Deep (limited only by the depth of your pocket). Dark (where sunlight fears to go). Cold (but air-conditioned and temperature-controlled).
Inhabited by creatures that few have ever seen, the ocean’s depths hold vast unknowns. Fortunately, a Vero Beach company, Triton Submarines, builds submersibles that make that world accessible to private owners.
A Triton’s sub — it looks like a big bubble on floaters — is small enough to be towed behind a yacht. But its main advantage is its 360 degrees of view, said Troy Engen, Triton’s pilot, head of operations and mechanical-systems specialist. “I used to drive subs with little tiny windows, and what you wanted to see seemed to be just around the corner.”
When you scuba dive, it’s not about what you see directly in front of you; it’s about the surroundings, Engen said. “The Triton’s transparent hull has the same refraction as water. People put their hand out to where the water looks to be, because it’s like a window that just goes away. You feel kind of like a fish.”
You can go where no one has gone before, and you’ll see things no one has ever seen, he said. “We are diving to depths that scuba divers haven’t gone. Sport divers can go 130 feet, and we go far beyond that. A lot of creatures that we see at those depths, we’ll take photos and try to document them, show them to scientists.
“Corals, sponges, fish, jellyfish, things like that. I don’t know what they are, but neither do the scientists.”
In 2008, the company’s owners, Bruce Jones and Patrick Lahey, put together a team with a submarine background. They hired Engen four years ago, and they’ve built two 1000/2 models — that can transport two people to depths of 1,000 feet — and one 3300/3, which is capable of transporting three people to depths of 3,300 feet.
“We have three more 3300/3 models under construction and are currently negotiating another three orders,” Jones said.
There are 10 models, priced from $2.275 million, and Triton is looking for its first customer for the 36000/3, its deepest-diving multi-passenger submersible (price tag: $25 million).
Here’s a little background about those who’ve gone before, and about the Triton’s 36000/3. In 1960, Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Capt. Don Walsh dove 36,000 feet — to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean.
A couple of years ago, James Cameron, the director of Titanic and The Abyss, and billionaire Richard Branson set out, separately, to be next to reach the bottom of the trench. (Cameron got there first, in March 2012.)
But while members of the Triton team would like to build a submersible to go to those depths, they are not racing to do it. “Our submarines have great visibility. The main difference between us and the others’ efforts is that what they are doing is a sort of publicity stunt,” Jones said.
“Ours is designed to be a commercial sub that can go down to the bottom of the ocean every day of the year. Ours is designed to do useful work on the bottom of the ocean. Each one we build will make thousands of dives in its lifetime.”
Already, Triton has undertaken some interesting dives.
Unusual dive mates
In June 2011, a Triton team went to Japan for its first charter with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, in search of giant deepwater sharks. And, yes, they found them, thanks to the craft’s bubble design.
“When we were in Sagami Bay, a 25-foot shark was lying on top of the sub. If we didn’t have all that acrylic visibility, we wouldn’t have known,” Engen said. “And when we were looking for the giant squid, it was a real advantage to be in a transparent vehicle, because we didn’t know where it was going to show up: in front of us, on the side, on top.”
Following that expedition, Triton went to the Ogasawara Islands with Discovery USA in search of the giant squid (they found it).
Triton has recently finished an Antarctica and a South Pacific trip.
But scientific organizations aren’t alone in chartering Triton subs. Adventurous long-range-cruising yacht owners and charterers like them, too.
Owner Jones said, “There are companies that we work with (EYOS and Henry Cookson Adventures) that utilize our subs for specialty charters to go to parts of the world where their clients are interested in seeing.”
Tritons, classed as “+A1 Manned Submersibles” by the American Bureau of Shipping, also are certified by the Cayman Island Shipping Registry. Licenses to operate are not necessary, and an existing yacht crew member can be trained to pilot as well as to maintain the sub, or the owner can be trained.
The subs have relatively small deck footprints — ranging in length from 10.5 feet to 13.5 feet — but they are heavy, for they need to weigh as much as the water they displace.
The sub can be towed out to a dive spot by a yacht. But the company also has designed a number of yachts with special launch-and-recovery systems for the subs.
And although one can’t say “the sky’s the limit” for Triton, the company’s executives are taking their concept as deep as they can. Jones wants to develop a multimedia company that would produce documentaries on how subs are built and where they go.
Jones also envisions building a seafloor resort, with a hotel and underwater residences. The cost of an ocean-bottom home? He estimates $12 million. “We can build it for you. It will have 2,600 square feet. I’d love to live in one, but I don’t know if I could afford it.”
Written for Palm Beach Daily News