Popular Science

Inside Five Deeps’ record-setting quest to reach the bottom of each ocean

Explorer Victor Vescovo commissioned a full-ocean-depth submersible for his Five Deeps mission to be the first person to reach the bottom of each ocean. The effort gives a big boost to deep-sea science.
“We feel like we have just created, validated, and opened a powerful door to discover and visit any place, any time, in the ocean,” says Five Deeps’ Vescovo.
“We feel like we have just created, validated, and opened a powerful door to discover and visit any place, any time, in the ocean,” says Five Deeps’ Vescovo. (Courtesy Five Deeps Expedition/)

After Victor Vescovo climbed the Seven Summits—the highest mountain on each continent—he skied to both the North and South poles. Only 66 people have accomplished this dual feat of human performance, dubbed the ­Explorers' Grand Slam. When Vescovo finished, in 2017, he certainly could have hung up his gear and felt pretty good about his place in the annals of adventure. But the 53-year-old private equity investor from Texas was not done.

Vescovo had been considering what, after Everest and Antarctica, he could possibly tackle that would feel big enough. Outer space wasn’t really an option yet. Then he came up with the perfect quest. It would be, in a sense, the inverse of the Seven Summits. He called it the Five Deeps.

No human has ever reached the bottommost point of all five oceans, or even tried. And only one person—film director and ocean fanboy James Cameron—had touched the absolute nadir, Challenger Deep in the western Pacific’s Mariana Trench, since Lt. Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard first reached the spot way back on January 23, 1960.

That's how, in December 2018, Vescovo found himself off Puerto Rico aboard Pressure Drop, a repurposed U.S. Navy ship, preparing to take Limiting Factor, the deep-diving submersible he'd commissioned, to the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, 8,376 meters down. (Meters are ­standard in the nautical world; that's 27,480 feet, or just over 5 miles.)

Limiting Factor is the unique creation of Triton Submarines, and the company's president, Patrick Lahey, wasn't thrilled that this unicorn of a customer—the rich guy who called up and ordered a full-ocean-depth sub—was determined to go it alone. Lahey urged Vescovo to dive with a copilot. But this was always a nonstarter.

Vescovo flies planes and helicopters, and he was determined to fly this craft too. “I told Patrick from the very beginning: ‘I want to take a submarine to the bottom of all five oceans by myself,’” Vescovo explained. As an introvert, he prefers being alone. Also, he said, “when you do something solo, it is materially different. And it’s more rewarding.”

Vescovo has a calm, almost Zen way about him. The Dallas native wears his graying blond hair long, and speaks softly, even when excited. But he seemed especially relaxed at the pre-dive meeting that December morning. He accepted a folded and bagged flag from the Explorers Club, a society of adventurers focused on promoting field study. The banner would go with him to the bottom of the Atlantic and then, if all went well, to the next four deeps, before returning to the club’s headquarters in New York City.

Overall, though, the mood in the room was tense. It was the sixth and final day they would be able to dive in the Puerto Rico Trench before Vescovo had to get back to business in Texas. Twice, he had gone for trial runs and aborted. Once, the hatch leaked. Then, the sub's lone mechanical arm, which would pick up objects of scientific interest from the seafloor, fell off. Water had also shorted a circuit, causing a malfunction in the variable ballast system, which allows the was built in a ­10,000-square-foot ­industrial space in Vero Beach, Florida.

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