Hundreds of feet beneath the Caribbean's aquamarine surface, self-appointed submarine captain Karl Stanley counts the particles in a beam of light.
If he looks up, he'll see the dark silhouettes of hammerheads circling. If he follows the spotlight to its end, he'll see psychedelic tube sponges gripping the sea wall. Instead, the 29-year-old focuses on particles because they help quantify the lifelong fascination with submarines that landed him on this island off the coast of Honduras.
Down there, the water is so clear that his particle count is close to zero. Down there, a man in a submarine feels as if he can see forever.
Not that many are willing to risk the view. This planet's 330 million cubic miles of water remain almost entirely unexplored. And that drives people like Stanley batty — some so batty that they go into the garage, pull out the wrenches and hacksaws and take matters into their own hands.
Water and Mars
Submarines were invented by a Dutchman in the 1620s, but they had their heyday in the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. It was an era of exploration motivated in no small part by the Cold War. Then-President Lyndon Johnson pushed submarines almost as vigorously as he promoted spacecraft. Between 1965 and 1970, the U.S. built 35 deep submersibles. "The ocean community finally felt as though government was going to provide them with nearly the same level of commitment as it lavished on NASA," says L. Bruce Jones, co-founder of a submarine design and engineering firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But by 1970, half the existing submersibles were inactive. Now less than a dozen subs remain in research use, their duties largely taken over by unmanned vehicles.
Tracy Gregg, a University at Buffalo geology professor, says the sub that carried her on her most recent expedition was commissioned by the Navy in 1964. Every component of the original craft has been replaced over the years. Indeed, the U.S. government has not financed a new research submarine in more than 30 years.
Business also has retreated. "The bread and butter of the whole industry used to be offshore oil stuff, and that's been largely replaced by robots," says Stanley. Very few manned oil subs remain, he says. "You can count them on one hand."
Most underwater work, in fact, is now done by remote-operated vehicles that can stay underwater longer and are generally a lot cheaper to use than manned subs. Gone are the days when researchers could work in submarines simply because they enjoyed it, says Peter Auster, science director at the University of Connecticut's National Undersea Research Center. "It's got to be justified to spend the taxpayer's dollar," he says. "You're not doing this for the gee whiz factor."
But the quest for gee whiz remains a powerful motivator.
"If you say you're building a submarine and you're going 300 feet under the ocean, people will look at you very strange," says Jon Wallace, a New Jersey dad and Hewlett-Packard software engineer who studies underwater craft in his spare time. "Down the road there could be a guy building an airplane that he plans to take 20,000 feet in the air, and no one will think anything of it."
For years Wallace poked around New England's waters, breathing with scuba gear and insulated by a wetsuit. Then he started wondering if there might not be a warmer approach.
Research led him to a group of boaters pondering the same question. In 1996, he co-founded PSUBS.org, an online site for people to indulge their fascination with "personal submersibles."
The site archives references, photos, sketches and news about homemade subs, which typically cost about $15,000, are made of high-strength steel and acrylic and carry one or two people to a depth of up to 300 feet. Driven by an electric motor, with a battery propulsion system, they use compressed air tanks to supply enough air to keep someone alive for up to three days.
The FAQ page on the website addresses such common queries as, "Can I use fiberglass as a pressure hull material?" and, "I was wondering how you cut and weld a propane tank."
"Anyone can build a sub to go down in, but if you want to come back up alive, you have to put some thought into it," says Wallace.
About half the discussions on the website have to do with safety, says Pierre Poulin, 32, a process technician for a Canadian plastics finishing company. Poulin started building his own one-man craft early last year and plans to debut it in summer 2005.
"It's very dangerous to build your own sub," he says. "You never know what is going to happen."
After extensive conversations with his online cohorts, Poulin compiled a list of everything that could possibly go wrong and designed his backup systems accordingly. He will carry scuba gear in the cockpit, limit his depth to 30 feet and will not dive without a companion in the water. "If any two things happen, I can still resurface," he says.
Because such caution is the rule, fatal accidents are rare. Most vehicles have numerous safety features, from manual override systems that allow divers to get into the cockpit to emergency ballast releases that can drop hundreds of pounds if the sub has trouble resurfacing.
But no dive is 100% safe. Example: In the spring of 1990, two young engineers took their three-passenger homemade recreational submarine for a test dive in a lake near Interlochen, Mich. Forty feet below the surface, something went wrong.
"There was a rush of air and then a big bubble came up," a local sheriff told the Detroit Free Press. Investigators later determined that a faulty plexiglass view port had caused the vehicle to implode. Frigid water pushed 27-year-old Gregory Hansen out of the sub, where he bobbed to the surface with severe cuts on his head and body. He was rushed to a decompression chamber and survived. Carl Hardwicke, 29, was trapped inside the sub and died.
Such tales don't seem to have eroded interest.
Wallace's website has grown from six subscribers to 230 and logs up to 10,000 hits per month. "The majority are just guys like me who said, 'Jeez, wouldn't it be nice to have a sub?' " says Wallace.
