Unfolding in an odyssey as worthy of the pages of a Jules Verne novel as it is the record books, Texan adventurer Victor Vescovo (USA) is celebrated as the first person to visit the oceans’ deepest points in Guinness World Records 2021.
In Feb 2020, GWR met up with Vescovo in Greece, where he was diving the Calypso Deep (the deepest point in the Mediterranean Sea), and he gave us an exclusive tour of the ship and submersible that undertook this unprecedented deep-sea expedition.
This retired US naval officer turned investor (and extreme explorer) was the driving force behind the Five Deeps Expedition (FDE). As the name suggests, the objective (if not the realization) was simple: to visit the deepest known part of all five of Earth’s oceans.
Asked what spurred on this monumental undertaking, Vescovo told us: "I was amazed, and a bit saddened, to understand that in 2016 – 2016! – we had not been to the very bottom of four of the world’s five oceans. I honestly felt that that is something that we as a species should have done by then…"
"I thought, what a great adventure it would be to build the machines and undertake the journey to finally see that through."
That lofty ambition became a reality between Dec 2018 and Aug 2019.
It not only set a record for plumbing the low points of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Southern and Arctic oceans, but also shed new light on the very bottom of the world, seeing Vescovo and his team achieve the deepest crewed dive of all time in the process.
Before the expedition got underway came many months of complex logistics and painstaking preparation – not least the construction of a submersible up to this never-before-attempted task.
This gauntlet fell to the Florida-headquartered Triton Submarines, and co-founder Patrick Lahey welcomed the challenge. The result, the DSV Limiting Factor, is arguably the most advanced deep-sea sub ever built.
The two-seater craft is not only equipped to cope with all the ocean can throw at it, including pressures of 16,000 psi (1,125 kg/cm2) thanks to its 90-mm-thick (3.5-in) titanium hull, but perhaps more impressive still is its durability: it can repeat these gruelling plunges, again and again and again.
A sub designed for deep-sea exploration, however advanced, still needs a support vessel to transport it from A to B (and in this case C, D and E). This role was ably served by the DSSV Pressure Drop (a once-US Navy ship that ironically used to hunt submarines) that has now been transformed into an ultra-modern research vessel.
The next step was to recruit an experienced crew, as well as specialist engineers to maintain all of that cutting-edge technology. This team was augmented by scientific experts from a range of fields including geology, marine biology and bathymetric cartography, to name just a few.
The FDE kicked off with a visit to the Puerto Rico Trench (the deepest point in the Atlantic Ocean), followed by visits to the Southern Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific and ending with a descent to the Molloy Hole (the nadir of the Arctic Ocean). The route and timings were carefully worked out to try and hit the optimum diving conditions in each location.
Making the most of the global tour, several other points of interest were stopped at along the way to conduct supplemental dives including a visit to the world's most famous shipwreck, the RMS Titanic in the Atlantic, and to the Horizon Deep in the Pacific's Tonga Trench north of New Zealand, which at 10,817 m (35,489 ft) is the second-deepest point in the world.
While all five of the primary descents were noteworthy in their own ways – not least for the wealth of scientific data gleaned – a particular significance (and challenge) hung on the fourth stop. The Challenger Deep, located in the Mariana Trench about 400 km (250 mi) from the Pacific island of Guam, is not only the lowest point in that ocean but also the deepest point on Earth.
To give you an idea of just how deep this region of the seafloor is, if Mount Everest were picked up and placed in the Challenger Deep, the summit of the world’s highest mountain would still sit more than 2 km (1.3 mi) beneath the ocean surface.
Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard and US Navy submariner Don Walsh completed the first crewed dive to the Challenger Deep, descending in the Trieste in 1960. The next human visitor would not come until 2012, when Canadian film director and adventurer James Cameron conducted the first solo dive to the Challenger Deep, piloting DEEPSEA CHALLENGER.
Vescovo became the fourth person in history to reach the planet’s deepest point on 28 Apr 2019, and the momentousness of the occasion did not pass by him.
"Honestly, the first feeling was relief," he revealed.
"That the submersible functioned exactly as planned and that I now could explore the bottom for hours. The next feeling was one of excitement and quite frankly, wonder and curiosity.
"I had the very bottom of the ocean all to myself… setting out to explore like a 10-year-old on their first bicycle in an unknown town. That is what it felt like."
Successful dives to the Challenger Deep were not only the ultimate validation of Limiting Factor’s robust design, but also threw up some unexpected discoveries including never-before-seen life-forms and geological features such as rocks and undulations in the seabed.
But surely one of the most heart-racing moments of the entire expedition came when Vescovo and his team saw the preliminary depth data from the “Eastern Pool” – a depression in the base of the Challenger Deep. Figures from the sensors, which are fitted not only to the Limiting Factor but also to three robotic landers that accompany the sub on its descents, indicated a slightly greater depth in this area than previously encountered.
