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.

In 1981, Hawkes founded Deep Ocean Engineering Inc. (DOE) in San Leandro with Dr. Sylvia Earle. The two married in 1986 and divorced in 1992, events that didn't seem to begin or end their professional relationship. Earle remains the scientific director of the Deep Flight project, and if it ever hits bottom, she's likely to be there.

DOE quickly made a name for itself as the design house of Graham Hawkes. The company's more than 300 remotely operated underwater vehicles -- or ROVs, in industry parlance -- are used in 30 countries by scientists, oil companies, universities, government agencies, and navies (11 of them, at last count).

In 1984, Hawkes -- dressed in a tuxedo, no less -- popped out of the water in something that looked like a giant fishbowl. The craft was Deep Rover, and the occasion was its unveiling in Newfoundland. The submersible is round, has a clear acrylic exterior, and offers a 360-degree view of the ocean. Hawkes later set a world dive record -- 3,000 feet -- in Deep Rover.

"It's really cool underwater," Hawkes says of this creation, beaming like a proud father. "You can see whales swimming around."

Hawkes split off from Deep Ocean Engineering in 1996 and started Hawkes Ocean Technologies Inc. with his third wife, Karen Hawkes, whom he met in 1994 in Aspen, where she was working on an ocean film project. And though Hawkes remains on the board of DOE and consults on its designs, he's no longer in the loop of daily operations. He says he prefers engineering to business. But he's hardly your detail-oriented everyday engineer.

His inability to keep track of small items like car keys is legendary. So is his wry sense of humor. Hawkes and his crew at DOE used to have a running game. Points were earned for new experiences -- taking an amusement park ride, learning to fly an airplane, a particularly tough dive, whatever.

"Graham ruined it," says Dirk Rosen, the current president of DOE. "He was flying an airplane with a friend and crash-landed it into a tree. Well, we were never going to do anything to beat that, so we had to cancel the game."

These days, Hawkes begins most workdays shortly after sunrise, sketching out some engineering design or reconfiguration in the San Anselmo home he shares with Karen and their 3-month-old son, Oliver.

For several years now, Hawkes has been midway through building a boat with partner Charles Brush, former head of the Explorer's Club. Based on a Polynesian outrigger design, the craft (tentatively called Top Flight) is designed to tow Hawkes' subs. There's also a plan somewhere for ski boots. For that matter, there's a plan somewhere for about 10 different inventions. When there's funding available, or a particular need arises, something gets built.

"Graham's mind must never be at rest," Karen says. "Sometimes I'll think that he's sleeping, and then he'll open his eyes and say, 'I just designed a ski boot.' Or, 'I just designed a boat.' "

Don Walsh is sitting in his home in the Oregon rain forest, matter-of-factly describing a place that only he and one other man on the planet have ever seen.

"It's very dark, very cold. We saw shrimplike creatures, worms, jelly creatures. Right after we landed, I saw a flat fish. That was about it. There are not many nutrients in the sea that far down," Walsh says, with the hint of understatement that characterizes the speech of many career military officers.

"It was January 23, 1960."
Walsh is describing the Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in the ocean. The Challenger Deep is located in the Mariana Trench, near the Mariana Island chain, 200 miles from Guam, seven miles beneath the ocean's surface. At this point, the Mariana Trench is deeper than Mount Everest is tall. Walsh, then a Navy commander, and his companion on the trek, Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard, traveled to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in a steel sphere called a bathyscaph. The two-man craft, named Trieste, was the world's first deep-water submersible to dive untethered to a surface mother ship.

The pair spent nine hours traveling to and from the bottom, but, because of oxygen constraints, only half an hour at the ocean floor. And after getting to the bottom, the Navy decided that its money was better spent building warships than exploring the depths of the ocean. Trieste was retired in 1961.

It's a puzzlement: The ocean covers 71 percent of the planet's surface area, and the Pacific Ocean is larger than any single land mass on Earth. Two-thirds of the Earth's population lives near a coastline. The ocean is home to 13,000 known animal species, and most marine biologists believe that number represents only a small percentage of extant marine life. Yet we know little about what happens even a few thousand feet under the surface of the sea.

Ocean explorers seem to expose new mysteries with each new find. We now know of enormous, bright-red tube worms that have no mouths or eyes and live on sea-floor beds of lava. A decade ago, someone stumbled onto hot vents rushing from the sea floor, where entire ecosystems are thought to exist on what amounts to poisonous gas. In 1938, fishermen in South Africa pulled up a coelacanth, a fishlike creature thought, until then, to have gone the way of the dinosaur 65 million years ago.

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