The final frontier
‘There are so many ocean trenches. I would love to go and see and to see what new discoveries lie there.’ – Victor Vescovo
The Five Deeps Expedition creator Victor Vescovo is no stranger to adventure. In 2017 he completed the ‘Explorers Grand Slam’, having climbed the highest peak of all seven of the world’s continents. This summer, he became the first person in history to have been to both the top of all the world’s continents and the bottom of all its oceans.
We caught up with this intrepid explorer on board the Five Deeps research vessel, Pressure Drop, to find out a little more about where his drive comes from and what his experiences were of heading into previously unexplored ocean areas.
Oceanographic Magazine (OM): You seem to have moved from the world of pure adventure into one of exploration. What prompted that shift?
Victor Vescovo (VV): Well one is a good transition to the other. I guess the transition came from adventuring and mountain climbing – that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do. To then be able to migrate into exploring the areas that nobody has ever been to before is extremely exciting. I was, like so many people, stunned to find out that no one had dived to the bottom of four of the world’s oceans despite the fact that it’s technically possible, since people have been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The wheels started turning and it seemed like a good symmetry, to go from climbing mountains to exploring the oceans. I’m not getting any younger and mountain climbing is a young man’s game. I feel that there’s maybe more of an intellectual challenge in organising an ocean expedition and finding the technology. It’s a different problem set, but in a way it was as interesting as purely focusing on the physical and mental stamina required for mountain climbing. It was just an evolutionary process.
OM: You’ve spoken very openly about wanting to visit space. Why do you think historically people have been more interested in studying outer space than the deep ocean?
VV: It’s a great question and it’s something I’ve talked about on board during our long voyages with our scientists – we think there are actually deep psychological issues in that area. We are born with an innate fear of drowning. When we look at the ocean, we can’t really see what is down there. We’re often told that it’s dark, cold and dangerous. Whereas the stars look heavenly. There are so many positive emotions associated with looking up at the heavens. And yet, the area of the ocean that’s deeper than 6000m is called the Hadal zone, after the Greek god of the underworld, Hades. So, deep down, even our language makes the oceans deep and dark and yet, if you have the proper tools, these waters can and should be explored. They are directly connected to us on land in terms of what happens to us.
OM: There can be a great deal of disconnect between people and the ocean. Was that part of the reason you decided to bring a scientific element to your expeditions?
VV: Originally it was much more focused on the adventure side, but it just happened to become an exploration endeavour too because no one had been there before. But as we started developing the submarine and talking to my expedition leader and other people in the industry, we realised that this was a great scientific opportunity. So I think it’s fair to say that my interest in the science component grew significantly in the initial stages. For example, I learned that most of the biomass of our planet is actually in the oceans. Most of the oxygen comes from there. And now there’s so much concern about climate change and our climate models. More than 70% of the world is ocean, and yet, 80% of the ocean remains unexplored. How can we really understand what’s happening in climatology without truly understanding the mechanisms of the deep ocean, that we know so little about?
OM: How did you feel when you got to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and you found plastic?
VV: There’s been a lot written about that, and it was a major element of what happened. I did find one piece of human contamination that we’re pretty sure was plastic – it was definitely manmade. So, that was a little bit of a gut punch to see in such a remote area that I would have hoped would still be pristine. But I’ve learned that the real danger is actually not in the plastic you see but in the plastics that you don’t. It’s the microplastics and even the nanoplastics, because these things continue to degrade in the ocean and they enter the very base level of our food chain. It’s the unseen danger posed by plastics that we’re trying to bring to light. But the major message is that we now have a technological tool that can go to all the oceans to do more research.
OM: One of the most impressive things about the submarine Limiting Factor is it’s ability to dive again and again. How do you think this leap forward in capacity to explore the deep ocean will effect big industry?
VV: I don’t think it’ll effect it very much at all because I think that the deep mining community has already thought about it. It’s been an interesting idea since the 1970s. We have found out firsthand that the ocean is a very harsh environment. It is not friendly to equipment. I think the technical and economic difficulties of extracting resources from the seafloor, not to mention the ecological backlash that would follow – these are very pristine environments that do not heal easily – would be too much. I think there will be so many barriers. As a businessman, I think it will be very difficult to economically and socially extract materials from the seafloor. I do believe that there will continue to be offshore oil drilling, but I think open ocean floor mining is going to be very difficult to do.
OM: You and your team completed every Five Deeps dive in less than a year. How did you manage that feat and how did that take its toll?
