American yachtsman Victor Vescovo believes humankind would benefit from a greater understanding of what’s beneath the surface of the seas, and he’s willing to put his money—lots of it—where his mouth is.
He’s also driven by the old Star Trek maxim: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” And he’s built an underwater Enterprise in which to do it.
“People like to explore for scientific knowledge and find solutions for things like climate change, but I’m old school,” he says. “I like to fill in blank spaces on the map. That’s the true north of exploration: to go and find things about places where human beings have never been.”
Vescovo knows of what he speaks. The Dallas-born Harvard Business School graduate is the first person in history to have been to the top of all the world’s continents, to reach both poles, and to descend to the bottom of all five oceans. As a kid, he sailed at summer camp, though he didn’t set foot on a ship of substance until he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve at age 27.
He served for 20 years on aircraft carriers and the command ship USS Blue Ridge. But his first time on a submarine came at age 51, after he ordered a custom Triton submersible, Limiting Factor, for his first recreational vessel, the 224-foot (68.3-meter) retrofitted U.S. Navy ship Pressure Drop.
“I’ve always loved adventure stories of the sea, starting with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, but the real attraction for me is that the sea just seems to intuitively convey freedom and exploration, and I’ve always been intensely curious,” he says. “When you’re on a ship, on an ocean connected to every piece of coast in the world, you feel like the entire world is within your reach.”
At 33, he started mountain climbing, summiting Mount Everest in 2010 as part of achieving the Explorer’s Grand Slam (Last Degree). In 2019, he dove to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench—Earth’s lowest point, at 35,843 feet—and was recognized by Guinness World Records as the person who has covered the greatest vertical distance without leaving Earth’s surface. The aim of the Five Deeps Expedition was to dive to the deepest part of all five oceans. He did it in two years with the support of EYOS Expeditions.
Vescovo says he didn’t set out to chase records. It just sort of happened.
“It started as more of a technological challenge and something that I thought should be done,” he says. “We had never gone to the bottom of all the world’s oceans, and there was no full ocean-depth-capable submersible that could repeatedly go to the bottom of the seafloor. The Trieste first managed it in 1960, and then Jim Cameron in 2012, but neither of those subs ever went again. They were kind of messed up after they came back up. No one had ever really built the technology, and I’m a technologist at heart.”
With his scruffy beard and white-haired ponytail, the private equity investor doesn’t look like a typical yachtie. And that’s because he’s not. He wears NASA-inspired boiler suits and pilots his own sub. He sees himself as an explorer first, and accidental yacht owner second.
But don’t let that fool you. Prior to Harvard (where he was in the top 5 percent of his MBA class), he picked up a master’s degree at MIT and a double-major degree in economics and political science from Stanford University. When he sold his company, Military Advantage, to careers giant Monster in 2004, it gave him the means to co-found Insight Equity Holdings and to purchase “the system.” That’s the collective term he uses for his yacht, the submarine and three robotic landers that act as a navigation system on the seafloor.
“That’s something that I think a lot of people miss, that it is indeed a system,” he says. “The focus is on the belle of the ball, the submersible, but Limiting Factor can’t do a good mission unless it knows where to go. The ship provides a great sonar system that can map at any depth so we can target the dives, and the landers provide stationary beacons on the seafloor.”
Vescovo admits to not even knowing where four of the deepest points of the ocean were when he first set out on Five Deeps. But he trusts in the system.
“If I just went down without the sonar or landers, I would have no idea where I am because of drift,” he says. “So, we build what is in effect an acoustic GPS network to localize where I am on the bottom.”
Pressure Drop, built by Tacoma Boat Building Co., was acquired and converted into a multiple-disciplinary platform by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2002. The ship conducted oceanographic research and assessments throughout the eastern Pacific. In 2017, under the ownership of Vescovo, a significant refit transformed the vessel into a more comfortable and capable scientific research ship with accommodations for 47 guests, including a crew of 19 and 12 technical specialists. It’s equipped with full ocean-depth Kongsberg EM124 sonar, dry and wet science labs, and a 12-ton A-frame astern for the launch and recovery of Limiting Factor.
