Out Of The Blue

There are corners of the ocean that Navy Capt. Alfred McLaren has never seen, but to hear him recount his life story, it's hard to believe they'll stay hidden from him for long. At the age of 4, he decided his life's ambition was to see a "deep-sea monster" like the ones he had read about in National Geographic. Twenty-two years later he became one of the first hundred people chosen to pilot a deep-sea monster of a different variety--a U.S. nuclear submarine. Since then, he has played a game of baseball at the North Pole ("If you threw it from right field, you literally threw it back to yesterday"), gazed upon the undersides of icebergs and battled a polar bear who mistook his sub's periscope for an emerging seal. He has descended five times to the ruins of shipwrecks and the churning hot waters of hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic. He has seen more of the seas in 71 years than the entire human race had seen before he was born. So now that he's retired from the Navy, isn't it time to hang up his helmet and publish his memoirs?

Not quite. He's "been too busy living" to write a life story, he says, and besides, there are a few things he hasn't done yet. For instance, he hasn't yet helped open an "underwater flight school" where would-be pilots can train on a one-of-a-kind, quick-and-agile two-person submarine called Deep Flight Aviator in waters as deep as 1,500 feet. (That won't happen until February.) He hasn't yet taken the first group of tourists down to the HMS Breadalbane, a 375-foot-deep wreck near Canada, thus far seen only by scientists (April). And for all his Arctic outings, he hasn't yet led a group to "the real North Pole," the ocean floor deep below the ice--one of the few places in the world completely untouched by man. No, he can't finish his memoirs without doing that. They'll have to wait until at least 2005.

That's the tentative date for man's first submersible dive through the waters of the North Pole down to its foundations--a trip that will be funded not by government grants, but by tourists eager to see that part of the seafloor themselves. It's remarkable, and more so considering that just five years ago, only three groups of people had ever seen any part of the ocean floor: scientists, submarine pilots and moviemakers. The first paid dearly for the privilege, toiling for years over dissertations, begging public and private benefactors for funding, then handing over $35,000-odd of it in exchange for 10 claustrophobic hours in a three-person titanium sphere. The second group worked no less hard, earning engineering degrees and following up with years of pilot training. The third spent millions for a few precious minutes of film.

But today, the highest price most people pay for a trip to the ocean floor is a mere $40,000 or so, and no technical training is required. That's thanks largely to the efforts of explorers like McLaren, who have opened their underwater worlds to the general public. The movement started in 1998, shortly after the release of James Cameron's "Titanic." The film sparked the imagination of entrepreneur Mike McDowell--and of the 12 tourists who promptly paid him $32,500 for the chance to cram into Russian MIR submersibles and descend two and a half miles to the wreck itself. Since then, ocean-based adventure travel has become Earth's hottest form of ecotourism, the small but trendy travel niche for the intrepid and outdoorsy (the "eco" comes from "ecosystem," naturally). Although it carries a high price tag, underwater travel is far cheaper than spaceflight, fresher and more unique than rain-forest treks and risky enough to elicit the wide-eyed admiration of friends back home while rarely placing anyone in serious danger. And it boasts a variety of experiences spaceflight can't touch: trips to shipwrecks, to the majestic hydrothermal vents, through thick polar ice on nuclear-powered ships. For warm-weather fans, there are Caribbean dive cruises on retrofitted research vessels; for the athletic, there are sea-kayaking trips, and for the, shall we say, less active, there are submerged hotels. And each year brings a new adventure. Where once the ocean was aqua incognita, says explorer Don Walsh, today the only limits are "the extent of your curiosity and the size of your purse."

So far, the second variable has kept ocean exploration limited to a small, lucky group of travelers ($40,000 is cheap compared with the cost of spaceflight, but not compared with much else). Although several hundred people board polar cruises every year, no more than 100 total have seen the hydrothermal vents, and even fewer, 50 or so, have explored the Titanic. As for that two-person sub, there are precisely that many people in the world certified to pilot it--McLaren and the inventor, Graham Hawkes. For most, undersea adventures are still mere Jules Verne-style fantasies. But as options increase, lower-priced trips are becoming available, opening the door to newcomers.

