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

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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.

You've got to be shitting me, he thought as the $150,000 pod plummeted into the darkness. The suddenly buoyant sub began rising toward the surface, and Triton's first open-ocean test dive for the 3300/3 came to an instant end.

The December 7 mishap jeopardized Lahey's whole trip to the Bahamas. It left him and his crew only three days until tours scheduled with more than 40 prospective buyers — mostly millionaires and scientists — from around the world. If they couldn't fix the sub in time, the tours would be scrapped, no subs would be sold, and Lahey could forget about raising the money needed to reach the bottom of the trench.

Lahey immediately sent half of his employees back to Miami for a spare pod, while he and the remaining crew stayed up all night fixing the problem. By the time potential clients arrived two days later, the sub was working perfectly. So well, in fact, that on one dive, the sub followed a giant manta ray the size of a car for 45 minutes. "It was unprecedented," Lahey says proudly.

Even better, a billionaire who took the sub for a spin said he was interested in funding the dive to the Mariana Trench. Triton might be trailing Cameron and Branson, but the race isn't over yet.

If a sugar daddy doesn't materialize, Triton has a back-up plan: reality television. The company has already met with the producers of reality-TV shows Gold Rush and The Deadliest Catch. One thing is for sure: There would be no shortage of thrills or F-bombs.

On the patio of his two-story suburban house in Vero Beach, Lahey doesn't look much like a reality-TV star. He's just a regular guy flipping steaks on a grill and listening to Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come. He married Tiziana, an aspiring Italian opera singer, a decade ago. They have a mischievous 8-year-old daughter named Victoria.

But like the ocean he adores, there is something remarkable under Lahey's surface: 30 years spent exploring a world most people only glimpse through snorkel goggles and an almost-realized dream of visiting the Mariana Trench. Whatever the risks to get there, Lahey is committed.

"That will be his magnum opus," Tiziana says over dinner, "his Holy Grail."

"You pour so much of your time and energy into these submarines that you care about them," Lahey says. "We all love them a little too much. They are so precise, so beautiful. And because they do these incredible things, they become something more than these fucking inanimate lumps of metal and wires. They become your life."

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Michael E. Miller