Bruce H. Robison, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, began prowling the deep Pacific in a revolutionary craft in 1985. It was essentially a giant bubble of clear plastic that gave its occupant stunning panoramic views, instead of requiring them to peer through a tiny porthole.
“It was absolutely transformative,” Robison said recently. “The profusion of life was so much greater than what I had imagined.” The dark sea was alive: glowing, flashing, shimmering. “It was amazing to see all this bioluminescence and realize it’s a major form of communication,” he said. “It really changes your perspective.”
Three-plus decades later, bubble craft have gone mainstream, and thousands of people are experiencing that deep-sea vista. While Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos advance space travel, another set of entrepreneurs is going in the opposite direction, seeking to expand the exploration of inner space. Fans of the undersea craft sometimes call these new submersibles inner spaceships.
“They keep reaching deeper and deeper,” said Will Kohnen, who tracks development of bubble craft for the Marine Technology Society, a professional group. Much of the activity, he added, arises from growing concern about the ocean’s health: “People want to see it firsthand. It’s all about connecting with the ocean.”
The current generation of bubble craft can dive as deep as 7,500 feet, far below the last flickers of sunlight, and hold up to seven people. Larger, deeper-diving bubbles are on the horizon.
The giant plastic spheres and, in at least one case, a hemisphere, are opening eyes to the sunless depths of the ocean and leading to discoveries. In 2012, a bubble sub off Japan captured the first video of a giant squid, a creature with a nightmarish tangle of tentacles. A three-person bubble tracked the creature to a half-mile below the surface.
In 2016, a dive off Portugal’s Azores Islands caught sight of a female anglerfish and her tiny mate locked in a sexual embrace. Marine biologists hailed the resulting video as a breakthrough in revealing the behavioral secrets of the anglerfish, long notorious for dangling a bioluminescent lure in front of needlelike teeth.
This summer, scientists in a bubble off the Bahamas attached a satellite tag to a bluntnose sixgill shark, an abyssal giant that predates most dinosaurs. Scientists said the deep tagging was a first in the shark’s own habitat and would provide more accurate tracking.
The innovative craft are the result of many advances in electronics and materials science. According to Triton Submarines, a bubble-sub company in Sebastian, Fla., three tons of acrylic go into building a plastic bubble 7 feet wide, its walls 6 1/2 inches thick. The craft can take three people down 3,280 feet, roughly three-quarters of a mile.
Sub-makers are not immune to a sense of wonder. Patrick Lahey, president of Triton Submarines, said he was exploring the deep Pacific in 2013 in a bubble with scientists from American Museum of Natural History when he pulled out his flashlight and blinked it two or three times into the darkness.
“Off in distance, an animal flashed back the same number,” he recalled in an interview. “It was unbelievable. Something was communicating back.”
During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy pioneered the first bubble certified for deep diving and named it Nemo, after the captain of the submarine Nautilus in Jules Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” The technology was so new that the Navy relied on Bruce Beasley, an Oakland, California, artist known for his bright acrylic sculptures, to cast the undersea spheres.
Nemo was 5 1/2 feet wide, with walls 2 1/2 inches thick, and could hold two deep explorers. It underwent sea trials in 1970 and, in the next decade, made more than 600 dives.
The bubble that Robison first piloted in 1985 was a one-of-a-kind craft, named Deep Rover, designed by Graham Hawkes of Deep Ocean Engineering, based in San Leandro, Calif.
Other commercial designers followed. An oceanographic team in Costa Rica has used a bubble made by SEAmagine Hydrospace, based in Upland, California, for deep tourism and biodiversity research for more than a decade.
“They’ve made tons of discoveries,” said Kohnen, the Marine Technology Society official who is also the company’s president. “It’s really fantastic.”
Bubble development is now driven mainly by extremely wealthy people — typically owners of superyachts, which can cost $100 million or more. A bubble is perceived as a status symbol; costing $2 million to $5 million, it represents a relatively small part of a luxury investment. Chris Cline, a billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist and political donor who died in a helicopter crash in July, ordered a bubble sub for his superyacht more than a decade ago.
Another early enthusiast was Ray Dalio, a founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates, in Westport, Conn. With his superyacht and a Triton submarine, he became the first, in 2012, to capture footage of a giant squid in its dark habitat.
Dalio has turned his hobby into a global calling. Last year, he and his son Mark launched OceanX, an arm of Dalio Philanthropies that promotes ocean exploration and awareness, mainly through filmmaking. OceanX owns two bubbles and is building a second ship.
“Ocean exploration is more exciting and important than space exploration,” the senior Dalio said last year in a statement. “We are on a mission to show people that.”
In September, Triton announced that Kjell Inge Rokke, a Norwegian billionaire who made his money in commercial fishing, is buying a bubble that can descend 7,500 feet, about a mile and a half. That would mark the deepest dive yet for a plastic sphere. His ocean foundation plans to use the three-person craft for scientific research.
The walls of the craft will be 1 foot thick. “That wasn’t possible just a few years ago,” Lahey of Triton said in an interview. Triton contracts out its bubble production to a German team that includes Rohm, the inventor of Plexiglas, a brand of solid transparent plastic.
In a brochure titled “Luxury Submersibles,” Triton advertises a model that can hold seven people — a pilot and six passengers — and can be operated from a cruise ship.
Triton has also proposed building an undersea luxury resort called Poseidon. It would sit at the bottom of a lagoon in Fiji next to a coral reef and feature 24 guest rooms — not bubbles but domes made of plastic.
The rise of bubble subs promises to pay exploratory dividends for decades to come. “Regardless of the driver,” said Robison of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, “whether it’s rich guys with yachts or scientists with instruments, the fact that the technology is evolving means it’s going to be much easier to do this kind of research in the future.”