Top 10: Extreme Vacations

#1. Only one thing better than experimenting with high-tech vehicles is turning one into a giant fishing lure — with you inside as bait. Stanley Submarines’ custom-built, submersible Idable ferries you down 1,500 feet off the coast of Roatan, and attached to the sub is live bait designed to lure the seldom seen six-gilled shark. From the depths of the ocean’s blackness, don’t be alarmed when you see this prehistoric specimen — longer than your 13-foot sub — approach one of the sub’s nine 30-inch viewports. You’ll feel Idable rock back and forth as the gentle ocean giant works to dislodge her baited treats.

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Expedition to 2000 feet

Dumbo Octopus near 2000ft

At 610m depth- yes, that’s right- we discovered the deepness of the world.

However, to get there was a long way. First of all, we finally left our car in Belize with a mechanic and were free again. In our usual rush tempo we headed to Honduras. After 3 days travelling almost non-stop we reached the island Roatan. Another Caribbean dream, unfortunately most dreams are pricy. Anyway, the decision for Roatan was clear because of one reason. Karl Stanley takes tourist with his sub Idabel on underwater expedition to a depth of 300m, 460m and 610m. One of my dreams since childhood came true when we decided to go on an expedition. Only two other subs worldwide are open for public and Stanley is the only one who goes to 610m. With great anticipations and a good portion of adrenaline the adventure could start.

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Explore the Ocean Depths in a Homemade Submarine

There are plenty of people with a fascination for exploring the ocean depths. It takes an extraordinary — and quite possibly eccentric — person to actually do so in a submarine they built themselves. American Karl Stanley is that individual. He began building his first sub, the C-BUG (Controlled by Buoyancy Underwater Glider), while still in college, tracking down parts from dusty warehouses and phoning experts for advice.

He made hundreds of dives in C-BUG before completing his second sub, the Idabel, on Roátan island, Honduras. It’s in the Idabel that he now takes plucky tourists down to a maximum of 610 m. The depth is unprecedented for nonprofessionals, but as a sign on Stanley’s shed reads: GO DEEPER.

There is a caveat. Stanley’s sub has not been certified by any authority. You board at your own risk. But he’s had two decades of experience in submarines and hasn’t lost a passenger yet.

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Discovering Deeper Waters

Though many people visit Roatan for their love of the ocean, most often their love remains shallow and superficial. As opposed to the mere 130-foot depths explored by Roatan scuba divers, the world’s oceans have an average depth of over 14,000 feet. Most of the planet is covered in waters that have never seen light and are inhabited by otherworldly animals adapted to this extreme environment. Currently the most accessible point for people to explore this world for themselves is right here on Roatan.

To better understand the uniqueness of the Roatan Institute of Deep-sea Exploration (RIDE) and its current submersible Idabel, it is useful to have a brief history of submersibles. It was in the 1960s that modern submersibles were born, that interest was at the highest in exploring the ocean, (as well as space one could add), and that most developments in submersible design were made as well as in vehicles. It was during this time the submersible Alvin was launched that famously found the Titanic (1964), and the standing record for deep submergence was made by the Trieste to the bottom of the Marianas Trench (1960). In 1968, six men spent over a month drifting 1500 miles in the Gulf stream in a submersible named the Ben Franklin. Television regularly featured the exploits of Cousteau piloting his diving saucer and living underwater in the Conshelf habitats. In short, it was an exciting time to be exploring underwater.

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Six Gill Sharks – Sportfish or Tourism

A few years ago I was in Honduras with our company looking for whale sharks. While the island of Utila turned out to be hit and miss for commercial shark diving I did get a chance to befriend Karl Stanley and his unique shark diving operation on Roatan.

Actually, to be fair, when I first met Karl he had no idea the sharks he was encountering at 2000′ were to become one of the top shark destinations on the planet.

Karl and his submarine “Idabel” had stumbled upon a veritable treasure trove of simply titanic Six Gill sharks off the coast of Roatan. Soon divers, filmmakers, and television productions were seeking Karl out – for good reason.

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Stanley Submarine Ride

Although it is the antithesis of Extreme Shallow Snorkeling, this is without a doubt the single most amazing experience of my life. Our trip lasted about 4 1/2 hours and took us 2,000 feet below the ocean, deep into the Cayman Trench and to the depths below where light ever reaches.

Once we found out that Stanley Submarines were operating again after a hiatus to resolve administrative issues, we were eager to investigate. Steve at Coconut Tree Divers had been down and told us about the experience, sharing photos as well. Karl Stanley is the man behind Stanley Submarines, and the designer and builder of the Idabel, a three-man submersible designed for depths up to 3,000 feet. During our lunch break from diving, we headed to the Roatan Institute of Deep Sea Exploration, conveniently located on Half Moon Bay, where we were staying.

