In 2014, when crude oil was selling for more than $100 a barrel, the cost of a new drill ship for oil exploration could run to $100 million.
So when the price of oil crashed, Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, an investment firm in Westport, Conn., saw an opening. In 2016, he bought a lightly used oil drilling ship at a very attractive price and transformed it into his dream — a vessel for big science, big technology and big storytelling. Mr. Dalio’s aim is to help Homo sapiens connect more intimately with the ocean, with what he calls “our world’s greatest asset.”
OceanXplorer is now making its operational debut, after years of rebuilding, upgrading and outfitting. So is Mr. Dalio, 71, as a new kind of entrepreneur. He sees his glistening, high-tech ship as a superstar not only of oceanic research but of video production, nature television shows and livestreaming events that will open the abyss to an unusually wide audience.
“It’s going to change things,” in part by inspiring a new generation of ocean explorers, Mr. Dalio said. Schoolchildren in classrooms will be able to guide the ship’s undersea robot through the primal darkness, uncovering riots of life.
“This isn’t a dream,” Mr. Dalio said in a recent interview. “This is it.”
At 286 feet from bow to stern, OceanXplorer is nearly the length of a football field. Side-to-side thrusters can hold it steady in pounding waves. It can house 85 crew members and explorers. Its hangar can hold three miniature submarines for taking humans into the sunless depths. It has two undersea robots, one that runs on a tether and one smart enough to roam on its own. At the bow, an automated system watches for whales, scanning the chop to avoid collisions.
The vessel’s gear and agenda draw on a decade of experience that Mr. Dalio gained while traveling the globe with scientists on Alucia, his smaller research ship. Like the new one, it featured mini submarines with bubblelike hulls of clear plastic that give the divers stunning panoramic views.
In 2013, Mr. Dalio was exploring the deep Pacific with scientists from Yale University and the American Museum of Natural History when, in pitch darkness, a camera was flashed. The surrounding creatures proceeded to light up in bioluminescent waves. “It was like a fireworks display,” Mr. Dalio recalled. “Everything was responding. It was unbelievable.”
Vincent Pieribone accompanied Mr. Dalio on that voyage. He is an author of “Aglow in the Dark: The Revolutionary Science of Biofluorescence” and a neuroscientist at the Yale School of Medicine who uses the chemistry of ocean biofluorescence to study human nerve impulses. Mr. Dalio talked him into serving as vice chairman of OceanX, an undertaking of Dalio Philanthropies to explore the ocean. As the organization’s chief scientist, Dr. Pieribone helped rig the new ship for science investigations and directed much of its exploratory planning.
“I walked on the boat and was literally in tears because of all these things we were able to do,” he said recently. “It’s like something out of a Bond movie.”
Mr. Dalio is one of a growing number of billionaire philanthropists seeking to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research. According to Forbes, he has an estimated net worth of $16.9 billion, making him one of the world’s richest individuals. His firm, Bridgewater Associates, is regularly described as the world’s largest hedge fund.
Mr. Dalio said his ocean journey had begun while he was growing up on Long Island as the only son of a professional jazz musician — his father — and a stay-at-home mother. On television, he loved watching the sea adventures of Jacques Cousteau, the French oceanographer. Then, in his early 20s, Mr. Dalio learned how to scuba dive and, ever since, has been going deeper.
A turning point came in 2011 as he deepened his relationship with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The complex of shingled houses and brick laboratories is famous for devising Alvin, a submersible that was the first to illuminate the Titanic and to carry scientists down to the hot springs of the global seabed. The dark ecosystems teem with crabs, shrimp and tube worms.
Mr. Dalio was thinking of buying the Alucia when a team of Woods Hole experts used the vessel and an undersea robot to find the shattered remains of Air France Flight 447, which in 2009 had vanished over the South Atlantic with 228 passengers. Other search teams had failed, and Mr. Dalio saw the 2011 success as an indication of the field’s exploratory promise.
“It was a needle in a haystack,” he said of the jetliner hunt. “I was shocked and elated.”
He quickly bought Alucia and, late in 2011, also bought his first bubble sub after doing a test dive in the Bahamas. Almost immediately, the pair of vehicles made a major discovery.
The giant squid — huge and slimy, its tentacles lined with sucker pads, its big eyes unblinking — is a fixture of horror fiction, including Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” But it had long eluded science. A 1994 book by Richard Ellis, “Monsters of the Sea,” called the creature so mysterious that “no one has seen a giant squid feeding — in fact, no one has ever seen a healthy giant squid doing anything at all.”
In the summer of 2012, off Japan, Alucia and its bubble subs hosted a team of scientists who found and filmed one of the beasts. The discovery made a global splash in 2013 on newscasts and documentaries.
Mr. Dalio’s youngest son, Mark, was then an associate producer at National Geographic’s television network. Fascinated by the squid hunt, he persuaded his father to finance a multimedia venture, Alucia Productions, that would chronicle Alucia’s research. In 2017, the ship appeared in the BBC documentary series “Blue Planet II,” which was credited with producing a surge in applications for the study of marine biology.
By that point, Mr. Dalio had purchased the drill ship and was turning it into a suite of mobile laboratories for deep science and public education. For expert advice, he turned not only to his son, to Woods Hole and to Dr. Pieribone of Yale but to the film director James Cameron. The Hollywood mogul knew a great deal about marine science and technology, having plunged to the ocean’s deepest spot in an undersea craft of his own design that he then donated to Woods Hole.
Among other things, Mr. Cameron suggested banks of lighting that would illuminate not only the sea creatures being studied but the experts examining them. Last year, he told Variety that the giant ship, as a set, would illuminate the passion that drove exploration of the ocean.
“You are going to have adversity and psychological challenges,” he said. “The crew will be disappointed, the explorers will be disappointed. But for every moment there’s a setback or challenge, there’s going to be that moment of discovery. You want to take the audience on that roller coaster journey, because that’s what exploration is all about.”
The ship’s giant hangar is designed to hold not only the compact bubble subs the ship has already been outfitted with but larger undersea craft as well. A few of them, including Mr. Cameron’s, can plunge down nearly seven miles to the ocean’s deepest recesses. Their spherical hulls are typically made not of plastic but of superstrong metals such as titanium that can resist the crushing pressures.
Another innovation on OceanXplorer lets the bubble subs send video signals from their cameras to the surface on beams of light, allowing not only rapid consultations with experts aboard the vessel but the live broadcasting of exploratory findings.
“There’s nothing like OceanXplorer,” said Rob Munier, head of marine facilities and operations at Woods Hole. “It’s geared toward taking the concept of great science and great media to the next level.”
The ship’s inaugural voyage is to be profiled in “Mission OceanX,” a six-part series for National Geographic television. BBC and OceanX Media (previously Alucia Productions) are producing the series, and Mr. Cameron is an executive producer. OceanXplorer, after being reconfigured and outfitted in Europe, is now in sea trials. Filming for the television series is to begin early next year.
Mr. Dalio has long called investigations of the oceans more important than space exploration — doing so, for instance, in his best-selling 2017 book, “Principles: Life and Work.”
“The return on investment is so much greater,” he said in the interview, referring to ocean exploration.
A riddle of the modern world, Mr. Dalio added, is why understanding and protecting the ocean gets relatively little money, time and effort compared with outer space. “If you think about the excitement and the importance, there’s no comparison.”