36,000 Feet Under the Sea

The strange quest of San Anselmo's Graham Hawkes, who will dive a two-man submarine to the deepest point in the ocean. If someone gives him $7 million.

"It's like asking, 'Trucks or trains? Airplanes or ships?' " Hawkes argues. "It's not a one-or-the-other kind of deal."

The price tag to build Deep Flight 2 is about $7 million, a pittance in the world of scientific research. And the obvious funding source for the sub would seem to be the National Science Foundation, the major pot of government grant money for these kinds of adventures. But Hawkes hasn't applied for NSF funds, for very specific reasons. Federal funds for ocean research have dropped by almost half during the past 15 years. If Hawkes were to receive government grant money, he would risk constant criticism from the scientific community.

"I've deliberately stayed away from that," he says. "There's so little funding for hard science in the ocean. I don't want to get into competing, and taking away from [what's there]. We think the program should stand on its own."

With a dearth of federal money, marine scientists and explorers alike have turned to the private sector.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, the famed marine biologist and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will lead an expedition around the nation's oceanic sanctuaries -- including the Farallon Islands -- next year in a project called the Sustainable Seas Expedition, funded by the National Geographic Society and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Foundation in San Francisco. Computer multibillionaire David Packard basically built the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. But that kind of private philanthropy is rare; Bill Gates and Ted Turner aren't flooding the tide pools with cash.

"You're really talking about finding a person or organization with a tremendous amount of imagination," says Don Walsh, a marine consultant and longtime associate of Hawkes. "People don't have that kind of imagination in general about the ocean."

Hawkes is perfectly willing to take a partner, but only one who would allow him to retain full control over the project. Rolex sponsored the initial launch of Deep Flight, and may be interested in the launch of its successor. But Deep Flight 2 has to be built before it can be launched.

"This has not been a professional fund-raising effort," says Hawkes' wife, Karen, who seems to oversee such things, along with media relations and scheduling. "It's been a husband and wife doing this from a garage."

And, frankly, funding Deep Flight 2 requires a leap of faith, a steadfast belief in a guy who wants to go to the bottom of the ocean -- just because it's something he's always wanted to do. Hawkes is an engineer, not a scientist. Although Deep Flight 2 was designed to be used for research eventually, that eventually is far in the future.

Right now, Hawkes is not studying marine life or collecting samples. As Walsh acknowledges, "A giant squid could come up and give you a big kiss on the side of your submersible, and you wouldn't understand the gesture."

No, Hawkes sees the quest to go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench as a pioneering event -- that is, as pure exploration.

"Science is about filling in the details," says Hawkes. "Our point is that you're going down to find out what it is that we haven't a clue about."

So Hawkes' money problem may be linked to the simple reality that he is enjoying this quest way too much for some people's tastes. Nonetheless, Hawkes believes firmly in his dream, whether it ends up being funded by the government, or an eccentric millionaire, or a corporation to be named later.

"It's going to happen," he says matter-of-factly. "We just have to be patient."

On a rainy May afternoon, about 25 people gather at a Concord shooting range. The crowd consists of television cameramen, investors, potential investors, police officers, and Hawkes' trusted assistants, recognizable by their black gimme caps. The caps have the word "TRAP" emblazoned on them in big white letters. The acronym stands for this mouthful of jargon: Telepresent Rapid Aiming Platform.

The object they've all come to watch is sitting on the ground, looking rather menacing, its carbon-fiber legs spread out like those of a big, black spider. And TRAP -- essentially a remote-controlled gun -- really could be something out of Q's workshop. Sitting at its center is a .223-caliber rifle, snuggled into a hydraulic mechanism that absorbs recoil. A camera is mounted next to the gun; police can watch what the camera sees on a monitor inside a nearby van -- a van that would be parked at a safe distance in a real police action.

TRAP emerged from Hawkes' brain after he'd thought about the concept for nearly a decade. This is the first weapon he's built, and he admits the project is "a little weird," given his nature-related background. But Hawkes started in the underwater business by creating submersible robots that substitute for -- and save the lives of -- divers in the North Sea. TRAP was also conceived as a life-saving substitute; Hawkes was prompted to act on his idea after a highly publicized shootout in Hollywood last year, during which 10 police officers were injured.

"It's weird that there are no alternatives than to send people into a gunfight," Hawkes says. "What's needed is not bigger guns. What's really needed is much smarter weapons.

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