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On Board Pressure Drop with Explorer Victor Vescovo

2019-11-07By Holly Overton

Climbing to the highest peak in every continent was just the beginning for extreme adventurer Victor Vescovo. Next on the list was the last frontier on earth - the ocean.

An accomplished mountaineer, multi-engine jet and helicopter pilot, there is little left that fazes Victor Vescovo. While he made his fortune as a private equity investor, he is driven by an endless thirst for adventure and holds a seriously impressive resumé. After conquering the Explorers Grand Slam – climbing to the highest peak on all seven of the world’s continents and reaching both North and South Poles - Vescovo was looking for a new challenge, and as a retired naval officer found himself being called back to the sea. “It was extraordinary to me that no one had been to the bottom of four of the five oceans”, he said. “The technology existed, so I thought how hard can it be?." It was this thought that kick-started what would become the Five Deeps Expedition.

The mission was the world’s first attempt to reach the deepest point in each of the five oceans and would see Vescovo travel over 40,000 nautical miles around the world, descending a total of 72,000 metres. But to achieve this almighty feat, Vescovo had some serious shopping to do.

First, he needed a submersible that was capable of diving to full-ocean depth and do so repeatedly. For this, he approached Florida-based Triton Submarines, who began construction on the first submersible of its kind, the $38 million 36,000/2 Hadal Exploration submersible named Limiting Factor. Next, he just had to find a mothership to serve as a roving base. The vessel had to be robust enough to circumnavigate the world and equipped to carry, launch, and recover a 12.5 tonne submarine.

It wasn’t long before Vescovo acquired the 68.3 metre ocean research vessel DSSV Pressure Drop. Built in 1985 by the Tacoma Boatbuilding Company in Washington, Pressure Drop started life as a spy ship for the United States Navy named USNS Indomitable, designed (ironically) for anti-submarine warfare during the Cold War. She was then converted into an oceanographic research vessel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) before retiring from service in 2014. Pressure Drop was then given a new lease of life when Vescovo’s company Caladan Oceanic purchased the vessel in 2017 and commissioned a $15 million refit to get her kitted out for the Five Deeps Expedition.

Overseeing the refit was Rob McCallum from EYOS Expeditions. “I knew in minutes he was the right guy”, said Vescovo. Not only was he part of filmmaker James Cameron’s 2012 mission to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, he was also the build manager for the refit of a similar ocean research vessel, the 56 metre Alucia, used to film the BBC’s Blue Planet II.

The refit focused on an overhaul of the accommodation areas but also included a new 13-tonne A-Frame launch and recovery system for Limiting Factor, a retractable submersible hangar on the aft deck, and a multi-beam sonar, the most advanced sonar on a civilian ship in the world. Despite all the high-tech equipment and the state-of-the-art submarine, the windows on the bridge were still controlled by a manual winder – a little nod to her previous lives.

Inside, Pressure Drop is functional, as you might expect from a working vessel. There are no bells and whistles on board, except for a collection of artworks splashed over the walls, including a film poster for the Titanic. It might be an unusual choice, but it’s a tribute to the trip Vescovo made to the shipwreck during the expedition - the first visit to the wreck in 15 years.

The refit also saw the addition of wet and dry labs for scientists on board, and a mission control on the main deck – the beating heart of the entire operation. Here, the team monitors the progress of each dive from three large screens to which the sonar and submersible feed vital information and charts of the seabed.

On completion, the vessel was capable of cruising up to 15,000 nautical miles and able to accommodate up to 46 passengers with room for an additional 18 crewmembers. She was christened DSSV Pressure Drop after a spaceship from a series of science-fiction stories by Iain M Banks. The series was a personal favourite of Vescovo’s and inspired the names for the submarine Limiting Factor, rescue boat Liveware Problem and the provisioning tender Little Rascal too.

Vescovo's Five Deeps Expedition began in the Bahamas where Limiting Factor and Pressure Drop were first put to the test, moving on to the Atlantic Ocean, Southern Ocean, Indian Ocean, Pacific, Arctic, and finishing in London. “We used the Five Deeps Expedition as what the navy calls the ‘shakedown cruise’ to figure out all the things we need to fix”, he said. This meant that the mettle of most of the equipment on board was tested during the expedition itself. “Believe it or not one of my favourite quotes comes from Iron Man when he said ‘sometimes you have to run before you can walk’”, he said. It was a mantra that led the entire expedition.

But of course, like with any sea trial or ‘shakedown’ it wasn’t all smooth sailing. When they were testing the submersible in the Bahamas there was a “small puff of smoke” in the cockpit, which Vescovo describes as only “a little alarming." And then again in the Southern Ocean he lost all communication with the surface at 4,000 metres. “Normally, one would come up in that situation, but given where we were and given that everything else on the submarine was fine, I decided to keep going and complete the dive." He had no communication for just short of three hours while he explored the seabed. It’s a testament to Vescovo’s innate composure and resolve.

As the expedition progressed, the team became a slick, well-oiled machine and went on to set a number of world records. Victor Vescovo now holds the title as the first man to reach the bottom of all the five oceans, to dive to the bottom of Mariana Trench twice, and to have reached both the highest and lowest point on this earth. On his dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the deepest known point on earth – he even took the ice pick he used to climb Mount Everest down with him in the submarine. The Five Deep Expedition was a significant leap forward in deep-sea exploration and Victor Vescovo now sits among the world’s revered explorers, alongside Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong.

Triton’s Limiting Factor and the DSSV Pressure Drop research vessel are now for sale for $48.7 million