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Victor Vescovo: The Last Great Explorer

by - 18 May

Meet the first person in history to dive to the bottom of all five of the world's oceans, climb the Seven Summits and ski to both the North and South Poles.

Photo: ReeveJolliffe
Ain't no mountain high enough, ain't .... Victor Vescovo has climbed the highest peaks on all seven continents and skied to both the North and South Poles. But that wasn't enough. He has reached the deepest parts of all five of the earth's oceans.

In 2003 he retired from the US Navy Reserve after 20 years and had developed a strong affinity for the ocean. Fortunately, he had become financially successful investing in industrial private equity and was looking for a difficult challenge that required a lot of unique resources. He happened upon an important milestone humankind had not yet accomplished: going to the bottom of all five of the world's oceans - in 2014 we had only been to the bottom of one! After a five-year intensive effort, his team was able to precisely locate, map, and then get him down to the bottom of all five.

The deep ocean is the Earth’s last great unexplored frontier. No one had ever reached the deepest points in all five oceans. It's paradoxical that the ocean covers nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface yet more than 90% of it remains unexplored. So the American explorer and investor Victor Vescovo decided to change that and set one of the last meaningful records on earth.

Photo: Atlantic Productions

He almost died in a car accident when he was three. "So I have always been very aware of my own mortality and always strove to take careful, calculated risks to get the most I could out of life", he explained his philosophy during an interview with me. "Fear is just something we have as humans that helps us to survive, but it shouldn't dominate our thoughts and actions", he said. 
Photo: Caladan Oceanic
I talked to Victor Vescovo about the meaning, the challenges, the beauty and the future of explorations. 

Photo: ReeveJolliffe

Victor, what was behind your quest to reach the bottom of every ocean and to climb the Seven Summits – to challenge yourself, to explore the planet, to be the first or a record breaker, to leave a trace or you were just bored and wanted to try something new?
It was several things, as you mentioned. It was a great personal challenge, but also a wider challenge to my whole team to design and build the world's first reusable submersible that could go to any point on the world's seafloor - reliably. Before last year, there had been just two dives to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in sixty years. We dove five times in ten days and could have kept going. So for me, it was about the personal satisfaction of helping move sea technology significantly forward, and by being at the controls of the craft personally, to experience an extraordinary adventure like the others kinds I had in the high mountains. There was a great symmetry from climbing mountains for so long, and now this time, going deep down instead of up.

What was more difficult – to climb the world's highest mountains or to dive to the bottom of every ocean?
That is hard to say because they are so completely different. Mountain climbing - particularly Everest - is physically really punishing. It takes a lot of physical and mental preparation, as well as training, to do it - and it took me two tries. Diving to the bottom of the ocean requires massive financial resources, organization, and a team of over 100 people world-wide to circumnavigate the globe and go the bottom of all the oceans. They are both extremely difficult, just along very different dimensions. It is a bit like comparing what is more painful - extreme heat or extreme cold. It's hard to compare.
Victor Vescovo on Mt Everest  Photo: The Explorers Club                                            
What did you enjoy most?
When we had a boring dive. No, really, because by the end of the expedition we had worked out so many problems and issues that it was wonderful to just execute a diving mission with no major difficulties and just focus on the mapping and science. But there was also a time, on the bottom of the ocean at the Challenger Deep, when I just turned off the thrusters, leaned back, and quietly floated just a few inches off the bottom and ate a tuna fish sandwich. It was just a very simple, but wonderful moment - being completely present in such an extremely hostile and remote place that only three other people had ever been to, and never any for as long as I had spent down there.
Photo: The Five DeepsExpedition

All your expeditions were very dangerous. Was there a moment that you thought: "This is it"? What’s your attitude towards death?
Well, one of us make it out of here alive. I almost died in a car accident when I was three - I tried to drive a car, and not successfully, obviously. So I have always been very aware of my own mortality and always strove to take careful, calculated risks to get the most I could out of life. But sure, a few times in mountaineering or even in the sub I had a flash of thought of: "Oh, this isn't good and maybe this is it". But the emotions react quickly and things were never as bad as they initially seemed, I got to work, solved a problem, and made it through.

Photo: The Five DeepsExpedition

What’s your advice to not let fear dictate your life?
Fear is just something we have as humans that helps us to survive, but it shouldn't dominate our thoughts and actions. It is just one part of our psyche, but we should never let it be the dominant driver. Fear absolutely can be controlled, you just have to practice at it. The first thing to master is a healthy degree of self-discipline. If you can do that, you can get to work on controlling your emotions, including fear. One of my favorite quotes comes from the novel "Dune" by Frank Herbert: "My mind controls my reality." I think that is very true, and fear is something we can control.

Photo: Caladan Oceanic

How does our life on earth look like from the bottom and from the top?
Very different, to be sure. From the top, it is brilliant blue sky, bright light, vivid stars at night and rocky, violent ridges and summits everywhere. Staggeringly beautiful, to me. In the deeps it is far more muted, eerily quiet, and much more timeless but actually much more peaceful. They are like Yin and Yang, really. The mountains are the fire and ice of our world, dramatic, imposing, and impatient with their violent winds, while the oceans are water and earth, stable, supremely quiet, and patient.
Photo: Caladan Oceanic

What have you learned about yourself after all these expeditions?
I've just reinforced the notion that I've already had that we, as humans, are capable of so much more than we often believe. With a lot of planning, organization, and self-discipline, combined with like-minded people and a healthy level of financial resources, almost anything is possible. I also learned that I do okay under pressure when there is no real hope of rescue if something goes wrong, and that yes, sometimes we can't wait for other people or governments to do the things that must be done. Sometimes you have to be the prime mover for things to get better or advance in this world.

Photo: ReeveJolliffe

How much of the ocean is still unexplored? Why do you think we know more about the space than the oceans?
About 90%, give or take 5%. So much of it is totally unvisited and unexplored and yes, it is true that we know more about the surface of Mars than our own planet. No impenetrable oceans in the way. Space is easier because there is no interference. The deep oceans are extremely unkind to mechanical devices given the pressure, salt water, cold temperatures and violent weather. I think it is interesting that we sent a man into space and got to the bottom of the ocean just within about a year of each other. They are both really, really hard.
Photo: The Five DeepsExpedition

Why is it important to study the oceans? What could we find in the deep sea?
Well, the oceans deeply affect what happens to us on land. Climate change, food supply, pollution - all are very much, if not heavily influenced, by what happens in the oceans and yet we still barely understand them. One reason I think that climate models have proven so difficult to get right is because of the key role the oceans play and we really don't know how. We know the least about the very deep oceans because they are so remote. You can't understand the full ocean unless you know -well - all of its pieces and that is what we are hoping to change with our new technology.
New Species. Photo: The Five DeepsExpedition

Was the role of the hunt for new resources a motivation factor for new explorations of the oceans? Only in a scientific sense. My expeditions are purely for the open scientific community. I have no commercial interests in the oceans and am actually not really in favor of the exploitation of resources from the seafloor. I think that we can harvest what we need on land without all the negative externalities of mining the seafloor and the ecological damage it can cause.

Photo: Tamara Stubbs

What’s your next goal? Are you interested in space tourism? When do you think it could be possible?I would absolutely love to go into space, I mean, I've been a pilot since I was 18. I have always wanted to go up there. Fortunately, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin all seem to be in a race to provide private citizens a means to go into space. I hope to buy one of the first tickets. Buy me a coffeeBuy me a coffee

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