This could be the most ambitious adventure to date. Nose-diving into the great unknown, Stockton Rush, a former aerospace engineer, is braving new depths in sub-aquatic tourism, delving deeper than ever before – to Titanic levels.
But you may well need to liquefy some of those assets before you jump aboard.
His bucket-list topper trip to explore the Titanic for eight days in 2018 will set you back a cool $105,129 (£81,420). No surprise then, that in less than six months and with no ad campaign, it’s already sold out – to the same nine guests who’ve booked up Virgin Galactic’s maiden flight.
But for the man who not only owns but also builds his submarines, the universe is no competition.
“In the vacuum of Space, by definition there is nothing. That means a great view, but the final frontier for new life forms and discovery is undersea – for the next 200-300 years at least,” he told The Independent.
Rush always wanted to become an astronaut, but after his aerospace degree from Princeton and engineering work on the US fighter programme, he was told that his 20/25 eyesight wouldn’t make the cut for an air force pilot.
“I thought I’ll make enough money to buy my way into space”, he says. And sure enough, after a period in investment banking, Rush found himself at the Virgin Galactic launch, watching Richard Branson standing on the wing of SpaceShipOne, heralding a new age of Space tourism. The penny dropped.
Casting off from the stars, he set his sights on the seas.
A keen scuba diver from the age of 12, Rush decided he wanted an experience where you needn’t worry about running out of air, feeling cold and equalising your ears.
“I wanted to sit in a submarine and watch crabs fighting to the sound of Mozart for two hours,” he says.
But subs for rent are few and far between. And that’s without the cost of getting them to you, which if you’re in London could be up to £77,500. Rush decided he could steer submarine trips into the fastest growing segment of the travel industry – adventure travel, worth $275bn (£213bn) per year, according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association.
Exploring depths previously the exclusive remit of government submarines, Rush now has three vessels. The one he’s working on at the moment, Cyclops III, will go to 6,000m far deeper than any commercial sub out there.
“Shallow dives equal shallow experience. The commercial subs out there are like a Disneyland ride versus paddling yourself through the Grand Canyon. Knowing you’re there changes how you observe it.”
Since 2009 his Washington-based company Ocean Gate has sunk former Everest climbers, moviemakers and nautical archaeologists into the deep. Age is no barrier for his adventure-minded clients – he’s had guests as old as 92 and as young as 12 on each four to five person vessel.
But, Rush warns, “it’s not a chocolate-on-the-pillow job – you’re part of the crew. If there’s an electric charge that needs moving in the middle of the night, we’ll grab you.”
So what makes the superb sub passenger? A good sense of humour, no strong odours and being a team player, he says. If you tick those boxes, you could soon be catching what Rush calls the ‘deep sub disease’. This is when you see below the 1000ft ‘deep scattering layer’, where the marine life that doesn’t reach the surface lurks. He got it straight after his very first sub dive in British Columbia 2006.
“I kept going deeper – I couldn’t believe it. I thought when I get to the bottom there’ll be a couple of octopuses playing chess down there.”
In this part of the sea skulk the creatures too low even for fishnets to catch.
“They communicate with light flashes so it’s like you have multicoloured stars flying everywhere, attracting mates, finding food, distracting predators in a totally different universe.”
Almost every time you go on a sub you see something that’s never been seen before. A National Institute of Health project to collect biological samples from 200-1000 feet in the waters off Papua New Guinea collected nine new species per hour.
Such tourism research will anchor Rush’s slightly more budget Bahamas trip – costing a mere £10,000 and upwards for 3 days, to see deep dwelling sharks interact with their surface cousins at depths of up to 500m. But he plans to make headway in mass market accessibility once the wealthier clients have buoyed up affordability and tech advances, also envisaging voyages to other wrecks.
But then he plans to sink us deeper. Top of his list is to be the first commercial sub to go to ‘hydrothermal vents’ – the gaps between shifting tectonic plates where hot water gushes out that make up the largest mountain range on earth -the undersea mid-continental ridge stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
One part of them, nicknamed the ‘Lost City’, is home to six-foot tube worms and giant crabs – creatures of the deep that led NASA to think alien life forms could exist on Jupiter and Saturn’s watery moons.
But the best thing he’s seen so far is rather more down to earth. Off Catalina Island near LA, Rush remembers being in the back dome, 500 feet down and sharing a moment with a squid.
“A squid has an eye that looks just like a human eye, they have same visual acuity. It came along and just stared at me, like there was nothing between us. It was so curious and kept looking. There was no question it was thinking exactly the same as me – what the hell is this thing doing here?”
He hasn’t eaten calamari since.