reinventing industrial processes; he pilots his own Embraer Phenom jet and Eurocopter 120 helicopter. He’s conversant in seven languages. His proficiency in Arabic came in handy during his 20 years as a U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer with top-secret clearance, especially right after 9/11. For relaxation, Vescovo studies military history, inhales science fiction, flies rescue dogs to new homes in his jet, and retreats to a workshop in his Dallas garage, where he makes fountain pens and tends to his collection of cars. He is not someone who approaches life in half measures.

According to Vescovo, the roots of his go-big-or-go-home philosophy can be traced back to age three, when he snuck into the family sedan, released the emergency brake, and rolled the car down the driveway into a tree. The resulting crash cracked his skull in three places, shattered his jaw, broke his hand and some ribs, and provided an early whiff of mortality. “I realized that every day is precious, and you may not get another one—best make full use of them,” Vescovo says.

Yet even by Vescovo’s standards, the goals he’d set for the Five Deeps were outlandish, ranking somewhere between launching into low orbit (easier) and decamping to Mars (harder). Twelve people have walked on the lunar surface, but only three had ever been to our planet’s deepest spot, known as the Challenger Deep. There are reasons for this. For one, it lies at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a 1,500-mile-long, 43-mile-wide gash in the western Pacific seabed, near Guam. To reach it, you need to dive 11,000 meters: that’s 1.3 miles deeper than Mount Everest is high, in obsidian darkness, under pressures of 16,000 pounds per square inch.

Our knowledge about the ocean has long been concentrated in its uppermost waters, the top 200 meters known as the epipelagic zone. If you see marine life and you can name it, odds are it swims in these shallows. But the epipelagic occupies only 5 percent of the ocean’s volume. It’s merely a ceiling: the real action takes place below. Traveling downward, you pass through the twilight zone (from 200 to 1,000 meters), the midnight zone (from 1,000 to 4,000 meters), the abyssal zone (4,000 to 6,000 meters), and then finally the hadal zone, named after Hades, the mythical kingdom of the dead. These waters begin at 6,000 meters and pitch down into dozens of ultradeep trenches— the vast majority of which are located in the Pacific—like the inverted summits of towering peaks. The hadal zone is the earth’s most forbidding frontier. This realm is so hard to access that it has generally seemed prudent to send robots rather than people. But hard doesn’t mean impossible.

In 1960, the U.S. Navy sent Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard to the Challenger Deep in the Trieste, a sort of underwater zeppelin loaded with iron pellets and 34,000 gallons of gasoline. Five hours after its submergence, the Trieste landed on the trench floor with a thud, stirring up clouds of silt that ruined the visibility. It was ironic to arrive at such an exotic destination and then fail to see it. But in their time near the bottom, Walsh and Piccard did glimpse something long and flat swimming away—a hint that Hades wasn’t a total wasteland.

The next half-century went by in the Mariana Trench without human visitation. Then, in March 2012, filmmaker James Cameron took the plunge in the Deepsea Challenger—a torpedo-shaped, lime-green vessel designed to carry only a pilot—becoming the first person to dive solo to the Challenger Deep. “In the space of one day, I’ve gone to another planet and come back,” Cameron said at the time. (Unfortunately, that was the last trip his submersible has made. He had donated it to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and it was damaged during transport. It’s been in drydock ever since.)

To complete the Five Deeps, a submersible would need to be strong enough to withstand implosion in the hadal zone, but nimble enough to handle in rugged terrain; big enough to carry a pilot and a scientist, and reliable enough to trust with their lives, but light enough to be launched from a ship. Every wire and bolt and circuit board and battery on it would need to be fail-safe in corrosive salt water, under gargantuan pressures, and they would need to stay that way over time. This is such a tall order—and a proposition so expensive it makes Phenom jets look cheap—that no such vehicle existed. Until Vescovo commissioned one.

