The Five Dives Expedition: Science, Exploration, Education

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By Chris Welsh | Exclusive to the NB Indy

So the big cat is finally out of the bag, as many locals saw a few weeks ago – I bought Steve Fossett’s catamaran Cheyenne (the former Playstation) and his unfinished submarine project to go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

I have partnered with Sir Richard Branson to form the Virgin Oceanic Expedition to expand Steve’s deepest-dive goal to include diving to the deepest spot in each of the five oceans of the world.

Chris Welsh stands in front of the minisub he plans to pilot to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Why is going to the deepest parts of the seas important?

We’ve mapped Mars with better than 1 meter accuracy, and explored there with several robots. We’ve traveled several kilometers, driving on the Moon.

But in some parts of the oceans, we only have 4-kilometer mapping accuracy – as in one data point every 4 kilometers.

We know little of the geochemistry and biology of the deep, where microbes live based on sulfur synthesis rather than carbon-oxygen synthesis. These extremophile microbes eat iron and CO2. We know very little about them other than they are the closest Earthly analog to what might be found in the methane oceans of Saturn’s moon Titan. And they may have immense pharma value because the syntehsize different proteins and lipoids to exist the way they do.

I have been fascinated to learn more about the Earth, its oceans, and its plates through the course of this project.

Did you know volcanoes don’t happen without water? Rock in the Earth’s crust is a solid, but when water is introduced, the melting point of the rock lowers and lava is created … and then starts looking for a place to expand out. How does the water get there? When two plates collide, one goes down, the other goes up. The descending tectonic plate at each boundary is soaked earth, and carries that water down 700 kilometers or more.  So every trench has a island chain resulting from volcanic activity.

So, where does the Five Dives Expedition go from here? Shallow in-water testing will start within a few weeks. We will be just off G Street on the Balboa Peninsula, in 60 to 80 feet of water. We are looking for diver depth – for rescue and ballast recovery – a sandy bottom, clear water, and reasonably calm seas to start. From the Turning Basin to G street is ideal. The testing will progress from tethered short dives to longer missions, pushing the envelope of the sub’s controls, life support, navigation, location and recovery systems.

Recovery is one of the hardest parts; under the sea, conditions are non-aberrational. On the surface, it is chaos with forces, g-loadings, and human factors. Scary.

From there will be a series of deeper qualifying dives and a quick acceleration to max depths. The deepest operational subs today go to 6,500 meters – 22,000 feet.

Chris Welsh and Sir Richard Branson pose atop the Challenger in Newport Beach last month.

Steve’s project had one goal: record setting. We have expanded the goal to include mapping, sediment sampling, water sampling, sound recording, testing of salinity and temperature, baited video traps and critter capture.

Working with Kevin Hardy of Scripps, we are creating “Landers,” free-dropping vehicles with all of these capabilities. By dropping the Landers a day in advance into our dive areas, we will have the opportunity to fly by and see what the bait attracts. To date, no vertebrate life has been confirmed below 22,000 feet. We’ll see.

The water samples are not just one liter bottles, but pumps filtering 20,000 liters of water through filters that can catch bacteria, microbes and viruses. This enhances the scientific value.

From the start, we formed a science scoping team and I am proud of who is represented. Scientists from Scripps, Woods Hole, MBARI, USC, University of Alaska, and the University of Hawaii are involved. We have had team meetings to go through the capabilities of the sub and what was most important to learn from the dives.

The deliverable results will be “open sourced” to all participants, and their people will be onboard to catalog and preserve the samples. Preservation is not old school formaldehyde but live preservation, mimicking the 16,000 PSI pressure, near freezing temperatures, and complete darkness.

Amphopods, small sand crab-like creatures crawl around on the bottom; one of our scientists doesn’t study just any microbes from that depth, but microbes that only live on the carpace (shell) of the amphopods. For their pharma value. Who knew?

Besides deep dives, we intend to fly over locations like the spot in the Atlantic where more than 20,000 tons of chemical munitions were dumped 60 years ago. This is one of a thousand similar spots; it is worth publicizing that these dumps exist and we need to remediate them before the poisons are released.

Then there’s the Cheyenne. For now, the cat is a powercat, with twin 240 HP diesels. The 125′ waterline is cool; with less power than our 29’ Crystaliner powerboat, the cat cruises at 12-14 knots and sprints to 24 knots.

Longer term, we have a rig for the cat and look forward to returning to sailing in a racing format. Turned loose and in proper conditions, the cat is capable of Ensenada in 4 hours, and Transpac in 4 days. I can’t wait!

While doing the Islands and Border Run races this year I thought often of turning loose the big cat. At the same time, it’s scary too – the rig is 162′, stepped 10′ above the waterline. The boom will be as long as our racing sailboat, Ragtime. For that matter, the cat is nearly as wide as Ragtime is long – 60′ on the beam.

The answer to the most often asked question is, “One.” The sub is a solo design, and when at the bottom, it is well beyond the reach of anyone or anything else on Earth.

It has slightly more room than an MRI machine, so that’s good. The pressure vessel is carbon, with walls over 5″ thick. A full ocean descent will take over two hours, allow two-plus hours of bottom exploration, and then two more hours back to the surface.

The Trieste went down in the Mariana Trench more than 50 years ago and simply touched down in one location. The Challenger’s range on the bottom is on the order of 10 kilometers, far more than manned exploration has achieved before.

Long term, we are hoping to ignite public passion about the oceans and for additional ocean exploration and education. It’s a rare opportunity to take science and make it sexy and more accessible via a vibrant pop culture/global brand connection. We already are looking at developing a local elementary school presentation to accompany the testing phase so that the school-age community can understand and be involved, and that program will be a stepping stone to a larger education program.

Chris Welsh will present “The Five Dives Expedition: Recordbreaking Journeys into the Deep” on May 18 in the Grand Ballroom of the Balboa Pavilion beginning at 7 p.m. as part of the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum’s Waterman Lecture Series. The event is free for museum members and $10 for others. For reservations, call 949-675-8915 or email to [email protected]

 

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