He Went to the Bottom of an Ocean Known for Storms. And Lost Contact
Victor Vescovo was determined to be the first to descend to the bottom of all the world’s oceans. But at one dubbed the “Shrieking Sixties,” he had a little scare.
Expedition Deep Ocean tells the inside story of explorer Victor Vescovo’s quest to become the first person to reach the bottom of all five of the world’s oceans. Technological innovations, engineering breakthroughs and the derring-do of a unique team of engineers and scientists built the most advanced deep-diving submersible named the Limiting Factor, able to withstand the deep ocean’s pressure on the sub of 8 tons per square inch—the equivalent of having 292 fueled and fully loaded 747s stacked on top of it. After diving to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, his second deep ocean dive took place in January 2019 in the Southern Ocean, known by mariners as the “shrieking sixties” because of its ferocious storms.
On the morning of Jan. 3, the sun’s rays pierced the threatening clouds, but the sea was ignoring the sun, kicking up a fuss. The sky notwithstanding, the conditions to launch any open water operation were predictably unkind, with swells dominating the area and a partnering wind kicking up the waters to sea state 3. This was at the limits of what they deemed to be safe, but still doable.
The Triton team forged ahead, preparing for Vescovo’s solo dive. Even as the winds continued to whip across the ship, all in all everyone felt it was diveable. An obvious hazard was the water temperature, which was below freezing (though salt water doesn’t actually freeze). This posed a danger for the swimmer who had to “ride” the sub to attach the drogue and to detach and later reattach the tow line.
On the pre-dive check, there was a fault in the Toughbooks, the panels (or graphic user interfaces, GUIs, as they were usually called) used for data readout. The Ethernet cables attaching them to the submarine’s data bus were not properly connected. Blades was able to debug the problem in thirty minutes.
As Vescovo prepared to board the sub, Lahey, who was operating the A-frame, yelled down: “The moment is now… have a great dive.”
Vescovo came back with, “It’ll be awesome.”
The revised pilot’s entrance to the sub from the gangplank made things dramatically more safe and efficient. The tow time was minimal, and in a matter of 15 minutes, the Limiting Factor was released. Vescovo reported that he had a green board of electronics. Lahey, in the comms room, cleared him to dive.
“And down we go,” Vescovo said.
On the descent, Vescovo could feel the cold coming in through the metal bottom of the sub, but he was prepared, wearing the same UGG booties he wore on Mount Everest. Looking out through the viewports, he could see schools of jellyfish and plankton swimming around. He was surprised how dense they were in such cold water—a veritable feast for the whales and penguins that migrated here each year. He kept thinking, you don’t have to be a scientist to be awed by this view.
All systems on the sub were working fine. Initially, Vescovo was seeing condensation around the bottom viewport, about a tablespoon of water every few minutes. He monitored the ingress to determine if it were necessary to abort, but around 2,000 meters, the condensation stopped. It was just water vapor coming out of the air in the capsule due to the cold temperature.
After passing through 3,000 meters (9,842 feet), he heard a low humming noise that sounded like a lawn mower in the distance coming from inside the sub. After checking various electrical systems, he couldn’t figure out what it was. “I have a feeling all is not right,” he said to himself. By the time he reached 3,200 meters, his communications with the Pressure Drop and the Learned Response on the surface suddenly failed.
He could not hear Lahey, who was in the control room conducting the quarter-hour checks.
Vescovo noticed that he was descending at a rapid rate and thought that might be the reason for the comms failure. To arrest his descent, he blasted the thrusters at full power for 20 seconds. When he finished the test, he had dramatically higher noise levels in his headset, around 10 times as much. It was so loud on the starboard side headset (the pilot sits on the port side) that he could clearly hear it from across the interior of the capsule on the unused headset.
Sensing an issue, he tried to contact the surface repeatedly, but had no success. He also tried texting, but nothing came back. There was only silence. Silence at such a depth has a hard quiet.
In the comms room on the ship, Lahey grew concerned after a second missed quarter-hour comms checks.
“LF, comms check… comms check,” Lahey barked into the microphone.
There was no reply.
“What the fuck is going on?” Lahey said to Blades, who was sitting next to him at the control board. “Response,” Lahey said addressing the tender that also monitored communications, “did you hear comms check?”
“Negative…” came the reply from Hector Salvador, who was piloting the boat.
A hush fell over the comms room. The silence was soon broken with Vescovo’s voice coming across, very faintly, acknowledging that life sup- port was good.
“All stop!” Lahey yelled. “Roger that LF, I have you loud and clear…”
Vescovo’s garbled voice continued, “Present depth 3,331 meters… I cannot hear you.”
Lahey turned to Blades. “He didn’t hear me… he didn’t acknowledge,” Lahey said. Then, he tried again. “Do… You… Read… Me?”
A minute later, Vescovo’s voice was heard again. “Surface, surface, how do you read?”
“Loud and clear,” Lahey said. “Status!? Status?” Again, there was no reply.
Lahey hunched over the comms panel. “What the fuck is going on where he can’t hear us?” Lahey said.
Blades continued to adjust the sound levels in the effort to reestablish communications.
“What the fuck, Tom?” Lahey said in a plaintively desperate tone.