That's mainly good news, but--like every technological leap that's ever been taken--it does have a few people worried, particularly environmentalists. The most pressing problem is the same one that has dogged land-based adventure travel: the possibility that ecotourism will damage the very ecosystem it sets out to tour. Nowhere has this been more of a point of contention than at the site of the Titanic. The wreck is still hauntingly beautiful, so much so that it inspires many visitors to make return voyages. ("I couldn't think of anything to top my first trip," says Bob Williams, 62, a lifelong enthusiast who first went in 2001. "So naturally, I had to go again.") But beauty is transient, particularly on the seafloor. In the past five years, iron-eating microbes called rusticles have caused the Titanic to deteriorate much faster than scientists expected. Preservationists blame the increase in rusticles on tourism, which they claim has stirred up the silt surrounding the wreck. McLaren doesn't buy it--he notes that the last thing pilots want to do is stir up silt. "If you were dumb enough to do that, you wouldn't be able to see anything," he says. He suspects the increased rusticle activity is due to the over fishing-induced collapse of the food chain. In any case, the preservationists won't prevent him from returning to the Titanic or checking out other shipwrecks. Next up: the Breadalbane with Walsh, for the bargain price of $9,980.

Deep Ocean Expeditions, the company that has organized the vast majority of the shipwreck dives, also offers trips to hydrothermal vents, undersea geysers that spew hot water from the seafloor and serve as homes for creatures unlike any others on earth--eyeless shrimp in the Atlantic, tubeworms and clams as big as hubcaps in the Pacific. Scientists know very little about the vents, and the tourist trips have a few of them worried, too. Susan Humphris, a deep-sea geologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, notes that submersibles may disturb the vents, foiling scientists' attempts to continuously monitor natural activity there. "Do we have evidence that they're causing problems? Well, no," she says. "But for someone with an active experiment there, it's got to be a concern." Humphris is one of --those concerned scientists. Last summer Cameron--who has made two undersea documentaries since "Titanic," including this year's "Ghosts of the Abyss"--wanted to take a MIR and a camera down to a vent system in the Atlantic where she had placed probes. He "very graciously" agreed to delay the shoot, she says, at least until she finished.

Cameron won't be able to shoot in the coming year, either: 2004 marks a hiatus in undersea exploration as the world's four MIRs are being recalled to Russia for regular maintenance. Ocean-based adventure travel won't completely stop, though. The Russians have licensed out ships for cruises through the Arctic and Antarctic, which appeal to explorers who are too intimidated to entrust their lives to submersible pilots. One company, Big Five Tours & Expeditions, offers three kinds of trips through the polar ice caps, including one on a nuclear icebreaker (there are only five such ships in the world). The voyages aren't risk-free. Last year a 14-day, $16,000 trip stalled when the ship got stuck in the ice and had to be rescued two weeks later by another icebreaker. The reaction, says Raj Sanghrajka, Big Five's vice president of marketing, wasn't fear: "The tourists loved it."

There's another kind of vehicle that could keep ocean explorers busy while the MIRs get fixed up: Deep Flight Aviator, the two-person sub. Starting Oct. 30, it will be on display at the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show. Then it's headed for the water. McLaren and Hawkes hope their "flight" school will be in session, either in the Bahamas or off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, by February. Almost no previous training is needed--if you can drive, you can probably handle the Deep Flight Aviator, which travels as fast as 11 knots and maneuvers like a sports car. "If I weren't married to my wife, I'd marry this thing," says McLaren. "It's the toy that every boy has always wanted." Quite a few scientists may end up wanting one, too. McLaren sees a day, not far off, when Deep Flight Aviator will search for everything from lost Anasazi civilizations to the Loch Ness monster. (Given his love of deep-sea monsters, that would be appropriate.)

Still, compared with the past few years, 2004 may be relatively quiet for undersea explorers. No matter: 2005 will more than make up for it, if McLaren, McDowell and Walsh have their way. The North Pole dive is their big dream, one they've been nursing since a 1997 vodka toasting session in the captain's cabin of a Russian icebreaker. They tried that year to raise the money by selling seats but came up more than a million short. That, of course, was back when ocean tourism went no further than scuba diving. Today they think the time has come, and they're building support for the voyage. Deep Ocean Expeditions still needs money ("It's not a charity," Walsh says, "though you wouldn't know it from the books"). But now it has experience. And, more important, it no longer sounds outlandish to propose a vacation at the bottom of the ocean--even at the top of the world.