Two summers ago, Wallace and Keefer started hosting yearly conferences. The August 2003 gathering drew 30 middle-aged men in shorts, T-shirts and rumpled khakis to the Ramada Inn in Manchester, N.H. It could have been a meeting of stamp collectors or vacuum cleaner salesmen if not for the three submarines parked outside.
The participants discussed construction methods and building materials, piloting techniques and safety standards. They fawned over one another's machines. For lunch they shared submarine sandwiches.
Down with tourists
With the government focused more on searching the red planet for water than exploring this planet's blue depths, some in the commercial submarine industry have taken to designing tourist subs. Last year, more than two million passengers paid $150 million to go underwater — usually to shallow depths in subs that carry dozens of passengers. At full capacity, a sub can gross more than $2,000 per trip and take 10 trips a day.
"That's good math," says Stanley, who runs his two home-built subs from a dock on the Honduran island of Roatan. "But I'd get bored." The captains of those high-volume tourist subs run the same routes again and again, he says. "After a while they feel like they're driving an underwater bus."
He has a different way reeling in tourist dollars to subsidize his passion — taking just one or two passengers at a time down deep. At $500 per dive and about 200 trips per year, Stanley makes enough to live comfortably on this third-world island.
But when he opens up his photo album and starts talking about his subs as if they're his progeny, it becomes obvious that this is more than a business venture. "I've wanted to do this since I was 9," he says.
He was only 15 when he started work on his first sub in his parents' garage. Eight years and many raised eyebrows later, he completed C-BUG — "Controlled by Buoyancy Underwater Glider."
Today, the still-seaworthy C-BUG dangles at the end of a quiet dock, alongside his second sub, "Idabel," a bulbous hunk of plexiglass and high-strength steel he pieced together in an Oklahoma airplane hangar last year.
Idabel consists of three spheres, the smallest of which is roughly the size of a commercial washing machine. Passengers board through the top dome, lowering themselves past the many knobs, switches and dials, then shimmy forward to their cushioned seats. Their view ports are 4-inch-thick windows of plexiglass, 19 and 30 inches in diameter. The quarters are tight but not uncomfortable. Stanley's perch is a bicycle seat that swings out from the back wall.
So far, Stanley says he's carried people to 1,500 feet in Idabel. This spring he plans to start taking them half a mile below the surface—deeper than any tourist sub has gone before.
Santos Cortez, a 52-year-old pediatric dentist from Long Beach, was one of Stanley's first passengers in Idabel last fall. He describes the plunge:
After sealing the door, Stanley puts "The Best of Alpha Blondy" in the CD player and eased the craft out of the bay.
"It was eerie," Cortez says. "By the time we got to 800 feet, I was like, 'What am I doing? What did I get into?' "
He lifted his hand to the metal wall. It was freezing. His thoughts started to race. What if Stanley had a heart attack? Would they be stuck there until the air ran out? Would they keep dropping until the pressure crushed the sub and its contents?
He considered asking Stanley to resurface or maybe spend the rest of the trip at 100 feet or so, where he could see the surface and divers could conduct a rescue if necessary.
Then they hit the 1,000-foot mark, and Stanley cut the music and the lights.
"There was no sound," says Cortez. He thought he saw a stream of bubbles creeping up from the base of the sub — a broken seal? — but it was nothing.
As they started to ascend, Stanley flipped on a spotlight that lighted up the sea wall. A school of ghostly, translucent fish glided past the window, and Cortez started to enjoy the ride. The higher they climbed, the more colorful their surroundings became. Hordes of reef fish swarmed in front of the window at about 300 feet. Light filtered down from above.
At the surface, Cortez says, a swarm of camera-firing tourists greeted them as if they were astronauts returning from Mars.
Sub devotees don't seem to mind such comparisons, though most clearly view that other alien environment as far less intriguing.
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Tourists have had the chance to play Capt. Nemo since 1986, when Atlantis Adventures (www.atlantisadventures.com) gave its first submersible tour of the coral reef off Grand Cayman. The company now operates subs on 13 islands in the Caribbean, Hawaii and Guam. Most carry 24 to 64 passengers at once to depths above 100 feet.
A typical, two-hour tour costs about $80 per person. Atlantis' deepest sub, which dives off Grand Cayman, takes two passengers to 1,000 feet for $450 each.
This spring, Karl Stanley's tours (www.stanleysubmarines.com) will be taking two passengers as deep as 2,600 feet for $250 per person, from his dock on the Honduran island of Roatan. Only a few other tour operators run submarine businesses.
With about 50 tourist subs in circulation worldwide, the demand for new ones has tapered off. So some designers are turning their attention to a newer tourism niche: pressurized, underwater hotels where guests can sleep beneath the sea.
"It's like being in their own aquarium," says John Newman, director of Underwater Vehicles, a consulting and chartering company in Vancouver, Canada. His company has several sub-hotel prototypes in the works, one of which will go into production within a year.
U.S. Submarines (www.ussubs.com) is just finishing the design on its first undersea resort, Poseidon, that will eventually float in the Bahamas. The hotel's 550-square-foot suites will sit 33 to 60 feet beneath the surface and rent for $1,500 a night.
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