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OceanXplorer: Inside the unique expedition yacht unlike anything else afloat

9 February 2021By Sam Fortescue

Refitted with masterful design, cutting-edge submersibles and Hollywood-standard editing facilities, 87-metre OceanXplorer is an expedition yacht unlike anything else afloat, says Sam Fortescue

There is a delicious irony to this most unusual refit story. Mark Dalio, son of Ray Dalio, the billionaire philanthropist who set the wheels in motion, expresses it perfectly. “We’ve taken a vessel that was originally used for oil exploration off the market, to convert it to something that actually gives back to our scientific knowledge and the advancement of the world’s oceans,” he tells me. Now rechristened OceanXplorer, the 87-metre workboat had plied the North Sea oilfields for years as the Volstad Surveyor before Mark and OceanX, the non-profit initiative he co-founded with his father, came looking for a new research vessel. 

Photography: Andy Mann

What they hoped to create was nothing short of a revolution – a vessel with which to perform ocean science that inspires a new care for our underwater world. Not content with just a sturdy platform for exploring the most hostile corners of the oceans, OceanX wanted to blend top-end media production facilities with cutting-edge science labs and an underwater exploration capability that puts many of the world’s navies to shame. “Being able to merge the science aspect and the comms really gives us an opportunity to be a voice for the scientist,” enthuses Mark Dalio when I catch up with him by phone in New York. “It enables us to share the research and their understanding, to excite the next generation and the public to want to care. Too much doom and gloom only alienates audiences.”

Dalio and the OceanX team had a clear idea of what they wanted from the outset, because they had operated the smaller 56-metre research vessel Alucia for several years beforehand. She had been built in France in 1974 and, despite a refit, she was showing her age. “Alucia is an incredible vessel but we needed a ship that offered the scale we needed for years to come,” says Dalio. They knew they needed more space in order to extend the boat’s capabilities, and to reduce their reliance on shore-based facilities. And they wanted much better seabed-scanning equipment, so they could quickly establish the value of sending a mission out in the submarines. So, they began looking at procuring a new ship.

The first idea was a new build, but that was quickly discarded. “It just didn’t make sense for what we were trying to achieve in our scale and timeline,” explains Dalio. “We looked into other solutions but ultimately turned instead to a refit. Ironically, a lot of the vessels that presented themselves as really good options were doing offshore oil work. These vessels were already deploying ROVs [remotely operated vehicles].”

Once they settled on the 10-year-old Volstad Surveyor, the team asked Norwegian marine engineering expert Skipsteknisk to redesign the fabric of the ship to their ends. That meant laying the foundations for an imposing new A-frame crane on the stern, which could launch and recover the twin Triton subs, used for manned exploration down to a depth of 1,000 metres. Similarly, the new sub hangar had to be hollowed out of the superstructure, and equipped with a hydraulic arm to launch the Argus ROV and Remus autonomous vehicle (both of which are rated down to 6,000-metres’ depth). The existing crane on the aft deck was actually too capable so it was replaced with something smaller and lighter. Similarly, the boat’s existing moon pool for launching divers and subs inside the boat was closed to improve buoyancy.

Skipsteknisk knew the boat well, having done the design work for its original incarnation as an oil survey vessel. “That knowledge was crucial – it would have been very challenging otherwise,” says Skipsteknisk’s Bjørn-Oscar Kløvning. “The owner’s team knew what they wanted but the full complexity was hard to see at the beginning: helicopter hangar, sub hangar. This goes much deeper than we would normally anticipate.”

The focus of the project next passed over to yacht designer Steve Gresham and the Damen Shiprepair & Conversion yard in Rotterdam, which undertook the refit work. Here again, the words “challenge” and “complexity” keep coming up. “It’s a refit but it was more like a rebuild,” says project director Tjarco Ekkelkamp with a broad grin. “We changed and added a lot of structural elements. More than 50 per cent of the superstructure was demolished,  completely stripped. From the main deck up, we built almost completely new.” As well as the new A-frame and hangars, there were two new lifts and the accommodation decks were extended out on both sides of the ship in a sort of cheek, to create extra internal space and phenomenal views. Damen installed a box keel with solid ballast, amounting to 400 tonnes all in. And they also put in the so-called “gondola” which Ekkelkamp describes as a “sort of shoe that fits under the boat in a hydrodynamic shape”. This houses the cutting-edge sonar equipment, which needed to be positioned in a spot on the hull that is untroubled by bubbles and receives a laminar (smooth) water flow.

But if this project had been simply a case of changing the structure of the boat, it would have been simpler by far. Damen also had to install an IT backbone to support the high-end science as well as the 8K video editing and production facilities. It had to allow visiting scientists to bring their own machines and servers, for simply slotting into a dedicated rack – all without compromising the security of the ship’s vital systems. Then there needed to be an interior suitable for guests on decks three and four. “As Damen, we have fitted all these things to boats before,” Ekkelkamp continues. “We’ve got all these different disciplines within the group, but it was the first time that we’d brought it all together here into one project. That was the challenge. There is no yard in the world that has done all these things together.”

