It became crystal-clear last summer. It was at a restaurant on the Amalfi coast, where the mega-yacht clique makes its annual pilgrimage for the famous bowl of spaghetti with zucchini. I watched as ex-Google CEO and chairman Eric Schmidt and his gang of pals were tendered back to his yacht. There, a bright-yellow submersible – like a giant M&M with a cling film-clear midriff – was secured to the bow rail. Several of his friends climbed in before the pod was craned into the water, then vanished beneath the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Forget making an entrance; this was the ultimate exit. In a flash, the other toys adorning the superyachts moored up and down the coast – helicopters, tenders, jet skis – looked paltry. In this game of gilded oneupmanship between titans of capitalism, Schmidt had won. Yellow, it seems, is the billionaires’ new black.
But these natty bits of kit, which start at around £3m and have waiting lists of over a year, are about more than showing off or adrenaline kicks. They are serious exploratory vessels, some with the capacity to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on the planet. Historically, the über-wealthy have funded exploration; now they are pushing to the outer realms themselves. Speeded up by the anthropocene, a time in which we’ve imperilled the planet, there’s a new urgency, a need for possibilities, answers, panaceas – whether that’s in the expanse of space or the depths of the oceans.
I’m with Henry Cookson, founder of elite operator Cookson Adventures and a 2.0 version of the traditional fearless British explorer. In 2012, he was the first in the industry to arrange for two private subs to be deployed to the Antarctic for a client’s family adventure. “Meaningful, interactive experiences, often in remote places with conservation at the heart of the trip – this has always been our wheelhouse,” he says. “Having assets such as subs allows us to explore uncharted depths.”
Cookson tried being a banker for a nanosecond, but gave it up when he won a ski race to the Magnetic North Pole. It was his first polar record; the second was reaching the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility on foot. Friends started asking him to sort their adventures and a business emerged organically. Today his team of 20 arranges about 35 adventures and expeditions a year. With starting prices of more than £100,000, they’re for the very few – which is also why he’s assertive about the need to complement the thrill factor with conservation.
In Cookson’s adventure architecture, submersible dives aren’t just pleasure-seeking affairs. “Often researchers and scientists don’t have access to high-net-worth individuals and high-value assets,” he explains. “They have to beg, borrow, piggy-back where possible.” He saw an opportunity to switch up the model. “On a multi-vessel trip to Antarctica, we were sending a superyacht, support boat, two submersibles and two helicopters. I asked if the client would also fund a research vessel, with a full team, to go ahead three weeks earlier, because a biologist I knew had a hunch about an undiscovered species of killer whale; there had been sightings between the bottom of South America, Africa, Australia and the Antarctic land mass.” The client agreed. When he and his family arrived for their holiday, the researchers presented their findings: bingo. “A new species of orca, the Type-D killer whale – probably the last yet-to-be-identified four-ton mammal on the planet.” Cookson had hit the sweet spot; marrying research with the deep pockets of his clients to achieve a scientific goal.
Similarly, in Italy in 2019 Cookson arranged for marine archaeologists, biologists and vulcanologists to have seats in a client’s sub. The discoveries were fruitful: a coral thought no longer to exist in the Mediterranean, and a Roman shipwreck, complete with amphoras, off the coast of Lipari in Sicily’s Aeolian islands.
To understand the allure and potential of the submersible, I’m in Malta preparing for my first dive with Cookson. More bombs were dropped on the island in early 1942 than fell on London through the Blitz. As a result, its gin-clear waters are littered with plane, ship and submarine wrecks that make for fascinating (if sobering) diving.
Dawn breaks, and I wake at Iniala Harbour House hotel in Valletta. As I look out over the bastions towards the golden-sandstone Renaissance buildings, the sky is clear, the sun is blazing and the wind… is in the east. Which means heavy currents. Our plans are rejigged: instead of second world war wrecks, we’ll make for the sheltered islet of Comino and an old East German patrol boat that was scuttled in 2009. We arrive to find the military- style ship U Boat Navigator waiting. My adrenaline speeds up as I examine the kit: two submersibles, serious deep-sea scuba-diving equipment and a roomy hyperbaric decompression chamber. “I once spent 15 hours in there with the bends,” says our Russian pilot Dmitry Tomashov.
The submersible is produced by Florida-based Triton. It’s a far cry from the first-ever sub, Turtle, built by the American David Bushnell in 1775, which had hand-cranked propellers and was used to attach explosives to ships in harbour. I slip into my seat and am surprised at how roomy the bubble is. Cookson follows suit; as we’re craned off the boat and plopped into the water, with a grin he presses play on the sound system: “Yellow Submarine”.
Porthole shut, thrusters engaged, we dive down. It turns out flying through the sea while bone dry is fist-pumpingly good. The experience is pure childhood sci-fi fantasy – like being in a helicopter, just cruising through different matter. There’s a pleasant confusion as my brain struggles to compute where the window stops and the water starts. The submersible is at standard atmospheric pressure like the cabin of a plane, with none of the hazards of scuba diving (nitrogen narcosis, oxygen toxicity, the bends). There’s no need for scuba-style safety stops. The air is maintained via rebreathers; carbon dioxide is removed while oxygen is replenished from an onboard supply. “The greatest danger,” says Tomashov, “is getting tangled up in something.” But he always dives with a remotely operated underwater vehicle that has cutters attached, “and often we dive with two subs”. As if on cue, his father floats into view at the helm of his own one-man sub, looking like several Bond-villain clichés.
In tandem we glide towards a long, dark shape in the distance. Slowly the wreck comes into focus, as do schools of glinting fish that have made this metal husk their home. We hover around the sunken ship, Dmitry nimbly navigating to within a few feet without bumping into it. We’re at about 17m deep, where the water is still clear and light; in submersible terms, it’s the equivalent of swimming in a paddling pool. The beast I’m in can reach 1,000m – which itself is small fry compared to the submersible owned by private equity investor and former naval officer Victor Vescovo, who executed a 10,927m solo dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2019 (where, along with spectacular sea creatures, he found manmade detritus: an intact plastic bag).
Eleven kilometres deep isn’t for everybody. But I am tempted by some of the expeditions Cookson has in the works for keen clients: to Cocos Island – a 35-hour sail from Costa Rica, with some of the sharkiest waters on the planet, where he is involved in shark tagging projects; and to the remote, near-mythical coralline atoll of Aldabra in the Seychelles, where the ecosystem is still largely untouched.
Cookson tells me his clients will often charter a vessel like the U Boat Navigator to rendezvous with their super-yacht, because a full Cookson Adventures submersible expedition is a serious commitment. At the other extreme is the client who bought a seven-man submersible to share his passion for the subaquatic world with family. It is fitted with a multi-beam sonar ray that on every dive can produce 3D renders of the seabed…
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