“The ship was built in the 1980s, and so people will characterize it as old, but they don’t understand that it was built as a submarine-hunting vessel,” he says, smiling. “You can’t commission that. It’s a military vessel. So, it’s extremely quiet, with soundproofing in the engine room. You can actually talk to the submarine when it’s down at full ocean depth.
“Only two submarines in the world can go to full ocean depth: Limiting Factor and one belonging to China’s Ministry of National Defense,” says Vescovo. He speaks proudly of the deep ocean vehicle’s “reusability,” likening it to Elon Musk’s efforts to pioneer reusable spacecraft. Built from titanium and costing around $48 million, the submersible is “very strong, very light and very expensive,” he says.
“All of this has to work at pressures of 16,000 pounds per square inch in salt water and freezing temperatures,” he adds. “It takes a lot of technology to be able to repeatedly dive to the deepest points.” The sub has 10 direct dry thrusters and six external batteries. “Things always fail at full ocean depth. Trust me, you need backups. It’s like God’s own hammer is trying to destroy this vehicle every time it goes down.”
Vescovo privately funds his expeditions, but says the eye-watering costs are offset by his ability to take as many as 10 people in the capsule at a time, including a raft of scientists.
“It’s not about just a single individual going boldly where no one has gone before, but being able to take other people with you,” he says. “I am very proud of the fact that today, we can say the adage of ‘more people have walked on the moon than have been to the bottom of the ocean’ is no longer true.”
So far, Vescovo and his team have taken 17 people to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, including NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan in 2020. She became the first human to have been in space and at full ocean depth, and marked the occasion by phoning NASA astronauts on the International Space Station from the aft deck of Pressure Drop.
As the missions grow, so does Vescovo’s appetite to facilitate scientific research. What started as a great adventure has transitioned into opportunities to take scientific teams to new places of interest. He has heavily invested in the yacht’s scientific capability to map for the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project.
“I got bitten by the science bug,” he says. “I had no idea what that was until Five Deeps started, so what began as a shakedown cruise became increasingly science-heavy.”
On the Molloy Deep dive in the Arctic Ocean, he did two successive dives purely for scientific interest. In the following two years, he looked at any number of opportunities for his yacht to undertake scientific endeavors, from mapping the ocean floor and researching ocean pollution to diving historically significant wrecks. The entire system is continually being upgraded, too, such as the hydroacoustic sensor system currently being added to the landers, and the deep ocean sonar being added to Limiting Factor.
Under the guidance of chief scientist Alan Jamieson, Vescovo’s team has collected tens of thousands of specimens, identified more than 40 previously undiscovered species, and mapped around 290,000 square miles of seafloor. They retrieved the first rock from the mantle at 35,433 feet that has bacterial matting on it—“something that we’ve strived for years to collect”—and more than 20 peer-reviewed scientific articles have been published about the dives.
In 2021, Vescovo piloted his submersible to the deepest shipwreck dive in history, becoming the first person to witness the USS Johnston since it sank in World War II in the Philippine Sea.
“The Johnston and Pressure Drop were built in the same shipyard, and both served in the U.S. Navy,” he says. “As a U.S. Navy officer, I’m proud to have helped bring clarity and closure to the Johnston, its crew and the families of those who fell there.”
Most recently, he completed the Chilean leg of his Ring of Fire Part 2 initiative, the first crewed dive to the deepest point of the Atacama Trench. The expedition is on behalf of the International Maritime Organization to determine the optimal places to install sensors for a future geoscience research project.
Is he having fun? Absolutely. Does he have more missions planned? You bet. But he also lets it be known that his system is for sale. His aim is to incentivize a government or large organization to acquire the yacht, the sub and its onboard equipment to continue his discovery work.
There’s also a five-part Discovery Channel series in the offing. It’s called Expedition: Deep Planet, and is expected to be released this year.
Until then, Vescovo, the 2021 recipient of the SeaKeeper Award given by the International SeaKeepers Society, has a long scientific bucket list, starting with testing and perfecting the world’s first full-ocean-depth-capable side-scan sonar.
“I think the common thread that binds us is curiosity,” he says. “I come from a completely different vector than the scientists, who will never have the wherewithal to buy a yacht and build a submarine like I did, but I have the means without the science. It’s a wonderful marriage of different parts of our society that can come together for a beneficial purpose, and I think that’s what we’ve done and continue to do.”
This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue.