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From highest peaks to ocean deeps, former Navy Reserve officer is making history

By DOM DIFURIO | The Dallas Morning News | Published: April 25, 2019

DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — Roughly 4 miles under the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, Victor Vescovo descended in an air-tight titanium ball inside a state-of-the-art submersible and trained its bright lights on the moonlike floor below him.

The 53-year-old Dallas businessman and lifelong adventurer was likely the first person to lay eyes on the expanse before him.

Natural light doesn't reach where Vescovo finally touched bottom — 27,480 feet below the surface in the Puerto Rican Trench. Extending the submersible's mechanical arm, he set about collecting items from the seafloor for scientists eager to know more about this unexplored part of the planet.

Capturing every moment were cameras for the Discovery Channel, which is following his underwater exploits for a special to air later this year. On the surface, aboard a 200-foot-long research ship named the DSSV Pressure Drop, Capt. Stuart Buckle heard a startling pronouncement through the submersible's communication system.

"We lost the arm," Vescovo said calmly. Gone was the $350,000 apparatus, which unexpectedly wiggled out of its connecting hinge and tumbled to Abyssal Depths — the part of the ocean that derives its name from the Greek term for "bottomless."

The arm was replaceable, and Vescovo knew there were more dives to come.

His Five Deeps Expedition is exploring the deepest points of each of Earth's five oceans. When Vescovo completes the ambitious undertaking, it will put him in the history books as the first to climb the highest peaks of all seven continents, ski to the North and South poles, and reach the deepest ocean depths.

He's finished off three dives. Next week's descent to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench is his most daunting — and dangerous — yet.

Borrowed time

Vescovo was drawn to exploration of the unknown at an early age.

At the age of 3, he climbed behind the wheel of the family car, put it into neutral and began drifting downhill from the driveway of his family's Connecticut home toward a busy intersection.

Retelling the story many years later, he acknowledged he could have died that day. His father always attributed his survival to divine intervention. Vescovo, who prefers the spirituality of Zen Buddhism, said he saw it as borrowed time.

Today, Vescovo is a bearded, lean, athletic man with silvering blond hair that he secures in a ponytail. There's no hint of an accent, though he isn't shy about the fierce pride he harbors for his home state of Texas.

The Texas flag on the side of his submersible is unmistakable. He said the state's identity is inseparable from adventure.

His lack of an accent, however, is likely a result of his childhood. Vescovo's family moved around in his younger years, eventually settling down in the North Dallas neighborhood of Preston Hollow, where he now lives.

It's there where he spends free time in his workshop, assembling artisan fountain pens and building custom furniture in the newest addition to his home. The addition also houses a perfectly spherical submersible simulator where Vescovo spent hours training for his dives.

His love of adrenaline and adventure took hold at St. Mark's High School in Dallas and motivated him to pursue an Air Force career. But less-than-perfect vision disqualified him from flying in the military.

Instead, Vescovo leaned into topics like math and science. It wasn't until he arrived at Stanford University to begin his undergraduate studies that he realized his actual calling fell more along the lines of economics and political science.

In 1990, he got a call from the U.S. Navy Reserve, which wanted people with his background in world affairs and foreign languages. It was a phone call that would lead to a 20-year career as a Navy Reserve Officer working in intelligence.

Growing up during the Cold War, Vescovo was fascinated by military history. Specifically, he loved maps — the coordination, the strategy of it all.

World affairs also play a big role in his financial career — something he's juggled alongside all other endeavors since graduating from Harvard Business School in 1994. 

As co-founder of private equity firm Insight Equity, his day job revolves around growing midsized U.S. industrial firms. He sits on the boards of 10 companies, including chairing four, and advises a charity that provides dental work to those who can't afford it in Albania, where he served for a time during the Kosovo War.

But the Navy Reserve was Vescovo's gateway to the world, taking him to places like Syria and Egypt. He also traveled overseas early in his career for Lehman Brothers, consulting with Saudi Arabia on investments at age 24.

