Mark Harris was diving deep in an experimental submarine, built to bring underwater exploration costs down, when things started to go wrong
Caption (Image: Joel Perry/OceanGate)
“YOU’RE heading in exactly the wrong direction,” says a faint voice. These aren’t the words you want to hear when you are 125 metres below the sea’s surface on the deepest dive to date of an experimental new.
Just then, the sub’s four electric thrusters stop responding. We are in Seattle’s Elliott Bay, with near-zero visibility, no idea where we are and no way to move. The sub’s pilot, Tym Catterson, looks over to me. “Luckily, we have life support for three days,” he says with a smile, pointing to air tanks and carbon dioxide scrubbers.
The depths of the oceans are still largely unexplored, mainly because of the difficulties getting down there. One approach is to use uncrewed subs, called ROVs, but these are specialised and inflexible, making them less suited for some missions.
Crewed submersibles can tackle more tasks, but there are only eight deep-diving research subs in the world, most dating back to the cold war. And both crewed subs and ROVs generally require large support vessels to winch them in and out of the water, costing $50,000 a day or more.
Stockton Rush, founder and CEO of OceanGate, believes that the Cyclops sub I’m riding in will be able to take a crew of five beneath the waves for just a few thousand dollars, kickstarting a new era of undersea research and adventure tourism. If, that is, we ever reach the surface again.
The dive started well. Bobbing in Seattle’s marina, the Cyclops (pictured above) looked less like a submarine than a half-submerged module of the International Space Station. Its sleek tubular form bristled with cameras, sensors and the aerodynamic bulge of four electric thrusters. As we clambered in, Rush admitted the space references are no accident.
“You’re in a spaceship and this is like going to the moon or Mars,” he says. “Except that here in the ocean there are new lifeforms that people have never discovered, and it’s right off our backyard.”
Our mission today isn’t to discover unknown species but to be the first people in over 65 years to see one of the largest ferries in the world, the Tacoma, which sank on New Year’s Eve in 1949. That’s possible thanks to the feature that gives Cyclops its name: a bulbous hemisphere of transparent acrylic at the front of the sub that gives two crew members almost a 180-degrees field of vision. Two more sit behind, resting against a curved hull that glows with LED lighting to reduce claustrophobia.
We climb in, seal the hatch and then Catterson uses a wireless games controller to edge us away from the dock. We are attached to OceanGate’s yacht, which tows us out towards the wreck. Getting towed, rather than being winched on and off a ship, is OceanGate’s money-saving move. Once GPS tells us we are in the right place, Catterson unhooks us from the yacht, carries out final safety checks, then pushes the button of the sub-phone and says, “Dive, dive, dive.”
The Cyclops tilts its nose down and plunges into the deep. The surface light fades and Catterson flips on a pair of powerful LED headlights. We crew members are busied moving bags of iron ballast towards the back of the sub. This first, steel-hulled Cyclops can safely reach a depth of 500 metres. Its successor, Cyclops 2, will have a carbon fibre hull and a viewing window good for 3000 metres, as well as manipulator arms and an autopilot. That will put it (almost) in the league of submersibles like Alvin, which explored the wreck of the Titanic in the 1980s.
There’s a real thrill in seeing the Tacoma’s wooden spar, smothered in anemones and sea urchins, emerging from the silt. Juvenile salmon and grotesque ratfish dart among the wreckage.
We rest on the seabed while a 360-degree sonar system carries out a 3D scan. It really is an extra-terrestrial experience – no wonder OceanGate expects the Cyclops to be a hit with travellers. Rush is in discussions with Richard Branson to station a Cyclops at his private Caribbean island, Necker.
But as we drift without power, it’s clear that the Cyclops isn’t yet ready for prime time. Of course, we were never in any danger. Rush reboots the thruster software and we are moving within minutes.
Soon, this Cyclops begins a tour of undersea treasures in the US, including sunken U-boats from the Battle of the Atlantic and the wreck of the USS Macon airship near San Francisco. “Our goal is to get as many people as we can underwater in a crewed sub so they can understand the challenges, the opportunities and how little we know about the undersea environment,” says Rush.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Dive, dive, dive!”
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