by Andrew Purvis, The Telegraph, January 7, 2018
‘Try not to have a panic attack in the bubble,” a colleague texted, aware that I was about to dive to 120ft aboard the DeepFlight submarine in the Maldives – the first British journalist to do so. I’d earlier shared with her my reservations, one of them being that I am a diver who is used to swimming out of trouble rather than being trapped inside a carbon-fibre coffin with his head in a Perspex dome. I’ve been trained always to “plan the dive and dive the plan” (as the scuba mantra goes), to know what depth I am at and how long I’ve been down. On DeepFlight, I’d not only be staying dry – hopefully – but relinquishing control to the submarine pilot. Yikes!
And so, on a blisteringly hot day at Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru, the Indian Ocean idyll where the submarine is based, a liveried launch sped me to the platform where DeepFlight was moored. I could instantly see it was an impressive bit of kit. The $2 million (£1.6 million) red-and-white vessel is styled like a sleek jet fighter with three single cockpits, each covered by a clear polycarbonate dome. (There’s one other DeepFlight in Hawaii with two domes, meaning guests can only share their Blue Planet II moments with the pilot, not with a family member or friend.)
Chris Lam, a dive instructor turned DeepFlight pilot, gave me a tour of the sub’s gadgetry and showed me how to climb on to the wing and gently ease myself into the cockpit. There were steel arm rests, a seat belt, a headset with a built-in microphone – all very military – a bottle of chilled water and (ominously) a towel for wiping away any drips once the canopy was “sealed” and we were on our way to the seabed.
As the platform was lowered and the sub set off through unexpectedly choppy water, the engine noise was just a gentle hum. The air was cleaner, purer and cooler than the stuff I’d been breathing on land. It felt strangely relaxing and meditational (“Some people fall asleep,” Chris told me) as the water began to lap at the canopy, then closed above my head as the submarine slipped beneath the waves. I resisted the urge to hold my breath, or reach for a scuba regulator to stick in my mouth. Instinctively, I moved my jaw and swallowed – a necessary manoeuvre when diving, to equalise pressure on either side of the eardrum – but there was no need. Cabin air remained at surface pressure throughout my one-hour dive.
The angle of descent was alarmingly steep, like a whale sounding, and within a couple of minutes the seabed loomed. Shoals of blue and black fusiliers – a common reef fish – swam above my head and I could dimly make out a coral wall in the gloom (the visibility was poor, due to a recent storm) as well as lemon-yellow butterflyfish and a rainbow-hued parrotfish. “We spotted a nurse shark recently,” Chris told me through the headset, “and I once had a pod of dolphins playing right in front of me.”
There were no such highlights today but I could understand how non-divers might be awed by the sea life and the sense of soaring weightless over the reef. “Top side, top side, heading three zero,” said Chris into his headset, and I was relieved to learn that DeepFlight had been in constant contact with a boat on the surface, carrying divers who could easily have reached us at 120ft, and technology that tracks the sub’s position and depth. In addition to the main oxygen supply, which hissed reassuringly from time to time, DeepFlight has a backup system that can last 24 hours.
As we surfaced and trundled back to base, I felt like a Thunderbirds puppet returning to Tracy Island. “Turn right, turn right, copy,” said Chris into his Virgil microphone and I could hear the high-pitched whirr of a servo-assisted flap or rudder as the sub changed course. No, this wasn’t diving – but I couldn’t help smiling. It really was like aviation beneath the waves.
A dive in DeepFlight costs $1,500 plus 12 per cent tax for a one-hour descent for up to two passengers. Inspiring Luxury Travel is offering seven nights’ half board at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru from £4,625 per person, including international and domestic flights and transfers. Book by March 31 2019 for this rate.