Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Billionaire Branson’s ‘Virgin Oceanic’ will plumb deepest ocean depths.

The final frontier: tourism at the bottom of the sea?

Billionaire Richard Branson announced plans this week that will see him and others pilot a one of a kind single person submarine to the deepest points of the earth’s five oceans, including the 36,200 foot Mariana’s Trench, where the pressure is over a thousand atmospheres. "The last great challenge for humans is to explore the depths of our planet's oceans," he said at a press conference at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club in California. A news release said there was only one frontier left for Branson's Virgin brand, which has reached "the seven continents of the Earth, up into the jet stream and soon, even into space."

Branson’s ambitious project- called Virgin Oceanic- will use the only submarine that boasts of ‘full ocean depth’ capability today. The one person sub has an operating depth of 37,000ft (7 miles) and is capable of operating for 24hrs unaided. Once fully descended, the submarine’s hydroplanes (the equivalent of wings for submarines) and thrusters will allow it to ‘fly’ up to 10km over the ocean floor whilst collecting video and data, something submersibles could only dream of.  The sub uses ‘flying wings’ to propel it downward, mirroring the way dolphins and rays swim.

Virgin Oceanic will, over the next two years, go to the bottom of the Mariana’s Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic's Puerto Rico Trench and South Sandwich Trench, the Diamantina Trench in the Indian Ocean and the Molloy Deep in the Arctic Ocean. Scientists will research the tectonic plates at the bottom of the oceans and hope to later bring back water, microbes and small creatures from the depths. “We have 800 pounds of moon rocks and not one drop from the bottom of the ocean," bemoans Virgin’s Alex Tai. The submarine pilots know that the dives are dangerous- they will be down at the bottom of the ocean for hours and rescues will be impossible. At those kinds of operating depths, each individual part of the sub must be able to withstand enormous pressures, 1500 times that of an airplane.

Branson and his team of scientists, explorers and adventurers will “collate data and catalogue life forms that will never have been seen before by human eyes and are unknown to science”, he says. Branson, known for his flamboyant lifestyle, is also partnering with Google. Google Maps will stream his team’s dives, which will also be added to Google Earth. Virgin says that the project will break up to 30 Guinness world records, and will produce “previously unachievable detail and documentation of one of the most unexplored areas of Earth.”  Virgin’s research partners include the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Moss Landing Marine Labs in Northern California.

 “Each dive will be the world’s first solo dive to the bottom of the five deepest trenches in the world” Branson blogged in early April. “We will discover a whole new world. A world full of undiscovered species and for those who dream, a world where Spanish galleons have lain unplundered for centuries!”

True to form, Branson has ambitious business plans with the project. Later, he plans to roll out a $17 million 18 foot  submarine that will carry a half dozen tourists who will pay an undisclosed- but extravagant- fee to tour ocean depths. Branson already has a space tourism venture on in New Mexico, USA, from where he expects the first suborbital flight to take off later this year; he expects many of the people signed up to tour space will sign up with Virgin Oceanic too.

Professor Rober Rieich from Berkeley says that the super rich are getting richer even in an economy that is struggling in the US, and Virgin Oceanic should not face great difficulty in selling tickets to wealthy wannabe ‘aquanauts’ .  "People who are selling to the super-rich basically can't lose," he says. "Richard Branson can dig a hole to the center of the Earth and charge a million dollars a day to go through it and he'd find people to take him up on the offer."

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