A journey to the bottom of the oceans – all five of them

Lucinda Robb

THE WASHINGTON POST – Tired of being stuck at home? Maybe what you need right now is to escape somewhere that the coronavirus, political polarisation and devastating natural disasters are nowhere to be found. But where on Earth could you find such a place? Simple: at the bottom of the ocean. Fortunately, Josh Young’s Expedition Deep Ocean: The First Descent to the Bottom of All Five of the World’s Oceans is ready to take you there, on a journey that is exciting, suspenseful and ultimately successful.

Make no bones about it – this is an old-fashioned adventure story. Young has written more than 20 books, five of them New York Times bestsellers, and his narrative is wonderfully readable, weaving in scientific, geographic and engineering details effortlessly (a feat much harder to pull off than generally acknowledged). There’s humour and drama and headaches galore, not to mention celebrity cameos and more than one trip to the Titanic. Imagine Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air with a happy ending.

The expedition is conceived, financed and led by Victor Vescovo, who seems like a character Tom Clancy dreamed up on a sugar high. This overachieving Texan and former Naval Reserve intelligence officer holds degrees from MIT, Harvard and Stanford (Condoleezza Rice was his adviser), flies fixed-wing jets and helicopters, and founded a billion-dollar private-equity firm in Dallas. In his down time he completed the Explorers Grand Slam, for which you must summit the tallest peaks on all seven continents and ski to both the North and South poles. Like Alexander the Great, who supposedly wept because there were no more worlds to conquer, Vescovo sets a goal of travelling to the bottom of all five oceans because he needs a new challenge.

Coming up with the idea is the easiest part. At nearly seven miles below sea level, the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean is the deepest point on Earth, a far greater depth than Mount Everest is tall. The pressure at that depth is mind boggling – Young compares it to having 290 fully fuelled 747 airplanes stacked on top of you. As recently as 2018, only three human beings had ever made the descent, on two different trips more than 50 years apart.

Not only had no humans been to the bottom of the other four oceans, scientists weren’t exactly sure how far down they went.

Speaking of which, can you name all five oceans? If not, you aren’t alone. It says something about their widely ignored status that you can probably name more planets millions of miles away than the immense bodies of water that govern our lives in ways we hardly understand.

(By the way, the ocean everybody forgets is the Southern Ocean, nicknamed the “screaming sixties” because of the ferocious storms in those latitudes.)

Assisting Vescovo is an international crew of characters, each with their own expertise and often with their own agendas. It isn’t just a matter of throwing money at the problem, you have to design, build, outfit and plan the entire expedition. No one who has ever built a house will be surprised by all the things that go wrong in the course of their journey, but the massive expenses do put home cost overruns into perspective. At a crucial point in their mission a section of the submersible, a titanium structure shielding its occupants from the colossal pressure, literally breaks off. Miles from shore they figure a way around it. (Just in case you were wondering, humans can’t actually walk unprotected on the bottom of the ocean – they would get squashed like a bug long before they could drown.)

Interestingly, it is the little stuff that goes awry. The amount of ill will generated by who gets to post what on social media could serve as a plot line for Bravo’s Real Housewives. The challenges of navigating international permits and the rules of exclusive economic zones mean that despite having maritime law on their side, they frequently tangle with local authorities eager to confiscate something, even if they aren’t sure what.

The scientific goals of the expeditions are always secondary, although splurging for the sonar mapping system turns out to be key in verifying their world-record-holding status. But it isn’t just about bragging rights. It is a small miracle to design and build something that can dive miles below the sea’s surface repeatedly and reliably. As Vescovo says, “It’s opening a door that didn’t exist.” By the epilogue they are ferrying high-profile figures like Prince Albert of Monaco to the bottom of the Mediterranean with a matter-of-factness that would have seemed highly improbable, if not entirely impossible, just 10 chapters earlier.

While the expedition succeeds in its stated goal, the publicity is something of a bust. Even back in May 2019, before the coronavirus and the presidential election dominated the news, Vescovo’s singular accomplishments generate far less interest than the fact that they found a plastic bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. It’s a long way from Charles Lindbergh’s ticker-tape parade for crossing the Atlantic.

But along the way to reaching all five “deeps”, something interesting happens. What started out as Indiana Jones on the ocean floor morphs into a story of how progress is made – first in fits and starts, and then in a great rush. In the end, the same traits that brought Vescovo great wealth in the business world are the ones that allow him to succeed in this daunting venture. Knowing when to take a calculated risk and when to abort are key, but small details like having really good coffee for your workers matter, too. Perhaps most important, Vescovo is wise enough to know when to back off and allow his flawed, exhausted but still impressive team members room to breathe and correct their mistakes.