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Next Wave in Underwater Exploration

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It hasn’t been this exciting to be an explorer since the heyday of imperialism, and it’s the world’s wealthiest individuals who are leading the charge. The personal submarine is now very much in demand, unlocking the depths of the sea to anyone with the determination (and cash) to make it happen.

Private individuals are funding ambitious expeditions with the use of submersibles. They’re studying ocean environments, exploring shipwrecks, and some are investing significant amounts of money in hunting for long lost treasures.

Over the past several years, ultra-wealthy adventurers have gone to the depths of the Mediterranean Sea to uncover untouched archaeological sites. Others have helped establish protected underwater preserves off Spain and Portugal, and still more have filmed the deep for documentary projects.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went on a 20-minute dive at a depth of 60m to investigate the shipwreck of a 19th Century naval frigate in the Gulf of Finland. Putin called the U-Boat Worx sub “impressive” and added that the experience is “like a time machine taking you to another period." 

Submersibles 2However, perhaps the most ambitious of all the private missions was Hollywood director James Cameron’s dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2012. The result of that dive was the release of the documentary “Deepsea Challenger 3D.”

The chief designer of Cameron’s sub was Ron Allum, who is currently working in partnership with Triton Submarines. “’Deepsea Challenger 3D’ shows just how little we know about the deep trenches in our oceans,” Allum has said. “It’s crazy – we are searching the heavens for a planet with water, yet we have never explored the water on our own world. We need more visionaries like Cameron to help us explore and better understand the most important ecosystem on our planet.”

It seems that Allum’s call has been heeded. The advances in submersible technology have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, making it more feasible for private individuals and companies to establish advanced programs around submarines.

Rick Thomas, the vice president of Nautical Structures Industries and a member of the Miami Wreck Exploration Project, believes we are on the cusp of a new golden age in exploration due to these innovative private subs.

“There’s no question about it,” he says. “Today we’re now seeing more of these boats carrying submarines. And the more they do that, the more interesting things will come of it….We really are still at the very beginning stages of what I think is a growing segment of the luxury yacht industry and the expedition yacht industry.”

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Luxury exploration

Lucky for today’s adventurers, they are able to go about their missions in style and luxury. Gone are the days of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, the renowned British explorer of South America, who disappeared in 1925 while trudging through the Amazon in search of the Lost City of Z. Fawcett and his companions endured inhospitable conditions, native disease and unimagineable fatigue.

Certainly, Fawcett would be either incredibly jealous or unbelievably put-off by the luxuries available today.

After all, these are not fly-by-night operations. There are a number of yacht operations today that have equipped themselves – either through refits, ground-up designs, or by purchasing shadow yachts – for highly advanced submersible-centered programs.

Thomas says it’s been a slow evolution over nearly a decade, which has finally brought some legitimacy to submersible incorporation. “It’s been one of those things where the wealthy people who have these boats probably didn’t give it a second thought that they could carry these one-atmosphere submarines, much less use one,” he says.

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But several visionaries weren’t deterred. M/Y Octopus was probably one of the first and most impressive examples of what could be accomplished with the right attitude. The luxurious expedition yacht featured a submarine of a more traditional variety: a long yellow tube with thin slits of glass to peer through.

Today’s subs – produced by industry leaders like U-Boat, Triton and SEAmagine – offer a much higher quality visual and interactive experience, with glass spheres offering near 360-visual fields and with robotic arms that are able to manipulate their surroundings.

However, it was M/Y Plan B that really had Thomas feeling as if submersibles had finally crossed a threshold.

“I was blown away,” he says. “I walked into the main stateroom where normally you would expect to see a lot of frou-frou and nice lounge furniture, and all of a sudden what I saw was a very utilitarian interior…There were tons of computer monitors and an amazing amount of equipment. And I came to realize that their program was research and exploration looking for sunken treasure.”

It’s a high-tech research facility that Jacques Cousteau would have been proud of.

“They’re literally looking for these vessels that went down with loads of gold and silver,” Thomas says. “It’s not an amateurish thing. They’re damn serious about it.”

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Leaving a legacy 

While M/Y Plan B may be treasure-hunting, there are other wealthy individuals who are going at things from a more altruistic angle, says Shane Zigler, a surface officer at Brownie’s Global Logistics, which has a program centered around two Triton submersibles. The company sets up dives with scientific, environmental or historical significance.

“There are these uber-wealthy individuals out there and for them it’s no longer enough to go out and show off for your friends,” says Zigler. “They want to make a difference. They want to leave a legacy.”

Brownie’s partners with Global Underwater Explorers and also Project Baseline. They routinely work with local scientists and researchers in order to prepare for their dives – whether they’re trying to discover shipwrecks or research deepwater reef systems.

