How Victor Vescovo Found the Deepest Shipwreck in History

As the submersible glides through the icy black of the deep sea, the two men inside are palpably excited.

They’re searching for something big, and they know they’re close to finding it. Lights from the submersible suddenly reveal the outline of a large hull. The sub’s pilot, Victor Vescovo, recognizes it immediately.

“Oh my god, that looks like a ship,” he says.

Grins erupt on the faces of both Vescovo and the craft’s sonar specialist, Jeremie Morizet. After Australian submersible pilot Tim Macdonald put in a long previous day “following breadcrumbs” of debris, the team has done exactly what it set out to do.

“We found her,” Vescovo says. “We have found the deepest wreck in history.”

It’s rare that the camera catches the exact moment of a major discovery. But thanks to a video that Vescovo shot, anyone can watch the first glimpse of the deepest shipwreck ever found.

 

Unexploded ordinance: the wreck of the Sammy B

Vescovo and Morizet traveled seven kilometres below the Pacific Ocean on June 22 in search of the USS destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, or “Sammy B”.  As a former commander in the U.S. Navy, the 56-year-old Vescovo knew the significance of the destroyer escort, located almost 7,000m down at the bottom of the Pacific.

On October 15, 1944, the Sammy B fought against a vastly superior fleet of Japanese warships before sinking. The story of its valiant crew — 89 of whom died during the fighting — became legendary.

Finding the Sammy B “was really special,” Vescovo told ExplorersWeb in an interview last week.

Some who watched the shipwreck video expressed surprise that Vescovo didn’t get more animated at the moment of discovery. But his coolness proved valuable moments later when Vescovo’s close-up view of the wreck revealed unused depth charges just a few metres away.

“That was a little tense,” he said.

The torpedo tubes of the Sammy B.

 

Deep ocean challenges

In 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh became the first people to ever reach the Challenger Deep. The deepest known point in the world’s oceans, it lies in the Mariana Trench south of Japan. The pair spent just 20 minutes at nearly 11 kilometres below the surface. They ascended early because they couldn’t really see anything on the bottom due to silt covering their single viewport. A hesitancy toward surfacing their fragile craft at night also informed their decision.

No one dared to return to such depths until 2012 when James Cameron famously ventured down alone in the Deepsea Challenger. He planned to spend six hours at the bottom, but also returned early after the water pressure caused technical problems. A hydraulic fluid leak and the loss of most of his thrusters had threatened the mission by the time he surfaced.

Neither of those subs — or the people manning them — ever again ventured so deep. The danger involved in reaching the bottom of the world’s oceans has resulted in a bizarre incongruity: We know more about the surface of the moon than the deep ocean.

The water pressure is too great, and until now, no one has figured out how to make deep ocean exploration truly viable. In the deepest places on Earth, water pressure can reach 110 million pascals (16,000 pounds per square inch).

Vescovo’s submersible, ‘The Limiting Factor’, descends to the deep.

 

Challenger Deep

Then in April 2019, Vescovo successfully took his submersible to the Challenger Deep — with far fewer problems than his predecessors. Three years later, he has visited the deepest place on the planet 15 times. At one point, he made three visits to the Challenger Deep within five days — doing in less than a week what hadn’t been accomplished in the 60 years since the first manned descent.

By now, Vescovo’s submersible has proven itself all over the world. A lover of science fiction, Vescovo named it The Limiting Factor, after a spaceship in a novel by Iain Banks.

He has taken The Limiting Factor to the deepest points in all five oceans, and the five deepest points in any ocean. With it, he has mapped three million square kilometres of the seafloor. He brought along heads of state and famous scientists, adding more firsts to the submersible’s achievements.

Vescovo has no plans to stop exploring. But this lifelong overachiever’s long-term goal has been to make deep ocean exploration available to future scientists.

“The whole point was to develop a system — the crew, the sonar, the technology — that would allow access to any part of the ocean,” Vescovo said. “I think we’ve proven the point that we can go anywhere and do good science.”

On a 2019 dive, Vescovo indicates a proposed routing.

 

Cash required: developing deep-sea tech

While many factors led to the success of Vescovo and his submersible, he admits that it’s partly because he was willing to foot the bill.

Reaching the bottom of the sea requires a level of scientific know-how comparable to space travel. Yet deep ocean exploration doesn’t come with many high-paying gigs to support it.

As a result, Vescovo has spent tens of millions of his own dollars funding research and development.

“You reach certain points in technology history that if you put the pieces together with the money and the drive of someone to do it, you can make things happen,” Vescovo said.

wildlife mariana trench

Weird wildlife in the Northern Mariana Trench, 6,400m down.

 

Before he came to deep-sea exploration, Vescovo enjoyed a long career in finance. During his 20 years in the U.S. Navy Reserve, he pursued a dual career in business. He eventually earned an MBA from Harvard and worked on Wall Street. He co-founded a private equity firm.

Eventually, Vescovo turned to ocean exploration. He recruited some top scientific and technical minds to help him and founded Caladan Oceanic. Vescovo likes to compare his venture to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, albeit at a smaller scale.

“We’ve done in the ocean what he’s done with space technology,” Vescovo said. “The analog is that he developed reusable rockets, and we developed reusable subs.”

Caladan Oceanic in the Southern Ocean in 2019.

 

To infinity and beyond

Along the way, Vescovo pursued guided endeavors to some of the outdoor world’s best-known icons. He climbed the planet’s highest mountains and the Seven Summits and skied partway to both Poles.

This year, Vescovo became one of the early space tourists. Along with five others, he rode Blue Origin’s New Shepherd rocket into space for a suborbital flight, reaching an altitude of 107km. The trip lasted just under 11 minutes, yet left a permanent impression on Vescovo.

He had become the first person to climb Everest, dive to the bottom of the ocean, and visit space. It gave him perspective, he said.

Vescovo ventures into space with Blue Origin’s New Shepherd-21 crew on June 4, 2022. Photo: Blue Origin

 

“Climbing Mount Everest was just raw. It takes a year to train for that and a decade to learn the proper techniques to be really skilled and safe. It’s physically punishing. It’s a beatdown.

“Going to the bottom of the ocean is different. It’s cerebral. It’s about building a submersible. It’s about putting a team together. Then you get there, and it’s dark and ancient and cold. It’s deep by every definition.

“And then there’s space, where you’re basically on a 10-story bomb vaulted into space. It’s loud. It happens fast. You see this vast expanse of the earth below you.

“There’s not one that’s better than the other. They all complement each other in terms of human experience. Hopefully, over time, more people can have all three of these experiences, not just me.”