Richard Branson shelves submarine plan to take tourists to bottom of the ocean

Virgin Oceanic’s DeepFlight Challenger was launched in 2011 with the entrepreneur’s familiar fanfare

Kunal Dutta
Monday 15 December 2014 01:00 GMT
Sir Richard Branson unveiled the solo piloted submarine for ‘aquanauts’ in 2011
Sir Richard Branson unveiled the solo piloted submarine for ‘aquanauts’ in 2011 (AFP/Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It is one of the world’s last frontiers and has seen fewer human visitors than the moon. And that – for the time being at least – is how it shall stay.

Sir Richard Branson has shelved plans for a submarine to take tourists to the bottom of Pacific’s Mariana Trench, after technical problems hobbled the grand ambitions of his much-trumpeted Virgin Oceanic project.

The news is a second blow to Branson’s adventurer dreams in a matter of months, after a Virgin Galactic space rocket crashed on a test flight in California’s Mojave Desert, killing a pilot.

Virgin Oceanic’s DeepFlight Challenger was launched in 2011 with the entrepreneur’s familiar fanfare. Under the plans, wealthy passengers or “aquanauts” up would pay up to $500,000 (£318,126) for a five-dive package labelled as “the last great challenge for humans”.

As well as exploring the Mariana Trench – a 36,000ft-deep abyss is deeper than Mount Everest is tall, with access so risky and complicated that it has had just three human visitors since its formation nine million years ago – the submarine was due to dive the Puerto Rico trench 28,000ft below the surface of the Atlantic, the Molloy Deep in the Arctic, South Sandwich Trench in the Southern Ocean and Diamantina trench in the Indian Ocean.

But yesterday the Sunday Telegraph reported that Deepflight, the company contracted to build the submarine, could not support the project because their vehicle could only be safely used for one dive.

The underwater mission appears to have stalled indefinitely. The Virgin Oceanic website – which had promised “five dives, five oceans, two years, one epic adventure” – no longer exists, reportedly taken down earlier this year.

In the time since Branson announced Virgin Oceanic, Titanic director James Cameron has become the first human to travel solo to Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger, a submarine he co-designed. Mr Cameron spent more than three hours at the bottom in 2012, longer than the 20 minutes Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard spent during the only other visit 52 years ago.

A Virgin spokesman confirmed the original plan for five ocean dives using DeepFlight Challenger had been scrapped. “We were not sure [DeepFlight Challenger] would make it down. That project has been put on ice while we look at other technology that works.”

In a statement on the Virgin website, Branson said: “Starting new ventures takes a ‘screw it, let’s do it’ attitude and finding the right partners to help us achieve the unthinkable… However, business is also about knowing when to change tack.

“We are still highly passionate about exploring the bottom of the ocean. However, we are now widening the focus and looking for new technology to help us explore the ocean.”

Branson is still waiting for the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into last month’s SpaceShipTwo disaster.

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