Things are chillier, however, between Cameron and Lahey, who worked on the filmmaker's 2005 documentary about ocean exploration, Aliens of the Deep. "He was trying to get the film in the can, but we'd had multiple sub failures," Lahey says. "[Cameron] was getting increasingly short-tempered and harsh to the crew. And they were at the limit of what they could take. Several came to me in tears.

"Jim is a brilliant guy, and he may get there first," Lahey adds. "But he'll get there in a one-person sub that will go in a museum when he's done."

Lahey's vessels, however, will open the deep sea to thousands of people. Triton plans to take tourists two at a time to the trench, and Lahey hopes to sell the transparent-hulled subs to mega­yacht owners around the world.

The sub cost $3 million to build.
South Florida Dive Journal
The sub cost $3 million to build.
Lahey puts an old-fashioned diving helmet on his daughter, Victoria.
Courtesy of Patrick Lahey
Lahey puts an old-fashioned diving helmet on his daughter, Victoria.

"We're interested in getting more people to give a shit about the ocean," Lahey says. "The future of our species depends on it, yet 95 percent of the ocean has never been explored. It really is the last frontier on Earth."

The bright-yellow submarine hangs like an 18,000-pound wrecking ball from the end of the crane. Its bulbous cockpit shines in the midday sun as it's slowly lowered into a muddy inlet of the Atlantic Ocean. Patrick Lahey watches his $3 million baby slip into the water and vents his frustration.

"Fucking insurance premiums," he says in his Ottawan drawl to a half-dozen crew members behind the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Vero Beach. Lahey is irked that he had to shell out thousands just to test-dive his own submarine. "I've had ten claims against me in my car, but I've never had one against me in a sub in 30 years," he fumes. "They really bend you over the barrel, and it's always at the 11th hour."

Time is, in fact, running out for Lahey and his crew in the race to the bottom of the ocean. As their richer rivals begin testing their submarines, the underfunded Triton Submarines is still stuck in the manufacturing stage and at risk of arriving to the party after it's already over. Yet Lahey's caution could also propel his team to glory. Triton's design is slower to build but safer than the other subs, he insists. That means if Branson and Cameron slip up, Triton could steal the victory.

Reaching the Mariana Trench ahead of its wealthy competitors would thrust Triton Submarines onto the world stage and drum up desperately needed business for the tiny company. But failure could cost $15 million and dash Lahey's dream of navigating the Earth's deepest abyss.

Lahey believes Cameron is already testing his mysterious, movie-camera-equipped submarine off the coast of Australia. (The filmmaker couldn't be reached for comment.) Meanwhile, Chris Welsh says he and Richard Branson will conduct test dives in the coming months, with the goal of diving into the trench by midyear.

Lahey, however, is nearly two years away from venturing into the trench. A company in California is manufacturing the glass walls for his sphere, smaller models of which Triton hopes to test in coming months. If those tests go well, a full-ocean-depth sub could be completed by the end of 2013.

But Mariana's sheer crushing pressure gives Lahey hope. He believes his rivals' designs will suffer setbacks. "I feel strongly that building a carbon-fiber hull is flawed," he says. "I want to make something that's safe to sell, not something that can fail at any time."

His competitors deny that they are putting speed ahead of safety, however. "Every submarine program is going to have its Achilles' heel," says Graham Hawkes, the engineer behind the Deep Flight Challenger submarine. "Politicians work with absolutes like safe and unsafe. That is all nonsense. Engineering at these extremes involves statistics and probabilities."

Whenever someone does reach the bottom of the trench, dozens of scientists are ready to analyze whatever the team brings back. Engineers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have designed small robotic vehicles that will accompany the Virgin Oceanic sub and collect water and soil samples in search of microbes and other signs of life.

The dash into the depths also could be a boon for the burgeoning underwater mining industry, says Steve Scott, a geologist at the University of Toronto. "Nobody is going to be mining in the Mariana Trench," he says. "But what it will do is show the public that we can work in the deep sea. It will legitimize the whole idea of doing things of economic value in the deep ocean."

Lahey, meanwhile, says he hopes his expedition will unveil new species, medicinal cures, and alternative food sources before global warming cooks ocean creatures in their shells.

But the underdog environmentalist estimates that Triton needs another $15 million in order to build a sub capable of reaching the bottom of the trench.

Triton has two shots at raising the money. The first is by showing off its current $3 million submarine (called the 3300/3 for its ability to take three people 3,300 feet down) in the hope of luring investors.

But a recent trip to the Bahamas to give tours to prospective buyers nearly turned into a disaster. Lahey steered the sub to 1,000 feet below the surface, deep enough that the light from the Caribbean sun disappeared above them. Suddenly, one of the vehicle's 900-pound, yellow battery pods detached without warning.

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R Brown
R Brown

Just want to point out, getting to the bottom of Mariana Trench isn't so hard. Getting back is the trick.