Saturday, March 6, 2010

Branson's Virgin Takes The Plunge

Billionaire action superhero Richard Branson is following up on his fledgling space-tourism ventures with a wild scheme to lure wealthy adrenalin junkies underwater.

The folks at Virgin Limited Edition are billing their "Necker Nymph" as an "underwater plane" that dives to a depth of 40 meters, or about as deep as lots of casual recreational divers ever get. Here's some of what CNN says:

The $631,000 flying sub, the first of its kind, uses fighter jet technology and was designed by Hawkes Ocean Technologies. It is transparent enough to allow divers a 360-degree view of marine life and Virgin is marketing it as a way to view dolphins and whales close up.

I can't help wondering how a submersible with "fighter jet technology" that can do "dolphin-like flips" sneaks up on "dolphins and whales" without either ramming them or frightening their flukes off.

Now check out the claim that follows:

The new sub also appears to be environmentally friendly. It is buoyant, which stops it from mistakenly landing on reefs, and it is relatively quiet -- allowing it to pass through fragile ecosystems without causing too much upheaval, Virgin says.

It's unclear to whom it "appears to be environmentally friendly." But there is a clue tacked onto the end of the paragraph. Virgin says. If they're going to make that claim, let's hope there's stronger evidence for skeptics than "because it floats," is "relatively quiet," and won't cause "too much upheaval." After all, just a little upheaval and there goes the neighborhood.

The story in Britain's "The Sun" is a lot more fun to read, of course, because of its take-no-prisoners editorial style. Crucially, it adds that Sir Richard is "building a stronger version to go deeper than any sub has ever been."

"A pressurized submarine is nearly completed. But the real challenge is to explore what's going on at the bottom of the oceans," "The Sun" quotes him as saying.

Bathysphere deep divers Otis Barton and William Beebe would no doubt appreciate Branson's bravado.

But even a thrillseeker like Beebe recognized the futility of "record-breaking dives which really have no scientific value." Let's hope Branson does too.

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