“Every time a sub goes down, we’re generally the very first people ever to lay eyes on [the area],” says Zigler. “It’s so unexplored and every time you go down in a sub, you really don’t know what you’re going to find. That being said…a lot of science goes into it before we even get to a place. We have an idea that we’re going to find something, usually. Although it’s not always what we expect.”

Med dive jarsLocal knowledge is key to this process. They speak with scientists, archaeologists, historians, all of whom tend to be very forthcoming and willing to help, because it’s often their research that benefits from these missions – not Brownie’s bottom line.

In essence, the person who charters with Brownie’s is also paying for the research operations that are taking place. This often allows academics to gain access to a site for the first time in their careers.

Brownie’s also references local fishermen and divers, in addition to deploying sonar, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remotely operated underwater vehicles (RUVs).

Wealthy individuals can charter a trip with Brownie’s in order to be a part of an underwater discovery, or to take part in a research project. They have the option of chartering Brownie’s 33m yacht, though they can always opt to charter another. The key, however, is to charter Brownie’s recently delivered 48m shadow yacht which carries the subs.

“It’s definitely growing in interest and there’s a lot of yachts that want to have this available to them, but the subs don’t practically fit on board the yacht,” says Zigler. “They want to go on dives and they want it to be interesting, but they want it to make a difference.”

Adventure and artifact

Brownie’s spent the last couple of years on dives throughout the Mediterranean, and helped to uncover shipwrecks around the Aeolian Islands to the north of Sicily. The Roman wrecks were around 2,000 years old.

Zigler described one donor’s experience last summer, an individual who helped fund some of the dives which allowed a Sicilian archaeologist to see the wreckage firsthand – wreckage that he’d studied his whole career but had never been able to see.submersibles gallery 3


“To pair them up together, and to have the archaeologist able to describe what they’re seeing in great detail,” says Zigler, adding that they uncovered an altar used for making sacrifices for safe passage. “We probably would’ve just gone past it if we didn’t have the archaeologist with us.”

Brownie’s worked in the area with the blessing of the government, and many of the artifacts that it retrieved are set to be housed in Italian museums.

“That donor can now go back to Italy and see some of those artifacts in the museums,” Zigler says.

The model seems to be catching on, and others already appear to be copying. This summer, Brownie’s is doing some work in its own backyard, as it plans to explore the fertile waters off Southern Florida and The Bahamas.

Taking their place in the Med is a partnership with U-Boat Worx, which has picked up exactly where Brownie’s left off: the Aeolian Islands. The company has billed it as “a program for adventurous individuals to take part in an undersea archaeological expedition off the coast of Sicily, not as a tourist, but as an exploration crew member.”

U-Boat is teaming up with the Aurora Trust Foundation in order to put the program together. “This is a real bucket-list adventure,” says Ian Koblick, co-founder of the foundation. “You will become an authentic explorer and one of the first persons in 2,000 years to lay eyes on these ancient Roman shipwrecks.”

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The opportunity is sure to entice quite a few people – and U-Boat isn’t the only sub testing out this particular undersea-bound business venture. EYOS Expeditions, a leader in yacht charter expedition trips, recently teamed up with Triton Subs in order to diversify their options. “Together, we can offer some true once-in-a-lifetime experiences in areas that were virtually inaccessible to yachts only a few years ago,” EYOS partner Rob McCallum said in a press release.

Films and documentaries have only enhanced the appeal. Romanticism and ego run throughout, just as James Cameron demonstrated in his recent documentary. The director famously used his blockbuster movie Titanic as a means of testing the limits of submersibles and exploring the site of the famous shipwreck. And it’s believed that he used Avatar as a means of testing out 3D-film technology for his true passion project: diving to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Golden opportunities

The scientific community is often strapped for funds and equipment, and these yachts have provided a service to them that otherwise wouldn’t be available. M/Y Octopus has been loaned to various scientific organizations to help them carry out certain projects. A recent example is the discovery in March by a Paul Allen-led research team who found the Japanese battleship Musashi, one of the largest and most heavily armed in naval history, in the Sibuyan Sea near the Philippines.

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Thomas recently worked on a project in the mid-Atlantic states of the U.S., where a vessel had floundered nearly 100 years ago carrying Cuban old-growth mahogany timber. "Believe it or not,” Thomas says, “it was millions of dollars of wood that was sitting in the bottom of the ocean.”

Meanwhile a number of vessels from the Spanish Gold Fleet are as yet undiscovered, and many others exist, with historical accounts and high-tech instrumentation able to point the way.

Whether it’s finding sealife, like the giant squid filmed by researchers using a Triton sub, or the discovery of historical shipwrecks, submersibles will be at the heart of this new expeditionary frontier. After all, there is gold out there, literal and figurative, and the sea offers plenty of both.

* Photos provided courtesy of Brownie's Global Logistics.

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