March 24, 2011 at 8:05 PM ET
British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is signaling that the time has come for its long-discussed deep-sea exploration and tourism venture.
Advance word comes in the form of an invitation to a Los Angeles press event on April 5, during which a "major new initiative and challenge" will be announced. "The Virgin brand has reached many places — the seven continents of the earth, up into the jet stream and soon, even into space. There is only one frontier left," the Virgin Group's invitation reads.
It doesn't take much sleuthing to figure out the general topic. For one thing, once you rule out Earth's land mass, the atmosphere and outer space, the oceans are the only things left. Also, Branson has been talking about a venture called "Virgin Oceanic" (or "Virgin Aquatic") for a couple of years now.
Branson unveiled one part of his underwater ambitions last year, in the form of the "Necker Nymph." That's a a prototype submersible vehicle that's part of a $113,000 weeklong tour package available on Necker Island, the billionaire's vacation spot in the British Virgin Islands. (It's $25,000 for the sub ride, but another $88,000 for the resort stay). The craft was reportedly built at a cost of $670,000 (£415,000).
But that's just the beginning: When Branson discussed Virgin Oceanic with Time back in 2009, he said the venture would send pressurized submarines to depths of 35,000 feet:
"The oceans need exploring — we know nothing about what's going on under 25,000 feet. I have an island called Necker Island, and 15 miles from there is the deepest place in the whole of the Atlantic, the Puerto Rican Trench. It's quite likely that we'll set up a scientific and exploration center on Necker to send out expeditions to explore that trench and other trenches in the world."
Branson also discussed the idea in a WatchMojo video recorded at McGill University. "Besides discovering new species, charting the trenches and finding treasure, we may even find the lost city of Atlantis," he said.
A few other hints worth noting: VirginOceanic.com has been registered by the Virgin folks and is currently password-protected. AlwaysOn, an agency that has done design work for Virgin in the past, has created a Virgin Oceanic logo as well as some visual concepts for a deep-diving submarine. And Virgin's invitation promises that "eminent scientists" will be in on the L.A. press conference next month.
One eminent scientist, University of Washington oceanographer John Delaney, says he's not familiar with Branson or Virgin Oceanic. But he's in favor of any venture that will increase the public's awareness of the oceans as the world's most complex and crucial set of ecosystems. "The real intellectual power, the real emotional power, is in the recognition that we depend on something we don't understand," he told me today.
Delaney has been working for years on a different approach to marine exploration, based on the convergence of telepresence technologies. Just last month, a construction team began the first installation phase of the Ocean Observatories Initiative's Regional Scale Nodes, a network of fiber-optic cables that could eventually send terabytes of data from high-resolution cameras and other sensors under the sea.
"We can only take hundreds of people to the deep ocean, but we can bring the ocean to billions of people," he said.
Delaney has been in deep-sea submersibles plenty of times, and says it's a fantastic experience. But he hopes Virgin Oceanic can add enough scientific and educational context to turn deep-sea observation into a paradigm-shifting phenomenon. "My fantasy isn't to go to these places physically — but to occupy, in a telepresence fashion, entire volumes of this planetary life support system," he said.
Stay tuned in the days ahead for more about Branson's latest adventure, and about Earth's deep-sea frontier.
More on scientific frontiers:
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