VV: We went through 94 iterations of our itinerary. We had to constantly adapt to weather, to mechanical issues on the ship and other issues on the submarine. We just had to be ready to adapt to circumstances. We had to be very strict with our schedule – when we completed our core missions we had to keep moving. It’s like being on vacation and you want to see all the sights – you can’t tarry too long or you’re going to go off schedule! But everything was governed by the weather windows. In the Arctic and in the Antarctic, there are only about four to six weeks each year that you can safely dive those areas. So, everything revolved around them. It was delayed once but we were able to recalibrate everything and make it work. I just discovered, on our last cruise while I was rereading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, that the amount of time that the characters spent on Nemo’s Nautilus was ten months, the exact same amount of time it took us to do the Five Deeps. Just a coincidence but that was really cool.
OM: Your most recent dive was the Malloy Trench, in the Arctic Ocean. How did this site differ to the previous dives?
VV: It was different in a few respects. One was that it was the last of five deeps and so there was an enormous amount of excitement. We were eager to have a safe dive and to get it done without the ice sheet coming in or encountering some other difficulty. If the ice sheet had come in early that would have been very bad thing for us – it could have delayed us another year before we could do it again – but the weather cooperated, and we got it done. But we also really focused the second and third dives (we did three dives in three days) on science. We were looking for some geological vents and minerals that would have interesting rock formations. We also went – in a way, I’d call it canyon diving. I took Dr. Jamieson down and we must have gone up and down four or five canyons, some of which were sheer cliffs. We saw a great deal of biological material and other interesting things so it was a very vivid science dive at several thousand metres.
OM: How do you navigate in those unmapped and unvisited deep-sea areas?
VV: It’s tough as a pilot. I’ve now been diving for over a year and I’m not a great pilot, but I’ve got a little bit of experience. You just have to anticipate these extreme currents. One skill that was really helpful was my experience with helicopters. I learned how to fly aircrafts when I was very young and I’ve recently gotten into helicopters. They are similar to a submersible in terms of how they behave when they hover. You have the wind currents and you’re trying to hold the position in three dimensions. You have to learn how to anticipate. That was helpful, but still you have to have very quick reflexes when the current pushes you into a rock or something. I’m not saying I never bumped something down there – it was tricky we managed.
OM: For some the hard work begins now in terms of scientific analysis. Where does that information go?
VV: There are different types of data. The mapping data and the bathymetry we’re obligated to send to GEBCO for their 2030 initiative to map the entire seafloor. So, we’re giving that away. There’s nothing that is being kept for private use – this is not a commercial expedition. The information and samples was captured by Dr. Alan Jamieson and the team of scientists that rotated through the ship. He works with Newcastle University and over the next several years he will be looking at all of the things that they collected and analysing it so there’ll be a stream of scientific papers I’m sure, because no one has ever been to these places or seen what we’ve seen, so it will all be new stuff.
OM: We’ve heard that you are toying with the idea of going to the Ring of Fire in the Pacific Ocean next. Is that true?
VV: It is true. I’d like to continue in association with the ship. We are looking at working with or even selling the whole system to an organisation or government. However, I’ve grown to really like diving and there are still a lot of unexplored trenches in the world. I don’t believe the northern arc of the Ring of Fire in the north Pacific has ever been visited by man. There are so many ocean trenches. I would love to go and see and to see what new discoveries lie there.
OM: Has there been anything that you’ve seen or experienced that has made your heart jump in to mouth?
VV: Yes. The first time that that really happened was in the Java Trench when we saw a sea squirt – the image has now become quite famous. It looked like a dog’s head that just drifted across one of our scientific landers. I was with. Dr Jamieson and others in mission control when we saw it float past and we all just gawped. Dr Jamieson said: ‘I have no idea what that is.’ It’s when you have moments like that that you’re really excited by what you’re doing.
OM: How has life has been on board Pressure Drop?
VV: Oh it’s been great. I spent 20 years in the Navy and I’ve spent a lot of time at sea. You go through all the normal processes of getting to know people, having some issues, working them out and then just becoming one big dysfunctional family. You know you miss it when you’re not around it.
OM: Do you think a desire to explore is innate?
VV: I think a good part of it is. I think that if you took a population of people there’s going to be a certain slice of it that are going to be a little bit desirous of looking over the next hill. They’re never quite settled, never just happy being comfortable. I’ve met like-minded individuals and I think it’s partly genetic and partly environmental – just like everything else.
Photographs by Reeve Jolliffe, courtesy of Victor Vescovo and the Five Deeps Expedition.
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