Deep-diving submersibles have been around for decades, but their limited availability and hefty operating costs have kept them largely off-limits to all but oceanographers and Hollywood directors. Times change, though. In the past two years, the Isle of Man—based Deep Ocean Expeditions has taken a software executive, a construction mogul, a pair of undertakers, and 38 others down below 7,800 feet. On one trip, clients visited hydrothermal vents off the Azores; on another, they buzzed the Titanic aboard the same Russian sub used to film James Cameron's eponymous epic. "The pressure is about two tons per square inch—that's a lot of weight on a square inch," says Don Walsh, a veteran deep-sea explorer, consultant for Deep Ocean Expeditions, and one of only two people ever to reach the deepest point on earth—a lonely 36,161-foot drop inside the Marianas Trench known as the Challenger Deep.
For tourists, there's just one side effect: sticker shock. Titanic admission is, for example, $35,500 per seat. So, this summer, in an effort to get Jules Verne wanna-bes into the briny deep without leaving them feeling totally soaked, deep-sea outfitters are offering a menu of cheaper options in the 1,000- to 3,000-foot depth range. This month, for instance, Zegrahm DeepSea Voyages is charging about $4,000 to whisk passengers down into British Columbia's Strait of Georgia for face-to-face encounters with 25-foot-long giant Pacific octupi. And later this year, sub designer Graham Hawkes will offer trips to unexplored canyons off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, aboard Aviator 2, a two-person undersea craft. Tuition for his five-dive flight school runs $9,800.
But one expedition, planned for August 2001, hopes to trounce them all. Deep Ocean and Connecticut-based polar outfitters Quark Expeditions intend to lug a submersible north in a Russian icebreaker, drop the craft though the polar cap, and descend to the geographic North Pole. Most believe Robert Peary conquered the Pole in 1909. Nope. Fourteen thousand feet below lies a spot on the seafloor that no one has ever seen. Deep Ocean founder Mike McDowell will make the descent with former U.S. Navy submarine commander Alfred McLaren and Anatoly Sagalevitch, head of Russia's manned submersibles program. Tourists will be next in line. "It may just be mud and clay," admits McDowell. Fork over $60,000, and you can find out for yourself.