I HAULED MY duffel bag up the gangway and shook McCallum’s hand. The tropical sun blazed in a cloudless sky, glancing off a white hangar that stretched across the ship’s stern deck. Beneath this container, I knew, the most futuristic submersible ever built hunkered quietly, awaiting its next mission. Vescovo had named it Limiting Factor after an artificial intelligence in an Iain M. Banks science-fiction novel, and when I joined the​ ship, it had already made a run of successful dives. The Atlantic’s Puerto Rico Trench? Check. The Java Trench in the Indian Ocean? Done. The South Sandwich Trench in the Southern Ocean? Dicey but completed. And three weeks earlier, in May 2019, Vescovo had become the fourth person ever to touch down in the Pacific’s Challenger Deep, at 10,925 meters. The Five Deeps team had gone on to make four more dives in the Mariana Trench, for a total of five jaunts to the bottom of the earth within ten days. On one of those dives, the Limiting Factor became the first vessel to be certified by the submarine classification society, known as DNVGL, for “unlimited trips to full ocean depth.” On another, the expedition’s chief scientist, Alan Jamieson, of England’s Newcastle University, became the first hadal researcher to personally visit the ecosystem he studied.

Now the expedition was headed out on its next Pacific quest: the first manned descent to the second- deepest spot on earth. Known as the Horizon Deep, this patch of Hades is part of the Tonga Trench. In 2013, a Japanese government agency measured its depth at 10,850 meters, less than 100 meters shy of the Challenger Deep’s record depth. But the world’s ocean trenches are tumultuous places. They’re formed by colliding tectonic plates, one plate driving another downward into the earth’s mantle. This process is called subduction, and it wreaks geological havoc. Some of its effects include rattling earthquakes, volcanic paroxysms, and submarine landslides, resulting in mega-tsunamis like the 2004 nightmare in Indonesia, which originated in the Java Trench, and the 2011 horror show in Japan. Such upheavals can change the seafloor topography as huge volumes of rock shift around. And the Tonga Trench is the liveliest subduction zone of all. Part of its lower plate is moving at the unsettling rate of nine inches per year, causing swarms of earthquakes. On the off chance that some new, yawning chasm might be found, Vescovo wanted to take a closer look. “It’s well within the margin of error,” McCallum said, raising an eyebrow. He explained that we’d be leaving for the trench the following afternoon, timing our departure to skirt a major storm. “It’s going to be a little sporty.”

Later, after traveling with him, I would become familiar with McCallum’s signature facial expression: a kind of half smile, half smirk, both bemused and concerned, happy but always scanning ahead for trouble. By the time I arrived in Tonga, McCallum had spent two years planning, worrying, juggling, hiring, and scheduling, in addition to cajoling bureaucrats around the globe for the expedition’s necessary permits. “At the moment I’m dealing with 57 government entities,” he told me.

That was the easy part.

THE TONGA TRENCH lies 178 miles southeast of Nukualofa, a passage that would take 18 hours. Four days were planned at the dive site, making it a weeklong round trip for 43 passengers and crew. While it was in port, the Pressure Drop buzzed with preparation. Vescovo had bought the ship—a Stalwartclass ocean-surveillance vessel designed for spying on Russian submarines during the Cold War—and outfitted it for the expedition. Its facilities included multiple offices, wet and dry science labs, a machine shop, a gym, a movie lounge, an infirmary, and satellite internet access that enabled Vescovo to conduct business from the middle of nowhere.

Patrick Lahey and I stood in the hangar next to the Limiting Factor, the submersible that he and his team had built after years of doodling on napkins, dreaming of the day when someone would come along with a large checkbook and a burning desire to dive below 6,000 meters. Lahey, 56, is a battle-tested guy with a lively sense of irreverence and a fast engine running between his ears. He’s the president of Florida-based Triton Submarines and, like McCallum, a familiar figure in the world of ocean exploration. If you’ve ever seen a sub that looks like something George Jetson would drive— an aquatic spaceship in which passengers sit under a clear acrylic dome—you’ve seen Triton’s handiwork. The company has revolutionized the field: it’s the Apple of submersible design.

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