In the great race between director James Cameron and British billionaire Richard Branson to the deepest point on the ocean floor, Cameron will get there first.
This, according to Bruce Jones, CEO of Triton Submarines (and subject of this excellent Broward-Palm Beach New Times cover story). Jones' Florida-based company has likewise been working on a vessel that could withstand the immense pressure at the bottom of the Mariana Trench — but unlike Cameron and Branton's one-man submersibles, Triton is constructing a ship that could carry multiple passengers down and provide them full visibility of the wonders that be.
Triton Submarines has been in communication with Cameron's personal team of expensive engineers about their progress. When we interviewed Jones about a week ago, he said that without a doubt, Cameron would complete his mission “within two weeks.”
A BBC News report today seems to confirm that prediction:
[Cameron] has just successfully completed a test-dive 8km (five miles) down off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
He now hopes to reach the world's deepest point in his one-man submersible in the coming weeks.
However, when we talked to Jones, he seemed confused as to why anyone cared.
“So what?” he said. “We went to the bottom of the trench already. [Cameron's] sub is half the vehicle that Trieste was. It's half the size, and it will take half the people with half the viewport.”
Trieste was the submersible used in the first and only trip to Challenger Deep (a nickname for the lowest spot on the Earth's surface, that dark mysterious world at the bottom of the Pacific). She was manned by Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and a Swiss co-pilot back in the 1960s.
The lieutenant, now 80 years old, has come out in support of Cameron's trip.
“Jim is a remarkable guy who's never trained as an engineer but has an intuitive grasp of engineering details that far surpasses a lot of the professionals I've known,” Walsh previously told the Telegraph. And now, he says to BBC: I take no pride in the fact that no one has gone back in more than a half Century … so I am very pleased that Mr Cameron's team is about to do this.”
Jones isn't so impressed. “Yes, it's a return trip,” he says. “But its not a return trip that anybody would want to take.”
The Triton Submarines CEO has seen Cameron's submersible, and describes it as “a spherical pressure hull that's only three feet in diameter.”
The tall, lanky film director will be hunched into a three-foot space, peering through “a tiny little viewport, just inches in diameter,” says Jones.
Cameron claims in the BBC piece that he'll be shooting 3D footage of the dive (of course) and collecting samples of lord-knows-what's-down-there for interested scientists. His trip is reportedly sponsored by National Geographic and Rolex.
This whole competition thing with Branson, the ambitious billionaire who owns the Virgin Group, was quite clearly “the construct of a PR firm,” says Jones — and Cameron's blue ribbon is an “ego-driven publicity stunt.”
Branson's vessel is named Virgin Oceanic, and it will be housed right here in Newport Harbor.
Jones has even lower hopes for the Oceanic than Cameron's three-footer. He says that “in the hands of a guy who knows nothing about submersibles — he's a real-estate guy,” the Oceanic's design doesn't equip it for deep-sea survival.
Whoever wins, Eddie Kisfaludy, operations manager for the Virgin Oceanic, argues that the first man to conquer the Mariana Trench in the 21st century will indeed be making history.
In 1960, he says, Trieste used “massive containers of fuel” and “big clunky balloons of air funded by the U.S. Navy.” Kisfaludy says that a modern, streamlined repeat will do “what Apollo 11 did for the space program” — namely, “get the world more interested and invested in the deep sea. It's the largest environment on our planet, and the one we know least about.”
But engineers at Triton Submarines see the real goal as constructing a ship with 360-degree views that can shuttle scientists and tourists down the trench 365 days per year.
Triton is currently working on one such vessel, though the company is not participating in said PR scramble. Jones estimates that the company's own Mariana diver will be ready in about 18 months. (At $250,000 a ticket, according to BBC.)
“We want to have a long-term effect on man's relationship with the ocean,” says Jones.