Steve Gresham styled the exterior and layout of OceanXplorer, as well as the look of all but the accommodation spaces, which were designed by Christina Fallah. Gresham got involved early on, glossing some of the technical design work from Skipsteknisk. For instance, he moved the bow helipad three frames (1.8 metres) further forward, in order to create the room for a proper hangar behind it, which he then specced with a futuristic top-hinged door. His vision called for full floor-to-ceiling-height windows on one side of the upper guest deck, and much larger windows throughout. “The basics had been done, but I softened it and added detail that gave it less of a commercial look,” Gresham explains. “Overhanging coachroofs and positioning the domes as far out as possible – they’re not really technical issues, but more about keeping the design looking as good as we could.”

He made ample use of superficial features, such as vinyl wrapping the comms domes to look a little like something from Star Wars. “We also threw in a little smiley on the dome at the top!” He put brightly coloured safe walkway routes around the decks, which Damen set into the surface using synthetics from Bolidt. He is particularly proud of the styling in the sub hangar. Here, a mezzanine level fabricated from steel pillars and metal mesh flooring has been turned into a feature, hung with tools and spare parts, while important-looking cowls hang from the ceiling with red klaxon lights. He also put in stock-exchange-style tickers throughout the working spaces of the interior. “You don’t want tannoys going off all the time to say ‘launching in 10 minutes’. This way you can also put notes out to people. They are high- definition screens, so we could have fish swimming along it if we wanted.”

It was also his idea to highlight features such as the hydraulic cylinders of the A-frame, and the tower of the gantry crane, in “friendly” lagoon blue. “When this boat comes over the horizon, we don’t want it to look scary, like a stealth fighter,” says Gresham. “It’s got to have a certain friendliness.” Skipsteknisk tells me that there was a lot of weight added high up on the boat by the accommodation but, by superyacht standards, it is quite restrained. There is no pool on board and no spa. When I ask Mark Dalio about this, he shrugs. He tells me that the accommodation performs a simple function. “It’s kind of standard guest accommodation,” he explains. 

“Along with scientists, we are trying to inspire and educate and to bring along for the journey folk that could be partners for the future, whether philanthropists or investors. But for us, science always comes first, and really being able to explore the knowledge and to further scientific understanding.” The area has a spacious layout with seven large double cabins for the guests. There is a step up in terms of comfort between the technical and guest areas, but some continuity in design and materials. It is described as “incredibly futuristic”, with overtones of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise

Dalio is much more interested in the boat’s technical capabilities, however. There are no fewer than four science labs aboard, for wet and dry work. They are capable of fine microscopy, genetic sequencing and minutely analysing samples from the ship’s various pieces of equipment. Crucially, the eDNA analysis means that the team can quickly identify whether a sample constitutes a new species and merits further investigation. “Being able to do real-time science like we’ve never done before, means we can process samples on board rather than send it off to a lab,” explains Dalio.

The roll-call of those involved in the science and media is impressive. OceanX has just unveiled a partnership with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for instance. It has worked with NASA to develop a vehicle that can explore the 11,000-metre depths of the ocean, and there are projects to tag manta rays and understand bioluminescence. There have been collaborations with Sir David Attenborough and the BBC, with National Geographic and with a host of scientists and film-makers who are all leaders in their fields.

Meanwhile, Hollywood giant James Cameron, he of Titanic and Avatar fame, also has a passion for deep-sea exploration. He is executive-producing a new series with the BBC Natural History Unit for the National Geographic Channel, which will follow a team of scientists and adventurers aboard OceanXplorer. That comes on top of the BBC’s two Blue Planet series, which captured breathtaking footage of rarely seen creatures and habitats. And there was a seminal mission in 2012 which produced the first ever natural television footage of a giant squid. 

This was perhaps the best moment to date for Dalio. “There’s almost like a little kid inside me that gets excited about the squid,” he tells me, before continuing in the tones of one contemplating Christmas to discuss another elusive underwater giant: the colossal squid. “It’s never been documented alive and I’m wondering if we could take a one-up on the giant squid.”

In the end, he knows that the natural world performs to no shooting schedule, and that they will be led as always by the science, one discovery to the next. And it is this unlimited, unknowable brief that has guided the design and refit of OceanXplorer. “The boat is like the USS Enterprise of the oceans,” says Dalio. “We’ll only know the extent of its capabilities in years to come – not just a couple of months. It’ll take years to see exactly how much it can handle”. 

Follow the OceanX mission at oceanx.org and on social media @oceanx

First published in the February 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

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