Graham Hawkes and the Race to the Bottom of the Sea
Credit: Balint Porneczi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

For years Hawkes regarded the idea of diving to Challenger Deep as a practical impossibility. That changed when he met Sylvia Earle in 1979. Then 44, Earle was already an internationally renowned oceanographer, a glamorous all-American answer to Jacques Cousteau. Meanwhile, Hawkes' submarines – the Wasp and its successor, Mantis, which he would pilot as a bespectacled villain in the James Bond movie 'For Your Eyes Only' – had become workhorses in the offshore-oil industry.

Earle was in Oahu preparing to film an ABC TV special, the climax of which would be the dive she planned to make wearing a Jim suit, descending to the ocean floor strapped to the front of a submarine. Hawkes was the technician on hand in case anything went wrong. Earle made it down to 1,250 feet where, released from the submarine, she walked across the bottom for two and a half hours, setting a woman's depth record that still stands today.

But while she was down there, Earle found the manipulating claw on the Jim suit to be uselessly crude for the delicate business of collecting samples, and vented her frustrations to Hawkes. "It was only later that I found out he had designed it," she said later. "I was so embarrassed." Afterward, sitting on the end of a dock in Oahu, Earle asked him why she couldn't travel the seven miles down to Challenger Deep. Hawkes' first thought was that this was an absurd notion; it had taken him years to increase the depth rating of the Jim suit from 1,200 to 2,000 feet. "So I'm like, 'I can give you a thousand reasons why – it's just ridiculous.' " But Earle was insistent, and Hawkes began to reconsider. "After a couple of minutes, I said, 'Maybe it could be done.' "

The next thing he knew, at 32, Hawkes was leaving Britain – and with it his job, his wife, and four children – for a new life with Earle in California. He was, he says, practically penniless – he had taken no real equity in the submersibles he had designed. Together, Hawkes and Earle began seeking donors to fund their shared vision: the construction of a submarine to reach full ocean depth. When they got nowhere, Earle mortgaged her house outside Oakland to help set up Deep Ocean Engineering, a commercial submersible operation they hoped would earn them the money for the project. They married in 1986.

With Earle's input, Hawkes continued to make imaginative leaps in submarine development, reaching for an ideal that combined unprecedented ease of use with his own refined aesthetic. "He is an artist," Earle says. "He likes to have things that are beautiful – not just that function, but that function within an envelope that is aesthetically appealing." In 1984, they launched Deep Rover, a one-man craft that was so simple to control, Earle says, "even a scientist could operate it." In it, Hawkes set a new solo dive record that remains unbroken – "3,000 feet," he says now, contemptuous of such a shallow depth. "A joke!"

The same year, he made the first sketches of the craft that would become Deep Flight I. It was streamlined and elegant but, more important, it broke free of the principles that until then had governed submersibles. Rather than taking in and blowing out ballast in order to dive, Deep Flight I would apply the principles of aviation to fluid dynamics: It would "fly" underwater.

Hawkes' radical design would require a multimillion-dollar investment – and DOE's board of directors didn't see any commercial application in it. Hawkes came up with a new manipulator arm that was powerful enough to lift a cinder block but sensitive enough to sign a check. "The best work I've ever done," Hawkes says today. To show what the arm could do, he used its eight-foot hydraulic claw to draw an intricate pen-and-ink image of a krill that he presented in a sales meeting with an executive from Chevron. "You know what happened? The guy is a big Texan, looks at the shrimp, gets this slow smirk on his face. He goes, 'Well, I guess when we need to draw shrimps underwater, we'll give you guys a call.' "

The arm never went into production. "If I'd built that thing for medical use," he says, "I might be a jillionaire by now."

With the help of a dozen volunteers working two nights a week for beer and pizza, the submarine began taking shape in the DOE workshop after hours. But the work was slow, and eventually even the beer money dried up. By the end of the decade, Hawkes and Earle's marriage was coming apart, and Hawkes was losing interest in the oil-exploration subs that had become the bread and butter of their business. "It's his strength but also his weakness," Earle says. "He gets so far, and he's sort of solved the problem, but before it's really where it ought to be, he has to move on to something else, because he's bored with it."