The soft-spoken Blades, who was working through the failure and finding solutions in his head that made sense, finally replied, brushing Lahey off with an “It’s interesting…”
In the sub, Vescovo was trying to figure out what was wrong. He reset the software of both the port and starboard electrical “sides,” but there was no change. He rebooted the starboard Toughbook and then relaunched the software, also to no effect. He did not try this on the port side, as he didn’t want to risk losing his primary software.
Next, he cycled the power in all nonessential systems in hopes that might reboot the system because the electronics were all interconnected. When he turned off the altimeter, the noise in his headset almost doubled in volume. He noticed that no other switch except the altimeter had the effect of increasing the noise level. Because the sub was otherwise fully operational with respect to thrusters and its power levels, he considered it too dangerous to cycle any of the batteries for fear of them not coming back online.
Nothing he did brought the comms with the ship back online. He executed standard underwater phone check-ins two more times, but with no reply and unusually high background noise, he suspended the calls. He was certain that all aspects of the comms system had failed and that the surface was not receiving any word at all.
After his troubleshooting failed to fix the issue, he began to consider his options. He knew that Lahey and the team would be upset if he did not abort, which was the standard procedure in a total loss of comms, but the sub was otherwise functioning fine. He checked the electronics, and the oxygen and CO2 readings. Everything was perfectly in order. He reasoned that the cold water or some electronic gremlin must be causing the problem.
For Vescovo, it was decision time. He was about 3,000 meters from the bottom, where no human had ever been. He decided that he had come all this way and was not going to abort for a failed comms check, even though that was the agreed-upon procedure. There was no guarantee he would even have a good weather window another year from now. He felt he was oh so close.
He said to himself: “I don’t want to come back here. I’ve got ‘only’ 3,000 more meters to go and I’ve been down deeper. So I’m going for it.”
Nearly an hour had now passed without any communication between the ship and the sub. Vescovo had stopped checking in.
Lahey was beside himself. Without being able to talk to the control room, Vescovo wouldn’t know where the ship was when he ascended. He was so deep that there was also a small risk of an ice- berg drifting over him during his dive, yet he would have no way of knowing. Lahey was also irritated that Vescovo was not observing the quarter-hour comms checks, as he assumed Vescovo had concluded all comms were out.
“Fuck… fuck…” Lahey kept muttering under his breath. Meanwhile in the sub, Vescovo continued descending. “Well, now I’m really alone,” he said out loud. “I don’t have comms with the surface. I’m in a submersible by myself going down to the bottom of the Southern Ocean, where no human has ever gone.”
The irony was not lost on him. He was a loner by nature who climbed mountains and now dived a sub to escape from everyday life. He certainly couldn’t get further away than he was now. He was one man doing one thing with no one else there. The outside world didn’t exist. It was the epitome of what he had wanted to do—diving the bottom of the oceans, alone and unafraid, relying completely on himself. Heck, even spacecraft have copilots.
It was the ultimate in solitude. To enjoy and reflect on the moment, he played the song “Deeper” by the Fixx. He figured it was appropriate. Then he turned on the altimeter. The readout showed that he was 150 meters from the bottom. His excitement grew. With about 30 meters to go, he tested the VBT weights that would make the sub neutrally buoyant and allow it to hover just over the bottom. These had given the team fits on previous dives. He pulled the trigger and heard the right sounds.
“Ker-chunk, ker-chunk”—they both dropped.
Just in case something had changed with the comms, he checked in with the ship “in the blind.”
“I’m about five meters from the bottom,” he said into the abyss, as a pilot would do flying into space.
Then he touched. “Surface, LF, at bottom. Repeat, at bottom.”
The comms room heard him. A cheer—and a sigh of relief—went up. He peered out the viewport. The sediment was dense and coarse and not as peanut butter–like sandy as the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. He noted that although Stewart, the geologist, said that he would see lava rocks, he did not.
He decided to try to find a lander. However, without any direction from the ship, he didn’t have even a rough idea where the lander was. He checked the sub’s limited range sonar, but didn’t see any sign of it. The sonar had a maximum range of 200 meters, but a true effective range of about 100 meters. Employing a circular pattern, he started the search. As he circled, at least he would be filming the bottom with the sub’s high-definition exterior cameras.
Then it became a question of how long he would stay down. He reasoned, “The longer I stay down if they think I’m dead, the more I’m torturing them.” He decided on a compromise of one hour.
On the ship, after Vescovo’s report came through that he was on bottom, Blades turned to Lahey. “I’ll bet Victor stays down there an hour and comes back up,” he said.
That was exactly what Vescovo did.
After an hour of driving around the seafloor, he said, “I think that’s a wrap.” He toggled the switch to release the surfacing weight to begin the ascent. Hearing it drop washed away all the tension. He put on the Deep Purple song “Smoke on the Water,” sat back and relaxed.
Excerpted from Expedition Deep Ocean: The First Descent to the Bottom of All Five Oceans by Josh Young. Courtesy of Pegasus Books
*Landers are metal-framed, square scientific platforms with syntactic foam for buoyancy and weights to make them sink to the bottom. They are equipped with high-definition cameras to film the sub and sea life, bait traps to capture sea creatures, and depth and water salinity gauges.