Byline: Taylor Hill
SAN DIEGO — When Newport Beach resident Chris Welsh first purchased the one-time round-the-world record-setting catamaran Cheyenne in San Francisco, he probably didn’t envision it would result in a chain of events that would lead him to buy a submarine and sink a dead whale off San Diego’s coast.
“I went to San Francisco to buy a boat and found out there was a submarine, too,” Welsh said at a Newport Harbor Nautical Museum facility unveiling last summer. “The rest is history.”
Discovering the deep-sea submarine that fellow adventurer and previous Cheyenne owner Steve Fossett had been constructing prior to his death in 2007 has led Welsh on a previously uncharted adventure. Thanks to a partnership forged between Welsh and billionaire adventurer Richard Branson, the two are planning to use the submarine and dive to the five deepest points of the world’s oceans, sailing aboard Cheyenne to each destination.
While the planned Virgin Oceanic expedition is currently on hold — the submarine is expected to be tested in short dives off Newport Beach’s coast next month — the team has been keeping busy, with Branson chasing great white sharks in a different submarine off Baja California and Welsh using Cheyenne as a support boat for a paddleboarder who set out on a 260-mile trip off California’s coast to raise money for cancer research.
With the deep-sea dives approaching, Welsh decided to test his boat’s capabilities in a different task: whale sinking.
On Nov. 25, Welsh boarded his catamaran with a team of scientists to sink a whale that had originally washed up on a beach in Point Loma Nov. 19, but had been towed to Mission Bay’s Fiesta Island, where research could be conducted. There, scientists performed a necropsy and determined that the whale had been hit by a ship, breaking its back and resulting in its death.
The 67-foot fin whale had been causing San Diego city officials some headaches as they pondered options to dispose of the massive mammal carcass. Before Virgin Oceanic volunteered its services, the plan was to cut the whale into small pieces and dump the remains in a landfill.
“This fin whale was almost twice as big as the average gray whale that washes up on the beach, and it would have been a Herculean task for the city to deal with,” said Eddie Kisfaludy, operations manager for Virgin Oceanic. “The obvious solution was to tow it out to sea and sink it.”
After getting approval from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — the ultimate authority on marine mammals in the United States — Welsh, the Virgin Oceanic team and representatives from NOAA, Scripps and SeaWorld boarded Cheyenne and towed the whale offshore, 12 miles west of Pacific Beach.
With the whale floating below the tramp of the catamaran in between the two hulls, Welsh was in charge of lancing, releasing gases inside the whale that were causing it to float. Around 14,000 pounds of steel chain was tied to its back fin, and the whale sank in 2,500 feet of water near the Loma Submarine Canyon.
“The boat’s capability was the key ingredient,” Welsh said. “We needed to be able to carry 14,000 pounds of weight, lift it onto the boat and be able to tow a whale. The catamaran was pretty ideal for all of that.”
The “whale fall” was the largest such mission ever conducted, and it will be researched over the next two years by Scripps researchers via R.O.V.s (remotely operated underwater vehicles).
“Think of a whale fall as a whale recycling program,” Kisfaludy said. “Trash it or recycle it? Returning a whale to the ocean provides a natural source of food and nutrients to animals that live on the sea floor.”
While the whale fall may seem to be a bit off course for Virgin Oceanic’s deep-sea dive adventures, Welsh pointed out that the team hopes to sink a whale in the Mariana Trench — a future dive destination — for research.
“This was a great opportunity to understand what it takes to sink a whale and what the complexities are,” Welsh said. “This just makes it easier for the next time. And in the realm of the United States, we’ve gone from whale-fall novices to whale-fall experts in just one easy whale (experience).”