On the pier that serves as launching platform for the Idabel, we rang the scuba tank and Karl came out to greet us. We learned we could charter his vehicle, and he would serve as captain. Karl briefed us on the various options, from relatively short excursions to a specialized shark dive that would take up to seven hours. On dives focused on seeing Six-gill Sharks, Karl typically affixes a pig’s head to the submarine, then descends to 2,000 feet to wait in darkness until a Six-gill Shark larger than the sub finds and eats the head. Because we were interested in seeing a variety of life, Karl configured a custom itinerary for us that would take us to the deep sea reefs, the End of the Line, a boat Karl had sunk at 1,400 feet and other nearby areas.

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Dangerous Encounters: Jurassic Shark

Plunging to extreme ocean depths, braving frigid waters, and dodging razor sharp teeth, Brady Barr is on a quest to get close up to one of the worlds most mysterious, deep-sea sharks- the giant sixgill shark. Brady goes 1700 feet down to find a giant shark, but these descendents of Jurassic-era sharks don’t seem to appreciate his effort.

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Capt. Stanley’s unlicsensed, DIY shark dives

Karl Stanley is a very happy man: he just found a dead horse.

The entrepreneur made the discovery while cruising in his submarine, the Idabel, 1,700 feet beneath the waters off Roatan, Honduras. At that depth, amid jagged black boulders and hills of sediment, you can see some amazing creatures: lobsters with spindly arms as long as their bodies, silver-skinned fish the size of a cavalry saber, orange anglerfish with jaws locked in a perpetual grin.

But to see the really big beasts, you need some really big bait. So eight hours earlier, Stanley had bought a tired old horse from a nearby stable, led it onto a boat, shot it in the head, tied cinder blocks to its hooves, and dumped it in the ocean.

The sea this morning was rough, and an unexpected lurch tossed the carcass overboard before Stanley had reached his intended spot. In these murky depths, finding lost objects – even one as large as a horse – can be tough. But there it is, the body stiff but intact, and a foot-long, clawless crustacean called an isopod crawling up its flank.

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In Too Deep

With a fizz of compressed gas and an ominous gurgling, the moss-coloured ocean swallows the little yellow submarine. We sink from the surface, the contraption plunging far below boats carrying tourists on the surface – deeper and deeper into the watery blue-blackness of the Caribbean.

I’m jammed into a steel sphere, my legs already cramping in the tight, hot compartment of the submarine. I feel bouts of claustrophobia break over me and then recede. There is a four-inch-thick acrylic viewing dome separating me from the mounting water pressure outside as we slide down alongside a coral wall.

And then the rapid descent. The sun’s rays fight to penetrate this depth as we fall deeper and the darkness begins to enfold us.

It’s like those stories you hear of people dying and going towards the light, except in reverse – we are fading to black. At 200ft, most natural light has gone, leaving a murky, colourless gloom.

‘There, right there,’ says Karl, the submarine’s pilot, turning on powerful spotlights that illuminate a tattered wetsuit and a scuba diver’s algae-encrusted BCD (buoyancy control device).

‘That belonged to a New Yorker called Bugsy who came here to commit suicide. He just sank from the surface and was never seen again. That’s his stuff.’ The nylon straps billow and undulate in the current, a dying man’s valedictory wave. We tumble past, downwards.

A depth gauge on my left reads 500ft, but we still have a long way to go.

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Off the Deep End

Karl Stanley’s homemade submarine has sprung a leak. It’s a discovery both fortuitous and disconcerting. Fortuitous because I notice it as we bob on the surface of the placid Caribbean Sea, just a few hundred feet off the Honduran island of Roatán. Disconcerting because it’s 8:30 p.m. and we’re about to spend the night 1,600 feet down searching for the six-gill shark, an enigmatic 15-foot, 1,300-pound predator that patrols these depths.

“That’s just the O-ring,” Stanley reassures me as water wells up in the window and drips to the floor. Apparently the rubber washer meant to seal the window separating us from watery doom is feeling a touch rebellious. “It doesn’t have enough compression on it. Hopefully it will fix itself under pressure.” Stanley is a problem solver, and he casually throws me a towel to wipe up the moisture, more concerned about the corrosive properties of saltwater than the possibility of a catastrophic breach.

The words homemade and submarine aren’t commonly paired, but Stanley, a 34-year-old self-taught engineer, has built two DIY subs, safely logging more than 1,000 dives. Still, sitting in Idabel, the cramped three-person craft he built on a shoestring, I can’t help but recall that a faulty O-ring caused the space shuttle Challenger, with its NASA Ph.D.’s and multi-billion-dollar budget, to blow up. Stanley turns a handle, filling the ballast tanks with water, and we begin to sink into unexplored darkness.

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