Vescovo retired as a Navy commander in 2013, and by 2017, became the 12th American to complete the Explorer's Grand Slam. Only 66 people in the world have scaled the tallest mountain on each continent and skied to the North and South poles, according to a list kept by Vanessa O'Brien, the first woman to complete the challenge.

He soon recognized the only place left to explore was beneath the surface.

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The Limiting Factor

Vescovo turned to veteran ocean explorer Rob McCallum for guidance. McCallum's EYOS Expeditions has led dives to the Titanic wreckage and coordinated Canadian filmmaker James Cameron's famed 2012 dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep.

Vescovo and the team believe they can go deeper than Cameron, whose dive to 35,756 feet is the current deepest known portion of the ocean in the Mariana Trench.

The team that became the Five Deeps Expedition decided to outfit a vessel that not only could take Vescovo to record depths but also could be reused for future scientific and commercial endeavors.

Enter Triton Submersibles co-founder Patrick Lahey, who's been designing submersibles for years and who's dreamed most of his life of building one capable of diving to full ocean depth. Five Deeps was his opportunity to prove the reliability of Triton's greatest work to date — a sub nicknamed the Limiting Factor.

Vescovo poured $48 million of his money into the submersible and accompanying ship. McCallum has referred to the submersible as the "most significant vehicle since the Apollo 11."

"People talk a good game," McCallum said, "but Vescovo is actually walking the talk. And he's not just doing so as a wealthy businessman who's going out there for a thrill."

In McCallum's line of work, the word "adventure" is frowned upon. He prefers the term expedition to properly capture the energy of discovery and logistical planning that accompany his ventures.

McCallum described Vescovo as not just a thrill seeker but a genuine explorer with an analytical mind.

They eventually agreed on goals for the mission — complete five dives, collect never-before-seen biological samples from the ocean floor, map its deepest points and fine-tune the capabilities of Triton's submersible along the way. More than 80 percent of the Earth's oceans are unmapped and unexplored, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Even though the submersible industry has advanced since Cameron's highly publicized 2012 dive, a number of parts for the Limiting Factor had to be invented or upgraded from existing technology to go deeper.

Intense pressure makes deep sea environments nearly uninhabitable for most sea life and highly dangerous for humans. As the Limiting Factor descends, its several inch thick cone-shaped glass windows can compress as much as a quarter of an inch due to the atmospheric pressure.

Vescovo is kept safe by a titanium hull surrounded by an advanced, syntactic foam that controls the submersible's buoyancy. Previous deep diving submersibles, with the exception of Cameron's, used gasoline because it weighs less than water.

It also can be difficult at depth to transmit the frequencies needed for Vescovo to talk to the captain and other team members on the research ship. He's lost communication with his team during dives before, only to learn later they could hear him the entire time despite radio silence on his end.

But Vescovo said he isn't as concerned with the dive safety as he was when he climbed portions of Mt. Everest. To him, fear can be overcome by training the brain to focus on rational risk calculations.

Into the deep

With dives completed in the Atlantic, Antarctic and Indian oceans, the crew has already set new world records, mapped portions of the ocean floor for the first time and observed never-seen-before species like a recently observed bottom-dwelling, jelly-like creature known as an Ascidian.

Now, the Challenger Deep awaits.

Located at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean just south of Guam, only two manned submersibles in history have made it that far down. The Trieste dove to 35,797 feet in 1960, and James Cameron hit a slightly shallower point in the trench at 35,756 feet in 2012.

Vescovo's team plans to go deeper. It thinks it has identified a spot that could take the expedition to 35,859 feet. Vescovo will be joined on the dive by submarine creator Lahey and legendary explorer Don Walsh, who piloted the Trieste, which still holds the record for the deepest manned dive — for now.

Lahey describes the dive as the pinnacle of his career.

"If I were given the choice between going to space or going to the bottom of the ocean, I mean the bottom of the ocean would win every time," Lahey said.

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