Working out precise ocean depths is never straightforward because unfortunately it’s not as simple as tying an extra-long tape-measure to a submarine and letting it unravel. Depth readings are calculated from special sensors that measure factors such as pressure, salinity and temperature.
Of course, the instruments being used to take these measurements are constantly evolving too; technology has come a long way since 1960, and in some aspects, even since 2012.
The Trieste and DEEPSEA CHALLENGER expeditions – each based on a single descent – reported a maximum depth of 10,911 m (35,797 ft) and 10,908 m (35,787 ft), respectively.
After analysis of data from the FDE’s Challenger Deep descents by maritime certification and compliance specialists DNV GL, it was calculated that the average maximum depth reached by Limiting Factor during its 2019 dives was 10,925 m (35,843 ft), with a standard deviation of 4.1 m (13 ft 5 in).
This represents the deepest solo crewed dive, based on two descents that Vescovo conducted alone on 28 Apr and 1 May 2019, plus the readings from a third made by Triton’s Patrick Lahey and surveyor Jonathan Struwe on 3 May.
But the story did not end there. Determined to secure even more data and to confirm that the initial readings were not an anomaly, Vescovo returned to the Challenger Deep in Jun 2020 to conduct six further dives as part of the Ring of Fire Expedition.
He was accompanied this time around by several other explorers and scientists. These included Kelly Walsh (the son of Captain Walsh who made that first pioneering plunge), and also oceanographer (with a PhD in marine geology), astronaut and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Dr Kathryn Sullivan – the first woman to visit the Challenger Deep, on 7 Jun 2020.
This 2020 expedition saw several extreme depth (and elevation) records tumble:
- First woman to visit the Challenger Deep: Kathryn Sullivan (USA), on 7 Jun 2020
- First person to visit space and the Challenger Deep: Kathryn Sullivan, on 5 Oct 1984 and 7 Jun 2020
- Greatest vertical extent within Earth’s exosphere by an individual: Kathryn Sullivan, 622.085 km (386.546 mi)
- First woman to reach Earth’s highest and lowest points: Vanessa O’Brien (UK/USA), on 19 May 2012 and 12 Jun 2020
- Oldest person to visit the Challenger Deep: Jim Wigginton (USA, b. 23 Feb 1949), aged 71 years 124 days on 26 Jun 2020
The new data has now been scrutinized by independent expert hydrographers and the results suggest that the Eastern Pool could descend even deeper still than indicated in 2019. The average depth recorded from the 2020 dive series is 10,934 m (35,872 ft), plus or minus 3 m (at 1-sigma, or 67% certainty) or 6 m (at 2-sigma, or 95% certainty).
In addition to his two solo descents in 2019, Vescovo has piloted the Limiting Factor (with a passenger on board) to the bottom of the world on six other occasions. His eight descents (as of 26 Jun 2020) represent the most Challenger Deep dives by an individual. (Only one other person – the Limiting Factor’s builder, Patrick Lahey – has gone more than once.)
While deep-sea exploration is a more recent chapter in Vescovo’s exhilarating adventuring career, this former naval officer has always been drawn to the "mystery" and "power" of the ocean: "It is really, really, really big and living on land I think we miss that aspect of it. It is most of our world, and yet we still know so little about it."
I love that there is still this huge unexplored region of our world and having the opportunity to voyage into the unknown and help to fill in the blank spaces on the map. - Victor Vescovo
Indeed, having summitted the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest (in 2010), Vescovo also claims the record-setting milestone of being the first person to reach Earth’s highest and lowest points. It’s perhaps little wonder, then, that the Explorers’ Club declared Vescovo the recipient of its prestigious annual medal in 2020.
This insatiable explorer has no intention of hanging up his "flight suit" (the fire-resistant gear he wears during his deep-sea dives) just yet either, with several more potentially record-breaking missions planned for 2021. "I hope to be the first person to do the first ‘full ascent’ of Mauna Kea – the tallest mountain (half of which is underwater) – going from its base on the seafloor to its summit over four days."
"Covid-19 permitting, the team will then go back to the Western Pacific where I hope to do a few more dives in the Mariana Trench and the unexplored Philippine Trench. We may wrap it up with an attempt to do the deepest wreck dive in history off the coast of the Philippines."
In recognition of his incredible achievements in the name of exploration and science, Victor Vescovo has been inducted into the GWR Hall of Fame in the Guinness World Records 2021 edition, out now in shops and online. Alternatively, you can see his more extensive entry in our online Hall of Fame showcase.
A book taking a deep plunge into the Five Deeps Expedition is also about to hit the shelves: Expedition Deep Ocean (Pegasus Books) will be published on 1 Dec 2020.