The Future of Underwater Exploration
On 27 May 2019, Kym Purcell’s schedule was thrown into disarray. Usually a Monday morning would follow a strict routine of breakfast and housework followed by a trip to the gym. But today, the 52-year-old retiree was in for a surprise.
Her husband, Terry, 54, told her to get ready as he was taking her out for coffee. However, when the doorbell rang at 08:45, she was greeted by a luxury car that whisked them to the airport where a helicopter was waiting to take them to Heron Island, a coral cay 72km off the coast of Queensland, to fulfil a lifetime dream. There, she would head 15m under the water onto Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
I met Kym later that day on Heron Island, where I, too, was heading underwater. She told me that she has lived her entire life in Gladstone, a small Australian port city that’s a topographical oxymoron: it’s dominated by and physically scarred by the mining industry, yet is also the jumping-off point for some of the most beautiful parts of the southern Great Barrier Reef. (Terry said, prosaically, “There’s a lot of places you can live that are probably prettier, but there’s not too many places you can live, where you can earn money, that are this pretty.”)
The ocean plays a pivotal role in life here, from opportunities for recreational fun to commercial fishing to coal exportation, and Terry is a prolific diver who has been exploring the reef since he was seven years old. He got his diving certification at Heron Island, and the couple have regularly returned here on holiday with their two children – most recently just a couple of years ago – where Terry would once again dive among the staghorn coral and eagle rays in the pristine ocean waters.
But Kym said that she had to either snorkel or sit by the pool: she has a medical condition that means she is not able to scuba dive. Instead, over 33 years of marriage, she has had to listen to Terry tell her about the vibrant living universe he visits deep underwater.
The story leading up to this Monday is a romantic one. The previous week, Terry had heard about scUber, a new Uber-operated toy in town that was launching off Heron Island to take passengers underwater. Bookings were opening up to the public at 07:30 on 27 May. At 06:20 he was waiting by his phone, determined for his wife to be able to experience the marine world he loved so much – and not just from the surface with a snorkel.
“As soon as I heard about this, I knew I had to jump on board,” Terry told me with a smile. “I got through at about 07:31 and 20 seconds thereabouts.”
Terry and Kym were the first members of the public to go down in the two-man submarine (plus pilot) that is giving travellers the chance to take in the diversity of the coral reef without even getting their fins wet.
The submersible pilot programme took place at just two sites on the Great Barrier Reef – Heron Island, where Kym, Terry and I were; then in Far North Queensland, off the coast of Port Douglas – with just 20 rides over the four-week period in May and June. But the hope is that this might be the future of underwater travel, brought back seasonally to allow even non-divers and snorkellers to come face-to-face with some of the world’s most vibrant marine life.
“What did you think when Terry told you where you were going?” I asked Kym. She’s definitely the quieter of the pair, seeming happy to stay in the shadow of her jocular husband. Terry jumped in to answer for her. “She was smiling like a Cheshire cat – and we hadn’t even gone underwater yet,” he said.
The Great Barrier Reef is a spectacularly beautiful place. It’s the largest living thing on Earth, stretching 2,300km off Australia’s north-eastern coast from the tip of Cape York Peninsula to the city of Bundaberg – an area around the size of Japan. The reef is so immense that it’s visible from outer space; it’s so important that in 1981 it was inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage list.
Look at it above water, and it’s easy to understand why this region lures more than two million travellers each year, who come to explore this vast mosaic of some 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays and 150 inshore mangrove islands.
But head underwater, and that’s where the magic starts to happen.
The technicoloured marine world is home to the world’s most complex and uniquely diverse ecosystem, which includes giant clams, loggerhead turtles and massive dugongs. Schools of startlingly coloured fish swirl around the 600 types of coral that range from feathery pinks and mauves to softer greens and browns, depending on the location. Blacktip reef sharks dart curiously, eagle rays hover above the ocean floor and sea slugs and spiny urchins lounge in the depths. This is where you’ll find more than 30 species of whales and dolphins, six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles and more than 3,000 species of molluscs.
It’s a world that needs to be seen to be believed.
I was lucky enough to score a trip in the sub; something I never expected to do in my lifetime. After I squeezed myself through a small hatch into the electric battery-powered submersible, landing feet-first on the pilot’s seat, I had to shuffle left or right to one of the chairs at either side. It was a strange feeling; upon sitting, I was surrounded by water that bobbed around knee height, then chest height, with the world slowly disappearing as we silently sank deeper.
As the side tank fan belts opened, bubbles blew up towards the surface. We pitched forward slightly and slowly descended into a new, blue world. My pilot, Erika Bergman, skilfully manoeuvred the sub using what was, in fact, a repurposed PlayStation 4 controller. “I never get bored of this, never,” she said, explaining that despite being just 31, she’s been piloting small submersibles for more than 10 years.
My trip was both an amazing and disconcerting experience. At around 15m below water, we were surrounded by gently waving, rust-coloured staghorn coral and convoys of brightly coloured butterfly fish. I voiced aloud my desire to see a turtle, and one obligingly floated into view through a flutter of angelfish, elegantly drifting past and around the sub as though showing off for an Attenborough documentary.
