Triton Submarines Races to the Bottom of the Ocean for Fame and Fortune

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And so does Cameron. The Hollywood director has been involved in deep-sea exploration since making his 1997 film Titanic, for which he dived down to and filmed the famous shipwreck. He owns a ranch near Los Angeles where he stores a top-secret sub rumored to have cost $10 million.

Triton Submarines, meanwhile, is run out of a modest metal hangar in Vero Beach. Lahey admits Triton is trailing the millionaire director and billionaire Brit, but he says the strategy is to play the tortoise instead of the hare. While the other two teams are relying on carbon-fiber bodies that Lahey doesn't trust at full ocean depth, Triton's sub will feature a perfectly spherical glass hull that will get stronger — not weaker — the deeper it sinks. It will take longer to build, but it will be safer, Lahey says.

The rival plans have set off a bizarre flurry of energy and innovation more than half a century after Walsh and Piccard reached the trench. "Everybody would like to be first," Welsh says of the race. "There is no question about that. But someone has already been there once to begin with. It's about [exploring] the destination now."

That's where Lahey has the advantage. Walsh and Piccard could barely see through their tiny porthole. But Triton's transparent hull is a revelation.

Lahey's crew recently took a New Times reporter on a test run in the Vero Beach harbor. Even in the silty, cloudy water, the sensation of diving in a clear glass sphere is otherworldly. Underwater scenes swirl 360 degrees around the vessel as sunlight streams from the surface. Even Welsh admits the design is sublime. "This is not the Cold War," he says of the rivalry. "Triton's sub is elegantly executed, and the visibility is amazing."

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.

"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.

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Michael E. Miller