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Dive dive dive: new adventure for Virgin stuntman

by Staff Writers
Newport Beach, California (AFP) April 5, 2011
Around the world in a balloon; across the Atlantic in a boat; into space for fun: Richard Branson is nothing if not media-friendly.

And the flamboyant Virgin chief showed his publicity stunt mastery again this week, with plans to plumb the depths of the world's oceans with a flying mini-submarine.

"I'd rather have Virgin on the sub than British Airways," quipped Branson, referring to his infamous airline rivalry when pressed on how much he thinks of Virgin's brand profile when he plans his adventures.

He made the comment while welcoming journalists onto his yacht in sun-dappled Newport Beach to show them Virgin Oceanic, the winged single-seater craft he hopes will plumb the deepest points in the world's five oceans.

For the event Virgin had issued a teaser invitation promising, Apple's Steve Jobs-style, a "global media announcement," although the location and headline "From Deep Space to Deep ...?" gave a suggestion.

Branson will himself undertake at least one of the dives -- to the Atlantic's Puerto Rico trench -- helpfully close to his Necker island home -- which has never been explored at a depth of 28,232 feet (8,605 m).

The 60-year-old, who made his initial fortune in the record industry, heads Virgin Atlantic airlines and has also launched a string of other companies in sectors such as railways, mobile phones, Internet access and soft drinks.

Few of Branson's Virgin Group ventures have been complete without some attention-grabbing launch featuring the boss himself.

An early eye-catching stunt was when Branson shaved off his trademark beard and donned a wedding dress and make-up to announce Virgin Bride, an ill-fated wedding company some said was largely devised for the sake of its name.

Branson has also set a series of aviation and nautical adventure records, although he failed, despite numerous attempts, to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a balloon.

Branson began young, launching a student-aimed magazine while still at private school before setting up Virgin Records aged just 20.

His breakthrough came with "Tubular Bells", a 1973 instrumental album by British rock act Mike Oldfield which sold millions of copies and made Branson wealthy.

The record label was sold off in 1992, but by that time Branson had already branched out into aviation, setting up Virgin Atlantic in 1984 and building it into Britain' second-biggest airline.

Much of Branson's publicity over the years has been based around his adventuring, in which he has tackled a number of trans-ocean records in a speedboat, balloon, and most recently, an amphibious car.

These exploits brought Branson close to tragedy in 1998 when he and his co-pilot were forced to ditch their balloon in the Pacific Ocean after low pressure forced the craft down.

In more recent years publicity has centred on Virgin Galactic which plans to offer commercial space travel, including for tourists who simply want to experience it, by early 2012.

Last year Branson launched a glossy magazine for the iPad, getting the jump on News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch in the race to develop publications for the hot Apple device.

But the British adventurer was forced to cancel his bid to kitesurf across the England Channel between Britain and France, after rough seas and high winds scuppered the attempt.

While his deep-sea project is initially in a single-seater craft, he made clear in Newport Beach that he saw it going the same way as Virgin Galactic, which started small before planning to offer an eight-seater space craft.

"At Virgin we believe that there are thousands of people who'd like to explore the oceans, and become aquanauts," he said.

While acknowledging the personal risks he has taken over the years through his adventurers, he insisted he does them simply because he wants to experience as much as possible before he dies.

"I love life, and would hate to depart sooner than is necessary," he said, to laughter. "But equally one of the reasons I love life is because I live life to its full.

Speaking of the deep-sea project, he said: "I'm damned if I'd miss an opportunity like this ... It's an irresistible challenge you have to say Yes to."

Besides, he added: "If we survive it, we'll hopefully have better conversations at the dinner table in future."

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