Things are chillier, however, between Cameron and Lahey, who worked on the filmmaker's 2005 documentary about ocean exploration, Aliens of the Deep. "He was trying to get the film in the can, but we'd had multiple sub failures," Lahey says. "[Cameron] was getting increasingly short-tempered and harsh to the crew. And they were at the limit of what they could take. Several came to me in tears.

"Jim is a brilliant guy, and he may get there first," Lahey adds. "But he'll get there in a one-person sub that will go in a museum when he's done."

Lahey's vessels, however, will open the deep sea to thousands of people. Triton plans to take tourists two at a time to the trench, and Lahey hopes to sell the transparent-hulled subs to mega­yacht owners around the world.

Patrick Lahey (bottom right, kneeling) and his crew in their modest Vero Beach sub factory.  The craft behind them cost $3 million to make.
Courtesy of Triton Submarines
Patrick Lahey (bottom right, kneeling) and his crew in their modest Vero Beach sub factory. The craft behind them cost $3 million to make.
Patrick Lahey puts an old-fashioned diving suit on his daughter, Victoria.
Courtesy of Patrick Lahey
Patrick Lahey puts an old-fashioned diving suit on his daughter, Victoria.

"We're interested in getting more people to give a shit about the ocean," Lahey says. "The future of our species depends on it, yet 95 percent of the ocean has never been explored. It really is the last frontier on Earth."

The bright-yellow submarine hangs like an 18,000-pound wrecking ball from the end of the crane. Its bulbous cockpit shines in the midday sun as it's slowly lowered into a muddy inlet of the Atlantic Ocean. Patrick Lahey watches his $3 million baby slip into the water and vents his frustration.

"Fucking insurance premiums," he says in his Ottawan drawl to a half-dozen crew members behind the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Vero Beach. Lahey is irked that he had to shell out thousands just to test-dive his own submarine. "I've had ten claims against me in my car, but I've never had one against me in a sub in 30 years," he fumes. "They really bend you over the barrel, and it's always at the 11th hour."

Time is, in fact, running out for Lahey and his crew in the race to the bottom of the ocean. As their richer rivals begin testing their submarines, the underfunded Triton Submarines is still stuck in the manufacturing stage and at risk of arriving to the party after it's already over. Yet Lahey's caution could also propel his team to glory. Triton's design is slower to build but safer than the other subs, he insists. That means if Branson and Cameron slip up, Triton could steal the victory.

Reaching the Mariana Trench ahead of its wealthy competitors would thrust Triton Submarines onto the world stage and drum up desperately needed business for the tiny company. But failure could cost $15 million and dash Lahey's dream of navigating the Earth's deepest abyss.

Lahey believes Cameron is already testing his mysterious, movie-camera-equipped submarine off the coast of Australia. (The filmmaker couldn't be reached for comment.) Meanwhile, Chris Welsh says he and Richard Branson will conduct test dives in the coming months, with the goal of diving into the trench by midyear.

Lahey, however, is nearly two years away from venturing into the trench. A company in California is manufacturing the glass walls for his sphere, smaller models of which Triton hopes to test in coming months. If those tests go well, a full-ocean-depth sub could be completed by the end of 2013.

But Mariana's sheer crushing pressure gives Lahey hope. He believes his rivals' designs will suffer setbacks. "I feel strongly that building a carbon-fiber hull is flawed," he says. The same goes for Branson's nickel-rich steel sub. "I want to make something that's safe to sell, not something that can fail at any time."

His competitors deny they are putting speed ahead of safety, however. "Every submarine program is going to have its Achilles' heel," says Graham Hawkes, the engineer behind the Deep Flight Challenger submarine. "Politicians work with absolutes like safe and unsafe. That is all nonsense. Engineering at these extremes involves statistics and probabilities."

Whenever someone does reach the bottom of the trench, dozens of scientists are ready to analyze whatever the team brings back. Engineers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have designed small robotic vehicles that will accompany the Virgin Oceanic sub and collect water and soil samples in search of microbes and other signs of life.

The dash into the depths also could be a boon for the burgeoning underwater mining industry, says Steve Scott, a geologist at the University of Toronto. "Nobody is going to be mining in the Mariana Trench," he says. "But what it will do is show the public that we can work in the deep sea. It will legitimize the whole idea of doing things of economic value in the deep ocean."

Lahey, meanwhile, says he hopes his expedition will unveil new species, medicinal cures, and alternative food sources before global warming cooks ocean creatures in their shells.

But the underdog environmentalist estimates Triton needs another $15 million in order to build a sub capable of reaching the bottom of the trench.

Triton has two shots at raising the money. The first is by showing off its current $3 million submarine (called the 3300/3 for its ability to take three people 3,300 feet down) in the hope of luring investors.

But a recent trip to the Bahamas to give tours to prospective buyers nearly turned into a disaster. Lahey steered the sub to 1,000 feet below the surface, deep enough that the light from the Caribbean sun disappeared above them. Suddenly, one of the vehicle's 900-pound, yellow battery pods detached without warning.

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8 comments
Hrejkhweh  Gsphjrt
Hrejkhweh Gsphjrt

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Jen
Jen

I'm a bit claustrophobic so I'll pass on the submarine. Give me a warm, above ground house with a Florida home security system any day.

hanna
hanna

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Gadgetek
Gadgetek

Since the sphere is perfectly round, it will get stronger as the pressure increases.That is, until something hits it that throws the pressure off, just like the tool used to break a car window!!! It is a beautiful sub though. I just hope it never hits anything.

Bob
Bob

@whatadiver

Saltwater has a lower freezing point, hence why freshwater icebergs float. If ice sank... the world would die.

Watadiver
Watadiver

Great story, but, first line: "zero oxygen." Umm, hello, ever heard of H2O? and, if it's freezing cold down there, why is it water and not ice?

Other than that, very awesome

TritonScam101
TritonScam101

Total fkn scam. These guy's are considered the scum of the personal submarine industry why do you think Cameron and Branson aren't commissioning them. And Cameron has 8 subs right now. It will be sad that more investors will be deputed because of this article and you not telling the real story. Why not mention L. Bruce Jones the real CEO of U.S. Submarines and Poseidon underwater resorts thats NEVER BUILT one sub but took in millions upon millions of dollars to build this one for themselves and their own habits. Oh wait because then the article would be titled how to loose money in a submarine scam and not be able to anything about it.

 
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