After the OceanGate implosion, the ultra wealthy still can’t resist the deep sea

The world of personal submersibles went from a luxury niche to a national fixation.
The world of personal submersibles went from a luxury niche to a national fixation.

Summary

Makers of luxury submarines braced for collapse after an expedition to the Titanic wreckage ended in disaster. But some deep-pocketed clients are still calling.

THE OCEAN FLOOR off the coast of Sebastian, Florida, is littered with untold fortunes. For three centuries now, the sea has turned the gold and silver coins of the doomed Spanish treasure fleet over and over among strands of flowing seaweed and beneath the claws of scuttling crabs.

Twenty miles inland, plunked on an unassuming industrial lot amid a swampy expanse, lie vessels capable of surfacing that sunken bounty. Triton Submarines, founded in 2008, is one of the leading makers of personal submersibles, serving a deep-pocketed clientele with aspirations of exploring the undersea realm.

Patrick Lahey, the company’s co-founder and CEO, is one of the world’s most experienced submersible operators. He has piloted a sub to the deepest point in the ocean, more than 35,000 feet below the water’s surface in the West Pacific. He speaks about his profession with passion, sometimes peppering his sentences with profanity. About a year ago, it seemed as though his work could all come screeching to a halt.

On June 18, 2023, the Titan, a submersible built by Seattle-based OceanGate, imploded during a trip to the Titanic, killing all five passengers onboard. The tragedy turned the world of personal submersibles from a luxury niche into a national fixation. For those in this tight-knit industry, the losses were personal. Lahey was particularly fond of Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a Titan passenger and deep-sea explorer whom he knew as P.H. and considered a dear friend.

The grief was enough to be paralyzing. But the industry also found itself deep in crisis mode. People who had never been inside a submersible were, understandably, swearing the vessels off for good. In a culture that attracts people who push the limits of adventure, the implosion gave even some sub enthusiasts pause.

“When I first heard about OceanGate, I texted my family and said, ‘You won’t be able to get ahold of me for a few weeks,’ " says Craig Barnett, Triton’s director of sales.

OceanGate had been controversial in the sub industry for years. Men like Lahey, Nargeolet and Rob McCallum, founder of the ultra-high-end expedition company Eyos, had pleaded with OceanGate’s CEO Stockton Rush, who was part of the Titanic voyage, to exercise caution with Titan. In 2018, McCallum wrote to Rush in an email reported by the BBC: “You are wanting to use a prototype un-classed technology in a very hostile place. As much as I appreciate entrepreneurship and innovation, you are potentially putting an entire industry at risk."

After the implosion, co-founder Guillermo Söhnlein told The Wall Street Journal that Rush’s goal was to build a safe sub while “breaking the rules" the industry had long followed. “Internally, we always called ourselves ‘SpaceX for the oceans,’ " Söhnlein said.

Several authorities, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, opened investigations into OceanGate last summer following the disaster, in order to determine what went wrong and prevent it from happening again. Their safety reviews are ongoing.

In July, OceanGate announced on its website that it had suspended its operations. A representative for the company declined to comment.

Triton and its main competitor, Netherlands-based U-Boat Worx, suddenly had to differentiate their subs from the OceanGate vessel. Otherwise the fatal dive could grind the entire personal-sub industry to a halt.

The companies say they needed to drive home the key differences between “classed"—certified as safe and up to code—and “unclassed" subs. Both Triton and U-Boat Worx use third-party maritime-classification societies to ensure that their machines are classed, and Eyos uses only classed subs for its chartered voyages. Titan, on the other hand, was unclassed and built using experimental designs and materials such as carbon fiber that were prone to cracking after repeat dives.

After Titan’s passengers were declared dead, Lahey became a kind of industry spokesman. He was still flush with heartache when he was interviewed by the Times of London and ended up sounding too raw. In the interview he described Rush as “predatory." Shortly thereafter, Triton’s New York City public relations firm, Shamin Abas, recommended that Lahey remain behind the scenes.