What was bizarre, however, was the distortion caused by the domed windscreen, which made everything look much smaller and closer than it really was. The tropical fish were teensy tiny, and the diminutive green turtle was, in fact, around 1.5m long, according to Bergman. However, being able to talk about what we were seeing and share the experience in real time made me realise the potential this has to open up the underwater world to a whole new realm of visitors.
When Bergman handed me the controller to drive the sub (perhaps a foolish decision given my not-so-great driving record), I immediately panicked, thinking I was going to crash into the blue plate coral looming what I thought was just in front of us. “It’s actually about 3m away still,” Bergman said, explaining that as pilot she draws a mental map as soon as the sub descends, adding to it with every tiny movement she makes so she knows exactly where each coral outcrop is and where she can safely turn and manoeuvre. Plus, she said, the sub is incredibly stable with extremely fine controls, which means it’s never going to touch or damage the reef.
Bergman is not just a submersible pilot, but an integral part of the team at Aquatica Submarines, the Canada-based company who own and operate the scUber submarine and are emerging innovators in the manned submersible technology space. She’s responsible for all pilot training, qualification and certification, oversees submarine operations and holds a BS degree in Chemical Oceanography from the University of Washington – as well as the accolade of being a National Geographic Explorer.
When she and her tiny team are not floating around the world, either on tourism gigs such as this one or scientific research expeditions as part of their Aquatica Foundation (they’ve recently come back from 3D-mapping the Blue Hole in Belize using sonar technology, and are heading to the British Virgin Islands next for a shark-tagging and research project), you’ll find them building ever more advanced subs in Vancouver.
“The next ones, called S3s, will be able to descend to 1,000ft, rather than 500ft, and will be able to withstand the enormous pressure. They’ll be complete in about 14 months,” Bergman told me, with an excited smile on her face. The passion for what she does shone through clearly.
“At 1,000ft deep, you’d be getting into the ocean ‘Twilight Zone’, the mesopelagic zone, which is just beyond the reach of sunlight. It’s where you start to see planet Earth’s greatest migration, which actually happens every single day,” she said, describing the stream of zoo plankton, fish and other mid-ocean dwellers who come up to the surface waters to feed each night, attracting larger predators like sharks and whales who swoop down to feast on them. “At about 1,000ft, you’re right in the middle of that migration and you see the wildest deep sea stuff come up,” she said.
Although I was still in the middle of my first-ever sub ride, I was already inspired to go deeper, longer and further. Bergman’s passion was contagious, and in that moment, I was starting to understand why the Purcells had jumped at the chance to experience this, despite its current price tag of A$3,000 for two people for just 45 minutes underwater.
But for travellers who cannot afford the cost, Harvey Flemming, president of Aquatica Submarines, is firmly wedded to making this an affordable experience for travellers in the future.
“We’re working on a whole other business model… trying to focus on how things are going in the industry and how to change it,” he told me. “We want to get the world underwater, and to do that we need to bring the price point down.”
“We’re working on a sporty two-man vehicle that we’re hoping to mass produce and get them all over the world. We want to get people in for US$300 to US$400 a head, and get submarines to purchase under US$500,000 instead of US$2.5 million.”
Flemming is hoping to launch the first group of these new little subs within three to four years – something that could have a massive impact on underwater travel around the world.
“Can I call you ‘the submarine disruptor’?” I asked. He laughed. “Yes you can. We’ve disrupted a lot of stuff. We’re poking holes in things, doing things in different ways and just being creative; thinking outside the box.”
I was waiting on the jetty when Kym and Terry came up from their sub ride later that day. How was it, I asked, genuinely curious to know how Terry, who knows the reef so well, would compare it to scuba diving.
“We saw a barramundi cod,” Terry said, “and lots of coral, some beautiful fish. And being able to talk, to share the experience, was just unbelievable. The best part was getting to share it with my wife.”
“To see her enjoying something I’ve enjoyed all my life, it was pretty special to me. You can take photos while you’re underwater, you can talk about it till you’re blue in the face. But to actually experience it first-hand, to see the joy on her face, that was it for me.”
Kym nodded, with a huge grin. “My favourite part was submerging, with the water half way up the windscreen,” she said. “That’s if I had to name just one – but the whole thing was just… unbelievable. It was spectacular.”
Would you do it again, I asked. “Yes,” she said adamantly.
And was it worth the price tag? “Absolutely,” said Terry, “It was worth every penny. On a scale of 1 to 10, it was about 50.”
Their enthusiasm was contagious, and reminded me of something environmental activist Andy Ridley had earlier said to me in relation to saving the reef: “We need to be inspired, engaged and tenacious.”
From the look on Kym’s face after seeing this underwater world up close for the first time, it seemed clear that getting people to the reef, in whatever way possible – by scuba diving, snorkelling or even in a submarine – is going to be the best way to do that. Especially when they come back up with a Cheshire-cat grin.
Written by ELLIE COBB