Soon Hawkes turned his attention to treasure hunting. The Scientific Search Project set out to find the wrecks of ships from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries that had foundered in deep water, aiming to salvage their cargo while preserving their historical value. It marked an abrupt ideological break from Earle, who dreamed of unlocking the secrets of the world's oceans to preserve them for humanity, not to make a fortune. Using statistics suggesting that for 300 years, 10 percent of global shipping had been lost at sea, and a system he'd devised that made it simple to find and survey what remained, Hawkes won Wall Street funding and set out into the Bahama Channel on a boat christened Deep See.

The Deep See found up to five wrecks a day, the remains of centuries of doomed vessels sunk in an area infamous for bad weather. "We found everything: planes, submarines, tankers . . . a sailboat lying on the bottom, on its side, with its sails up." They also, he says now, solved one of the most enduring riddles of the Bermuda Triangle. In May 1991, they discovered five Grumman Avenger fighter-bombers lying in a group on the ocean floor. At the time, the discovery caused a media frenzy. Hawkes was questioned by a dockside scrum of cameramen and interviewers who all wanted to know if the planes were those of Flight 19, which took off from Fort Lauderdale on a perfectly clear day in 1945 and vanished without a trace somewhere over the Atlantic – one of the legendary disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. Then, as quickly as it had started, the sensation evaporated when Hawkes announced that further investigation revealed that the planes' tail numbers did not match those of the long-lost flight, implying that he believed the five planes must have crashed separately.

Hawkes has since changed his story. Now he says both he (because his investors didn't want to waste valuable time on an investigation) and the Pentagon (because they had more important things to worry about) had an interest in making the story go away. He admits that while he didn't find conclusive evidence that the planes were the same group that went missing in 1945, he consulted a statistician to establish the probability that they were not. "He said, 'You've got Flight 19,' " Hawkes says.

Perhaps the only thing that Hawkes' Scientific Search Project didn't find was a wreck that justified the cost of an archaeologically sensitive recovery. He was eventually fired from his own company. The enterprise was a failure, but it was while working on a documentary aiming to debunk the myths of the Bermuda Triangle that he met his third wife, Karen, who was working as a production assistant. With her help, he founded another company, Hawkes Ocean Technology, to begin building new submersibles, and returned to the partially completed Deep Flight I.

"She just agreed that we would put whatever money we had into finishing it, because if I didn't finish that, the dream was kind of gone."

Despite his insistence that he is merely an innovator, Hawkes clings to a romantic vision of ocean exploration, casting himself in the role of barnstorming pioneer – doing underwater the very thing that he arrived too late to do in the air. "If you go back to the early days of aviation," he tells me as we survey the incomplete DeepFlight Challenger, "the guys designing it built it, and then they got in it and flew it. I mean, who does that anymore? Today you have professional test pilots – I get to fly that thing."

Hawkes' original plan for the DeepFlight Challenger dive called for the submarine to take a 12-mile-long exploratory flight along the Mariana Trench, collecting a stream of data from the deep ocean floor. But many marine scientists, including Sylvia Earle, say that his vessels are little more than sophisticated toys; that unless they can hover in place to collect samples or take photographs, they're of little use. Hawkes has heard it all before. "Nothing gets me more riled up than that," he says. "Look, I've built 60 subs that hover. Do you think if I wanted to hover I can't do that?"

Still, Hawkes is confident that man's ignorance of the oceans is such that whatever is found at 36,000 feet will be of profound scientific interest. After all, the thermal vents and cold-water seeps that are now known to bring life to much of the deep were only discovered in the past few decades. When Walsh and Piccard emerged from the Trieste in 1960 claiming to have seen a flat fish near the bottom of the trench, ichthyologists insisted they must be wrong; even now no one knows for sure. "Man doesn't know whether there's fish down there or not? I think that's just wonderful," Hawkes says. "I like the controversy."

But for Hawkes, whatever lies at the bottom of Challenger Deep could prove to be an entirely academic question: The way things have turned out, he may never get to see it for himself.