“Sometimes I wonder if I should have gotten more out in front of the story, because I was chomping at the bit," Lahey says. “But I was very emotional. It still baffles me beyond words that P.H. was onboard."

As Lahey and his peers see it, OceanGate’s problems weren’t broader submersible problems. They say classed subs are considered exceptionally safe modes of transportation thanks to rigorous testing of designs and materials.

“In that sense, OceanGate didn’t make the industry look bad," says McCallum. “It made us look good."

LAHEY RECALLS being laughed at when he began selling personal submersibles at boat shows in the early 2000s. Back then, hardly anyone had or coveted their own sub. Today, subs are common accessories for yachts exceeding 150 feet. On the floor at Triton’s headquarters lies Pagoo, a $50 million submersible formerly owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. A one of a kind, it is fitted with a $40,000 Dale Chihuly sink.

Ray Dalio, the multibillionaire financier and founder of the hedge-fund giant Bridgewater, was bitten hard by the sub bug some 12 years ago. A lifelong admirer of Jacques Cousteau, he owns a 285-foot research vessel named OceanXplorer that houses two subs, and which he likens to a modern-day Calypso, Cousteau’s legendary expedition vessel. “I’m not a yacht guy," he says. “This is a sharp ship." The list of scientific achievements made possible by Dalio’s boat and its subs is extensive, and includes capturing the first video from a manned submersible of a giant squid at depth.

With a deep appreciation for meditation, Dalio often speaks at a calm, almost zenned-out clip that he loses when discussing life below the waves. “For me it’s very exciting," he says. “You can see all the species, the coral, the terrain, but it’s more than that. It’s otherworldly. The ocean has a huge effect on climate, a huge effect on our lives in so many ways: commerce, food, and so much of it is unexplored."

It’s why, in 2022, Dalio teamed with another sub devotee, the filmmaker James Cameron, to buy an undisclosed stake in Triton. Dalio, who says he dives with both his children and grandchildren, seemed to express surprise when asked about the public’s newfound wariness of submarines. He says he would have gotten on a sub “five minutes later" after hearing about the implosion.

“In that situation they were experimental, they didn’t have certification, and they were not representative of what subs are," Dalio says. “Anyone who is knowledgeable would haveno reservations."

Still, the market has softened considerably in the wake of OceanGate. “We had contracts in place that we didn’t feel were in good taste to push too hard to get over the line, considering what happened," says Barnett.

In the Netherlands, the horizon was even drearier. In 2022, U-Boat Worx had rolled out its Nemo model, a small vessel with a price tag of about $650,000. This was considered modest in an industry where most sub owners had a net worth in the nine-figure range—enough money to pay for the megayacht required to launch it. Nemo, meanwhile, could be launched from the beach using a $60,000 track vehicle. The plan was to put the model on a production schedule and bring personal submersibles to a wider market. These new owners would be hobbyists looking to putter around shallow reefs, not ultrawealthy die-hards spending tens of millions of dollars to go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

U-Boat Worx’s commercial director, Erik Hasselman, says that while no one canceled an order, the company quickly started to notice cooling demand. “There are many things that can affect a downcycle, particularly in such a small market, but I would attribute this directly to Titan," he says. Hasselman says that the company has let go of 40 of its 85 employees since the implosion.

“This tragedy had a chilling effect on people’s interest in these vehicles," says Triton’s Lahey. “It reignited old myths that only a crazy person would dive in one of these things."

Barnett says Triton has delivered 18 subs in the past 15 years, and five in the past three. He also said that just before OceanGate, the builder had a pipeline of 15 different projects it was working on, each taking about one to two years to complete. One almost immediately vanished. “We had a $4 million sub we were building for a family’s yacht," he says, “and the wife pulled the plug on it."

But just a few days after the implosion, Lahey’s phone rang.

