A form of luxury tourism is hitting the deep sea thanks to a small handful of firms providing state-of-the-art private submersibles to high-paying customers.
One example, Triton Submarines, builds its vessels with a view to maximizing the awe-inducing effect of experiencing the Earth from its watery depths. "A submersible is a visual tool, so the more compelling we can make the visual experience, the more effectively we have done our job," Triton President Patrick Lahey explains in an email interview.
That description draws comparisons to space tourism, which in the case of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, is designed to induce the overview effect in passengers. It's an effect so profound, Blue Origin and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says, that it convinced him to pledge $10 billion towards slowing climate change.
Luxury experiences 3,300 feet under the sea
Florida-based Triton Submarines was founded in 2007 and it has formed an illustrious history thanks to its luxury submersibles, which have appeared in the likes of David Attenborough's 'Blue Planet' series. The company has a series of notable dives under its belt, including the world's first private submersible dive in Antarctica and the first one to produce 4K footage of the Titanic.
"The most important factors in the design process of a Triton are as follows: safety, ease of maintenance, simplicity of operation, and reliability," Lahey tells us. "Every Triton product is founded on these important design principles. Next," he says, "we focus on the desired diving depth, crew capacity, and mission requirements of the submersible. Together, these variables drive the final configuration of the craft we create for a client."
Last year, Triton unveiled the "world’s largest capacity acrylic-hulled personal submersible," capable of carrying six people to a depth of 3,300 feet. That vessel, the 3300/6, uses four thrusters peaking at 12.5kW each, enabling a speed of 3 knots (3.45-mph/5.5-km/h). The company also offers its DeepView series for 12 to 66 passengers, which can set off from cruise ships and ports, providing a service for tourists. Earlier this year, Triton also announced a partnership with Scenic to build its Triton 660/9 AVA, which will afford panoramic views to up to eight passengers.
"The thoughtful and strategic placement of equipment and shaping of external structures to optimize viewing are an essential part of the design process," Lahey explains. "We locate control and monitoring systems around the pilot and avoid positioning anything that might obstruct or diminish viewing. This also reduces the likelihood of a passenger inadvertently manipulating a control system by keeping them out of reach."
Private submersibles versus private space tourism
It is tempting to compare Triton's submarines trips, which are carefully designed to provide a unique visual experience, to the recent series of space tourism expeditions performed by the likes of Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX with its recent orbital Inspiration4 launch. While space tourism provides customers with a chance to experience the overview effect, Triton's subs offer a 360-degree view of the deep sea, all while looking surprisingly like machines built for space.
When we asked Triton's Lahey for his opinion he said the two experiences are "radically different." As he points out, "diving in a submersible is actually quite a tranquil and sublime experience whereas, I imagine taking off in a rocket and hurtling through our atmosphere and into space is most certainly not."
He does admit, however, that "a journey into space would certainly reinforce the notion that Earth is actually an ocean planet and perhaps in that way, it also has the potential to create advocacy for our oceans because of the sense of wonder or awe it would likely inspire."
In that sense at least, there is great parity between what private submersible companies and space enterprises are trying to achieve. And there are signs that both may be part of a wider trend towards luxury trips to the harshest environments on Earth (and beyond). Take, for example, this month's Airbus A340 landing in Antarctica. That expedition took supplies to a luxury tourism camp for those who wish to brave the icy polar region. Or Swedish aviation firm OceanSky Cruises' proposed luxury airship trips to the North Pole. Another submersible firm, U-Boat Worx, is selling a submarine that swims as fast as a dolphin to enable its client to keep up with aquatic life.
Changing 'the way you think and feel about the ocean'
Still, according to Lahey, the focus should be more grounded than it has been in recent months and years. "Space is a vacuum, devoid of life and not the key to our future survival, whereas the oceans are vibrant, alive and provide a home to the majority of the world’s biomass while also controlling our climate and providing most of the oxygen we need to live," he says. "Our future entirely depends on the health and well-being of our oceans and it is about time we devoted as much time, energy, and resources to the ocean as we have been pouring into space."
Lahey does also highlight the fact that both space tourism and luxury submersibles "are still only available to a select few." Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are selling tickets to suborbital space for upwards of $400,000, though some companies aim to offer balloon rides for a fraction of that price. Triton's submersibles, meanwhile, range in cost from roughly $2.5 to $4 million. It's a dynamic Lahey says he would like to see change, because, as he says, "I can assure you, when you dive in a submersible, it will change the way you think and feel about the ocean forever."
Though Triton Submarines sell subs instead of a service, and they're often bought for film crews and scientific expeditions, the company does state on its website that its commercial range of submersibles can help "cruise lines, resort owners and charter operators to capitalize on the current widespread public engagement with the oceans." It might not be gaining the same attention as space tourism, but deepsea submersible diving is increasingly being positioned as another adventurous holiday activity for the world's wealthiest.