08 May 2014
Into the Deep - Unique Underwater Holidays
The arctic explorer Pen Hadow, famed for trekking solo from Canada to the North Pole, defined the art of exploration as: ‘going places and attempting things which haven’t been done before, discovering new things and learning from what you’ve found out.’ Now, a generation of yacht owners and superyacht charter guests are also intent on becoming a generation of explorers.
Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist Tom Perkins is one of the yachting world’s most celebrated figures, known for his expertise in developing and building some of the finest yachts ever sailed, including the legendary Maltese Falcon. In 2006, however, at the Monaco Yacht Show, he came across a two-man submersible which revolutionised his outlook. “It’s a true sub,” he said in a recent interview. “You can get in at atmospheric pressure and it stays at atmospheric pressure at all depths down to 400ft.” The potential this offered eventually led Perkins to purchase the explorer yacht, Dr. No, which he converted to accommodate a DeepFlight Super Falcon sub. “It’s an adventure boat. That’s what I’m really into now.” Fortunately for other yachting enthusiasts, there is an increasing number of opportunities for those who want to use their yacht as a launch pad for adventure. Henry Cookson, owner of Henry Cookson Adventures, started his working life in the city, when he ‘hardly knew whether penguins lived north or south’. In 2005, however, he was persuaded by friends to attempt the Scott Dunn Polar Challenge and went on to enter the Guinness Book of Records kite skiing to the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility. Since then, he’s given up the 9-5 to create bespoke travel adventures for those who want to experience a similar sense of the extreme. “So many people today say they want to get off the beaten track, but then just follow the crowd. We prefer to find our clients somewhere we personally feel is special.” Crowd following certainly plays little part in the expeditions Cookson orchestrates. Earlier this year, for example, he took the 63m motor yacht SuRi on a cruise to Antarctica. The yacht had been refitted to include a Triton 1000/2 two-man submarine. “As far as I know we were the first to use a submersible in this area,” says Cookson. “Not even scientists had done it before. It felt like stepping into the abyss. You seem even closer to the wildlife than when you’re scuba diving.” With custom-made clothing delivered to the door and Zorbs on board for the kids to play ‘pin-ball wizard’ on the icebergs, the trip was certainly not cheap, but, equally, it was considerably more memorable than a gentle chug round the Med. "Clients will say to us at the outset, ‘It’s a once-in-a-lifetime holiday’. Then, when they return, it’s ‘let’s come back and do it again." For those looking for a further challenge, Cookson is now investigating trips to Australia, to swim with crocodiles, and East Russia, to examine the habitat of the albino killer whale. If getting up close and personal with scary monsters of the deep is what inspires you, you couldn’t be better served than by French photographer and marine biologist, Rodolphe Holler, who runs Tahiti Private Expeditions based in French Polynesia. Dive-expert Holler is a big fan of sharks (“You’re more likely to be killed by a coconut falling on your head, than by a shark,” he says hotly) and, though he originally lived in France, 13 years ago he decided to make his own longing for adventure a reality. “Sitting on the dock in the south of France I would watch the superyachts drift by and dream of sharks and manta rays. Now I get to dive with them all the time.” Tahiti Private Expeditions specialises in providing onboard dive expertise both in Tahiti – “Tahiti is ur playground,” says Holler – and throughout the South Pacific. Superyacht owners looking for underwater adventure are particularly fortunate that the ocean remains one of the world’s last frontiers and Holler’s network of local contacts alerts him to remarkable natural events (like a three-day massing of manta rays), while the use of submersibles enables him to guide clients to witness the everyday extraordinary. Recently, Holler was Tom Perkins’ guide when he set off to explore the Northern Tuamotu, one of the most isolated reaches of the region. Perkins was particularly interested in seeing sharks – and he was not disappointed. On his first dive, he came close to a shoal of about 200. Later, while Rodolphe Holler filmed overhead, Perkins dropped his Super Falcon to 60-80 metres to discover a large chain of marine caves. ‘They may never have been seen by man before. It’s remarkable to see something and know you’re the first.’ Many of those interested in exploring the ocean are also increasingly interested in helping to preserve it and Blue Marine Foundation has launched a ‘virtual yacht club’ to allow owners to display their enthusiasm. “Anyone who looks to the ocean as a source of recreation owes it to themselves to get involved,” says song writer Kirsty Bertarelli, one of the charity’s leading patrons. For those, however, who want to ‘get involved’ in a more active manner, Marine Conservation Expeditions allows yachtsmen to participate in a way normally only experienced by documentary crews. It organises ‘epic adventures with a mission.’ The company was set up two years ago by Ian Kellett, a Montana-based photographer and filmmaker, who’s worked on such seminal BBC nature series as Frozen Planet, Oceans and Planet Earth (as well as filming Richard Hammond for Top Gear). Kellett himself is a passionate believer in participatory conservation. “Over the decades we’ve seen how important it is to establish effective Marine Protected Areas, which are essential if we want to stop the decline of marine habitat. These areas are notoriously difficult to fund and MCE wants to inspire involvement in the protection of marine environments by taking successful and influential people on filmmaking adventures.” These adventures typically involve some of the greatest experts in the field and Kellett’s roster of talent includes: Paul Rose, Vice President of the Royal Geographic Society; BAFTA and EMMY award-winning cinematographer, Rick Rosenthal; and celebrated environmentalist Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of the great French marine explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Kellett and his colleague Rich Hallam (a PADI Master Scuba Dive Trainer and RYA Ocean Yachtmaster) organise customised trips for four to six clients (designated ‘executive producers’) to work alongside an elite team of filmmakers, scientists, and naturalists: “We’re only looking for a limited and exclusive group pulling together.” The USP of these holidays is that executive producers are allowed to be involved in the creative process right from the outset, helping with lighting, interviewing local dignitaries or taking the lead with an underwater camera. To organise an expedition of this nature typically takes three to nine months and Kellett and his team begin the process by suggesting a location tailored to the traveller’s specific interests, whether that’s preserving an endangered coral reef or spotlighting sustainable tuna fisheries. American socialpreneur and investor Scott McDougall was initially one such client, but has gone on to become an involved member of the team. “My trip was as full as one could possibly imagine, and not just full, but full with unique, interesting, and, I like to think, in some way important activities.” An expedition, in other words, which met all of Pen Hadow’s criteria. Images courtesy of Tahiti Private Expeditions