“We had a client, a wonderful man," Lahey says. “He called me up and said, ‘You know, what we need to do is build a sub that can dive to [Titanic-level depths] repeatedly and safely and demonstrate to the world that you guys can do that, and that Titan was a contraption.’ "

That man is Larry Connor, an Ohio real-estate investor who has been down to the Mariana Trench and all the way up to the International Space Station.

“I want to show people worldwide that while the ocean is extremely powerful, it can be wonderful and enjoyable and really kind of life-changing if you go about it the right way," Connor says by phone.

He and Lahey plan to make the Titanic journey together in a two-person vessel. “Patrick has been thinking about and designing this for over a decade. But we didn’t have the materials and technology," Connor says. “You couldn’t have built this sub five years ago." Called the Triton 4000/2 Abyssal Explorer, it’s listed on the company’s website for $20 million. The “4000" represents the depth it can dive to in meters. Notably, Titanic rests at 3,800 meters.

Connor says he isn’t afraid of the deep. But he’s not fearless. Just the night before our call, he says he had a fright while driving home to his farm: “I almost hit a deer. I was going probably 60 miles per hour. That was scary."

IN MANY WAYS, the deep sea remains as much an unexplored frontier as outer space. It contains multitudes of undiscovered bounties—treasure, minerals, unexamined forms of life.

The unknown is what draws most people to the world of submersibles. Nearly everyone interviewed for this story expressed an insatiable curiosity about the natural world.

Still, to have reservations about getting inside of even a classed submersible is understandable. There is a trio of phobias associated with these machines. First, claustrophobia—personal space inside a sub is comparable to an economy seat on a domestic flight, and occupants are sealed inside a bubble. Second, thalassophobia, an intense fear of large and deep bodies of water and the terrors they may conceal. And last, agoraphobia: When a vessel is submerged, light refracts so perfectly through the sub’s acrylic bulb that it seems to disappear, leaving some passengers feeling exposed, as if they might actually be swept away. Furthermore, subs that dive deep enough do so in the utter absence of sunlight.

The French have a term, l’appel du vide, meaning “call of the void." It’s that feeling when you’re waiting for a train and the thought pops into your head: What if I jumped onto the tracks? There’s a thrill to putting personal safety aside in the name of curiosity.

Victor Vescovo is among those who’ve fallen hard for the deep sea. “When he started his journey, it was like, ‘OK, I’m going to plant the flag and be the first at all five deeps,’ " McCallum says, referring to the oceans’ lowest points. “But he became so enamored with the project that he spent three years of his life doing it."

A fine-featured Texan with a silver ponytail and penetrating blue eyes, Vescovo is one of the best-known submariners in the world. He holds degrees from Stanford, Harvard and MIT, and served in the U.S. Navy Reserve for 20 years as an intelligence officer. He has scaled the world’s highest mountain on every continent, skied to both the North and South Poles and been to space. He has also taken a sub to the deepest points of all five oceans, and been to the Challenger Deep—the deepest point on Earth’s surface—a record 15 times.

“I don’t do these things for bragging rights," he says. “If all I wanted to do was break records, there are a lot of records that are a hell of a lot easier to break."

For him, the pursuit of the ocean’s great unknowns is far more noble than that—one based on a love of science and a relentless curiosity about the world he inhabits.

“My own belief system is that I firmly believe in technology," he says. “Most of the great ills of our world: food production, medicine, communication, they’ve been satisfied by technology, not politics or religion. So if I can advance us in my own small way, then I believe that’s a great use of my short time here on the planet."

Vescovo is currently focusing his considerable energies on a project with a scope that includes trying to bring woolly mammoths back to life. Once that is complete, he says he could potentially return to the deep, and dreams of building a sub “that could do even more," though what that means to a man who has already done so much is unclear. The explorer, who earned his fortune in private equity, spent some $50 million on his last submersible expedition—a substantial portion of his personal fortune. Was it worth the price?

“Oh, yes, every single penny," he says. “It was money well spent."

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