A Sinking Feeling

I’ve been chewed up and spit out by a number of woman in my life, but in terms of sheer nastiness, what Idabel did to me off the coast of Roatán on August 20, 2006, was flat unconscionable. It’s not that I was unaware of the threat she posed. What’s a relationship without a whiff of danger? I knew Idabel could take me places I’d never been, that we could plumb seemingly boundless depths together. But I never could have predicted the pain.

To be clear, Idabel is a submarine—a yellow submarine, actually, the size of a VW Bug. She was built by the deep-sea explorer Karl Stanley, an American-born resident of Roatan, one of Honduras’s Bay Islands. The island sits on the edge of the Cayman Trench, which means any time Stanley wants to take Idabel out for a spin, he only has to putter a few hundred feet from his dock before the seafloor plunges more than 7,000 feet. As it happened, I was in Roatan for some underwater exploration myself, albeit with a mask and tank. But scuba can take you only so deep. Stanley was ferrying tourists to 2,000 feet—20 times deeper than the recreational scuba limit. His Web site promised a magical world seldom seen by human eyes, a world of bioluminescent sea goblins, of strange corals that require no sunlight, of fish that stand on their heads.

I called him to schedule a ride.

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Submarinaro Amarillo

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Trust me…

It was just past midnight and I was starting to fade. So were my companions Karl Stanley and his girlfriend Jan Olson. We were sitting on the bottom of the ocean in Karl’s submersible, Idabel. Sixteen hundred feet of saltwater separated us from the surface. Jan and I dozed in the forward passenger compartment while Karl worked quietly just behind us in the cockpit. Mechanical noises came and went: the air scrubber, the oxygen regulator, a toggle switch were and there. It all helped lull me to sleep. If it weren’t for the cold condensation that occasionally dripped on my head, it was have been the perfect place for a good night’s rest. However, I wasn’t supposed to be resting. It was my watch.

Try as I might, my eyelids were heavy and I blinked for undetermined amounts of time. But, somewhere between dreamland and reality, if a difference exists and this depth, I spotted an apparition the sub. “Shark,” I began to yell, but stifled it. A giant for glided past our window and back into the darkness. Silently the specter of the deep had passed.

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Yellow Submarine

We hit 800 feet and keep descending, which is about the time Karl Stanley turns off the lights, turns on the Pink Floyd and revolutionizes my impression of the underwater world forever. We’re plunging headlong into the 12,000-foot Cayman Trench off Roatan in Stanley’s three-person yellow submarine, Idabel, and bioluminescent life forms are swooshing past the viewing portal, thousands of them, a cascading array of fiery objects. It’s like riding Halley’s Comet through outer space. “Wooooooow,” is all I can think to say. “Once you get deep enough, 90 percent of everything is bioluminescent,” says Stanley, who’s been deeper than 2,000 feet in this thing.

“Wooooooow,” I repeat, psychedelically.

The adrenaline rush actually started early this morning, before I’d even stepped inside Stanley’s magic sub. I’d signed on for a series of activities that included a 110-foot wreck dive, two fabulous wall dives and, during my surface interval, a zip-line canopy tour through the jungle 70 feet off the ground. Now it’s nighttime, and I’m 1,650 feet beneath the ocean surface, with Stanley using a green laser to point out chimera sharks, isopods, fish-eating tunicates and other freaky creatures that never break 1,000 feet.


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Do-it-yourself ahoogah

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.

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Run Silent, Run Cheap

Karl Stanley, 28, was in the third grade when he told his family he was going to build his own submarine. He spent years reading voraciously about subs and called professional designers for advice. When he turned 15 he got serious and, with savings from his after-school job in an ice cream shop, bought a 9-foot-long, 2-foot-diameter pipe for $500 from a metal supply store. He had it towed to his parents’ Ridgewood, N.J. home, where he paid another $200 to a boat welder to put strengthening rings inside, picking up pointers on welding as he went.

He worked on his sub off and on throughout high school, then hauled it with him on a boat trailer to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he paid for its completion by buying and selling used textbooks. After eight years and $20,000 in parts and supplies, he finally submerged in 1997, the same week he graduated from college.

Dubbed C-Bug (for “controlled buoyancy underwater glider”), Stanley’s sub operates without a motor or propellers. Six ballast tanks, three on each side, project from the hull-like wings. By letting in water and then pushing it out with compressed air from tanks, Stanley can dive, swoop to a depth of 700 feet and soar back up, like a glider in an airstream. He’s at work now on a new sub–a three-person job he says will descend to 3,000 feet.

Submerged, Stanley has been chased by schools of amberjacks. Topside, he’s been hounded by other nosy creatures. Boats from the Coast Guard and Florida Marine Patrol once converged on him, the authorities demanding to know exactly what this thing was and whether it might not be obstructing sea lanes. “They held me up for about two hours,” he recalls. “They had guns, bulletproof vests, and they’re flipping through this little book looking for a law.” What rules, though, applied to a 16-foot boat without a motor? Legally it was the same as a canoe. “Finally they just let me dive,” he says. “There was nothing they could do.”

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The Pipe Dreamer

At age 15, it had never occurred to Karl Stanley that he wouldn’t be able to do whatever he set his mind to. So why should welding together his own submarine—and taking it to depths that frighten formally trained engineers—be any different?

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Confessions of a Backyard Submarine Builder

At 15, Karl Stanley began building a sub from a length of steel pipe. Here’s the crazy part: It worked. Today, at 28, he’s building his second sub and dreaming of underwater Jacuzzis, as he explains in this interview.

Karl Stanley’s first submarine, C-BUG (Controlled by Buoyancy Underwater Glider), is easily one of the most innovative personal submarines ever made. The lightweight craft operates primarily without the help of any motor, and even more impressive, it began as a ten-foot-long [three-meter-long] steel pipe, which Stanley began welding in his parents backyard 13 years ago. At the time, Stanley was a high school sophomore with no formal welding experience, let alone an engineering degree.

A year after C-BUG’s completion in 1997, Stanley found a home for his yellow submarine just outside U.S. waters. At the Inn of Last Resort in Roatán, Honduras, Stanley and C-BUG take paying passengers to greater and greater depths—up to 725 feet [221 meters]—and into rarely seen realms of the Caribbean.

Now, after four years, Stanley, 28, is looking to go deeper. Between his time in Roatán and visiting friends around the world, Stanley has a semipermanent residence in Idabel, Oklahoma. There he is building his second sub, fondly named after its birthplace. He estimates that Idabel will be complete by May 2003.

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Depth Perception

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Sub builder featured in magazine

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