Exploring Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic

The first time I met Richard Branson we were in the kitchen of a small bed and breakfast in the high-Arctic Inuit village of Clyde River. Taller and blonder than I expected, he was dressed in full cold-weather gear and had just flown in by private plane to join a dogsled expedition. Slightly bemused, he was struggling to figure out how to microwave a cup of tea.

I think of that scene whenever he announces he’s setting off on a new adventure – whether by hot air balloon, cigarette boat or, as of this month, one-man submarine. While exceedingly bold, maybe even brave, I’m not convinced technology is his strong suit … which makes me a bit worried when he announces he intends to go deeper below the surface of the ocean than any man or woman before, to explore the bottoms of the five oceans.

His $10 million “Virgin Oceanic” is the continuation of a project begun by Branson’s friend and former ballooning partner Steve Fossett (whose small plane mysteriously disappeared over the Nevada desert in 2007). The goal is to take the ultra-lightweight sub to the deepest, least-explored parts of the planet … perhaps simultaneous to the date sometime later this year when his “Virgin Galactic” rockets its first paying passengers ($200,000 per seat) into space.Nothing Branson sets out to do is small. He’s become the Steve Jobs of high-end adventure in that it seems anything he proposes is quickly bought up by wealthy folks who would follow him anywhere. His attitude is equal parts measured and cavalier. “I have a great difficulty saying no,” he admits. “Life’s so much more fun saying yes.”

The Deepflight Challenger was built by the leader in sophisticated submersibles, Hawkes Ocean Technologies of Point Richmond, CA, and is the brainchild of renowned ocean engineer and inventor Graham Hawkes. Branson intends to use the 18-foot-long, 8000-pound craft in what he’s calling the Virgin Oceanic Five Dives project, hoping to take it to the deepest point in each of the five oceans. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Moss Landing Marine Labs have signed on to support the scientific efforts of the team, which will study marine life, the tectonic plates and help Google Ocean map the ocean floor in 3D.

Hawkes has also constructed submarines for upcoming explorations of the Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan, and a multi-year ocean expedition led by venture capitalist Tom Perkins.

“I love a challenge,” says Branson. “When I learned that only one person had gone below 18,000 feet under water and the sea goes down to 36,000-feet, it seemed to unbelievable. And talking to scientists and finding out that 80 percent of species on earth haven’t been discovered yet – that’s unbelievable. Knowing there are thousands of shipwrecks on the bottom of the sea that never have been discovered is pretty good fun as well.”

Searching for gold-laden Spanish galleons could be another part of the adventure, as is setting records. In the spirit of Fossett – who loved setting records and owned 115 when he died– the dives will include setting 30 Guinness World records. It is hardly a risk-free adventure. A leak or engine malfunction at depths where pressure is 1,000 times normal would be catastrophic, for both man and machine.

They hope the first of the Five Dives explorations will take place as early as this summer when explorer Chris Walsh captains the sub to the bottom of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, more than 30,000 feet below sea level. Branson intends to captain the next trip, to the bottom of the Atlantic’s Puerto Rico Trench, a mere 25,000 feet below.

The other three areas to be explored are the Diamantina Trench in the Indian Ocean (26,041 feet), the South Sandwich Trench in the southern Atlantic (23, 737) and the Molloy Deep in the Arctic Ocean (18,399).

The carbon fiber and titanium submarine should be able to go 7 miles below the surface of the sea and be on its own for up to 24 hours, though the hope is that each trip to the bottom, and return, will take no more than five hours. Its ‘wings’ will essentially allow it to ‘fly’ over the ocean floor collecting data.

Before each dive remote-controlled vehicles (ROVs) will be sent down, armed with bait, to stir up marine life, which will be filmed by the submarine that follows.

Branson already owns a three-person version of the sub, also built by Hawkes – the “Necker Nymph” – which he rents for $2,500 a day at his private Caribbean island resort.

“This experimental trip to the bottom of the ocean could lead to bigger crafts,” says Branson. “We’ve coined the phrase aquanaut – anyone who goes below 20,000 feet – there’s only one person at the moment and it would be fun to make as many aquanauts as there are astronauts.”

Branson is familiar with adventuring risks. In 1972, marlin fishing off Cozumel, he swam two miles to shore when his boat was swamped by 10-foot waves. In 1977 he was the first to try flying a kind of tricycle with wings and managed to land it after soaring hundreds of feet off the ground; its inventor was killed a week later doing the same thing. He’s been nearly killed skydiving and rappelling down a Las Vegas hotel and plucked from the ocean on numerous occasions when his balloons went down.

When we traveled together in the Arctic, Sir Richard (only his mother still calls him Ricky) told me about getting lost in the north woods of Canada when one of his ballooning adventures went awry. “We called on the radio and told the guy who responded that we were on a frozen lake surrounded by fir trees. He paused a minute before saying, ‘Well, this is Canada … you could be in any of ten thousand places.’ ” A rescue chopper picked them up eight hours later.

Such luck won’t be an option at 25,000 feet below; if something goes wrong down there he better have packed an extra set of wings.