As I look out over the calm sea, a transparent bubble breaks the surface like an enormous jellyfish. It rises as our inflatable dinghy pulls closer, until water is cascading down the two-metre-wide glass dome and a bright yellow deck appears.
This is the first Triton 3,300/3, a new model created by Florida-based Triton Submarines, one of only a few companies in the world building submersibles for personal use. The company has brought it here, to the Atlantic off the Bahamas, for testing and to demonstrate it to industry colleagues and potential buyers.
Our dinghy deposits me on deck. I climb a metal ladder attached to the dome and shimmy down through a hatch in the top. I settle into one of two passenger seats and we begin to descend, the water rising from chest to eye level and soon closing above my head. We have been swallowed up by blue.
Until very recently the notion of submarine tourism was pure fantasy. Over the past six years, though, Triton and companies such as Netherlands-based U-Boat Worx have been changing the game. The new submersibles are two-or-three seaters with windows on the sea, making the experience less like being a German sailor trapped in a U-boat and more like being Captain Nemo surveying the aquascape from the Nautilus, the submarine in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. And now, for the right price and about four weeks of training, you can buy one and pilot it yourself.
“I think there’s a healthy market for submarine tourism on these kinds of subs,” says Mike McDowell, who heads the company Deep Ocean Expeditions and has come to watch the 3,300/3’s debut. He’s been in the adventure travel business for 35 years, having co-founded a company that takes tourists to Antarctica and another, Space Adventures, that takes them to the International Space Station.
This year, using a Russian research submarine, Deep Ocean Expeditions will take passengers to visit the Titanic, which lies 3,800m below the surface. About 80 people will take the eight- to 10-hour trip, which costs $60,000 a head. The company is also offering upcoming trips to the Bismarck, to ocean-floor hydrothermal vents and, for $375,000, a 35-day, 15-dive journey across the north Atlantic.
Triton, meanwhile, says its revenue is growing as new models sell for higher prices. It had sold four submersibles in total before designing the 3,300/3. One earlier model, the 1,000/2 (which takes two people to just over 300m), went for $2m. The 3,300/3 is priced at $3m and already one customer has ordered two, intending to charter out one of those for between $5,000 and $7,000 per day.
Since its launch in 2005, U-Boat Worx says it has sold eight submarines and its range runs from the C-Quester, which can dive to 100m and sells for €875,000, to the C-Explorer, which can reach 1,000m and costs €2m. As of last year, one of its submarines is available to charter from a Marseilles-based firm.
These companies are counting on high-end adventure tourism remaining a growing segment of the tourist market despite the prevailing economic climate. Nearly 80m Americans will retire in the next 20 years, argues Triton president Patrick Lahey, who is at the controls for my test dive. “A good portion of these people are well-heeled and looking for something more than just lying on a beach in Cancun drinking margaritas.” He points to the fact that tourists’ desire to go where few others have been before is already helping recreational space travel become a viable business – seven tourists have now visited the International Space Station, paying tens of millions of dollars each, while Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space-flight business has nearly 500 bookings.
The submarine makers believe that personal subs will increasingly become the billionaire’s must-have plaything. And, as if to underline that point, Branson is also working on his own under-sea project, Virgin Oceanic. It has developed an innovative one-person submarine that Branson hopes will reach 11,000m in the Mariana Trench. After that, he says he will take the controls himself for a dive to 8,000m in the Puerto Rico Trench.
Triton claims the 3,330/3’s touchscreen-and-joystick control system makes it simpler to operate than previous generations, and despite being able to reach a depth of 1,000m it is relatively lightweight, making it easier to hoist on and off a yacht.
But most spectacular, from a passenger’s point of view, is that it has the largest acrylic sphere ever made for a manned submersible – and also the thickest. Even though the membrane between passenger and water is 17cm thick, it’s so transparent that it feels like looking through an ordinary pane of glass.
Underwater, the first thing I notice is how peaceful the downward drift feels. The second is that while I was nervous about becoming claustrophobic, that hasn’t happened. If anything, it’s the agoraphobic who should be wary of the 3,300/3, because it’s like floating in space. As we descend, the sea above us is still turquoise and below it is cobalt. I peer into open water, uncertain of how far I’m seeing. A reef shark sails overhead.
Lahey calls out the depth – 45m, 75m, 105m. We won’t be diving to her full capacity but we’re deeper than I’ve ever been scuba diving and the encroaching darkness becomes an indigo dusk. Triton also has a two-person submersible down here today and as we approach a wall in the sea floor Lahey radios the other captain to turn his lights on. Two pinpricks appear between us and the wall and I realise how colossal the vertical surface is, extending up, down and sideways as far as I can see. It’s the island of Grand Bahama, sloping steeply down to the ocean floor. When we turn our light to the wall we see lionfish, angelfish and squirrelfish minding their own business, and a curious barracuda.
Forty minutes go by in an instant and I don’t want to surface but this ride is just a teaser. The 3,300/3 can go for up to 10 hours, to deep shipwrecks or seamounts teeming with life.
Next, Lahey hopes to start working on the Full Ocean Depth Triton, capable of reaching 10,973m. “This is comparable to the ships built by the British, Spanish and Portuguese in the late 1400s,” he says. “They offer human beings an opportunity to visit vast areas of our planet that we have never explored and know little or nothing about.
“People are sceptical,” he adds. “But we’re used to that.”