Just recently, Graham Hawkes tracked down a group of hammerhead sharks. Along for the ride on his Deepflight Super Falcon at the time was an investor named Tom Perkins, a potential client. "We were literally stalking them from below," Hawkes says. "It felt like flying in liquid sky."
Hawkes is an engineer in Point Richmond, California, and his workshop is located at the town's marina, directly on San Francisco Bay. Visitors don't exactly wander in here often, but when they do come, they generally have full pockets. Hawkes builds submarines for millionaires.
His company, Hawkes Ocean Technologies, is one of a number of businesses that specialize in taking the superrich diving. Hawkes' asking price for the Deepflight Super Falcon, for example, is $1.7 million (€1.3 million). American manufacturer SEAmagine's Ocean Pearl costs even more, at $2.5 million, but has the benefit of being able to dive to depths of around 900 meters (3,000 feet).
Triton Submarines, based in Vero Beach, Florida, is another company that specializes in submersibles for the well to do. "Our customers are large yacht owners who want to offer their friends and their family something special," says Bruce Jones, CEO of Triton. In the deep sea, "they can show them things they have never seen before."
Crisis Hasn't Stopped Demand
The financial crisis hasn't stopped the demand for submarines, says Jones, 55. "There are 2,500 large yachts in the world today," he adds, and most of them have enough room to carry a submarine.
Today, Jones is in the Bahamas for a trial run. Around 20 prospective clients have come to Grand Bahama Island to try out Triton's submarines. From the dock in McLeans Town, a speedboat zips them across the turquoise water to the Atlantis II, a retired research vessel Jones uses as the mother ship for his submarine fleet.
The mustachioed CEO welcomes his guests on the deck, where two yellow submersibles sit waiting. Voluminous floats mounted on their sides also function as ballast tanks. Triton's trademark features, however, are the acrylic spheres jutting from the top and bottom of the submarines, offering a 360-degree panoramic view.
A shipboard crane lowers the three-seater Triton 3300/3, which weighs eight metric tons (nine US tons), into the water. The guests board through a hatch in the top. Pilot Troy Engen points to two black valves located behind the gray artificial leather seats and explains they can be used to quickly "bring it (the submarine) up in an emergency."
"Roger, payload is okay," Engen then calls into the headset that keeps him in contact with the Atlantis II. The pilot lets water gush into the floats.
A few waves crash over the submarine, then it's calm again. The only sounds are the whirring of the electric motors and the hum of the air conditioning.
Straight Out of a 'Bond' Movie
Engen pushes the small black joystick on the control panel forward. "Heading 285 (degrees)," he reports to the ship above. "Life support (systems) OK." The Triton continues on its whirring way, gliding just above a reef like something out of a James Bond movie.
Colorful fish glow in the submarine's LED headlights. A nurse shark whooshes past below the passengers' feet -- a surreal experience, since the acrylic wall of the cockpit, around 16 centimeters (6 inches) thick, becomes invisible under water. "Pretty amazing, right?" asks Engen, good-humored and tan.
The Triton 3300/3 can remain under water for around 10 hours and its purchasing price is about $3 million. Most of the company's customers wish to remain anonymous; Jones recently sold two submarines to an Australian businessman with a private island in Belize.
Jones' next idea is to take tourists under the sea. He's building an underwater resort with submerged suites (price per week: $15,000) off a private island in the Fiji archipelago. Five submarines will be on hand to ferry guests across artificial reefs during the day. "I am just an old kid living a dream," the CEO says. As a boy, he wrote letters to legendary French oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, though Jones says regretfully, "Sadly, he never wrote back."
Triton's submarines are large and heavy machines, hardly useable without a mother ship, but Graham Hawkes in California has developed a very different submarine concept. His vessels are sportier and slimmer -- they look like small airplanes with truncated wings.
A 'Flight Over Ancient Shipwrecks'
"We're building the Learjets of the deep," says the inventor, who likes to compare his work with that of aviation pioneers. He speaks in flowery terms, promising a "flight over ancient shipwrecks," "barrel-rolling with the dolphins" and "skyhopping with whales."
A new design principle makes these lightweight vessels possible. Unlike other submarines, Deepflight models don't sink using their own weight, instead applying a similar principle of physics to that used by airplanes: When water streams across the inverted wings, the underwater vessel is drawn downward.
One of the Super Falcons stands propped up in Hawkes' workshop in Point Richmond. Two hemispheres of Plexiglas curve up from the top of the cigar-shaped submarine, resembling fighter jet cockpits. Hawkes clambers into the front cockpit and explains the technology involved. A joystick steers the submarine. Instruments indicate cabin pressure and oxygen content in the air. A compass and artificial horizon provide orientation even in murky water.
This latter-day Captain Nemo has completed around 200 dives with his submarines. A few months ago, Hawkes traveled to the Gulf of Aqaba at the invitation of Jordan's King Abdullah II. With researchers onboard, Hawkes saw nearly all of Jordan's coast. "We flew along the whole contour of a coral reef," he recalls. "I felt like a bush pilot."
Graham Hawkes and his wife Karen have set up a "flight school" for submarines as a way of attracting new clients. Many of the customers are enormously wealthy CEOs. Virgin founder Richard Branson, for example, recently purchased one of Hawkes' Merlin submarines, which the billionaire now rents out to visitors on his private Caribbean isle of Necker Island for $25,000 a week.
Plans for More Affordable Subs
But Hawkes has plans to make his submarines affordable for the less wealthy as well. He hopes to be able to bring the price for his "Ferraris of the ocean" down to around $250,000, as soon as there is high enough demand for the Deepflight vessels. "We've uncovered a new customer base with our submarines that nobody had thought of," Hawkes says, expressing hope for his business' future development.
When that happens, the super rich will have to look for something more exclusive -- perhaps the Phoenix 1000 model, made by manufacturer US Submarines, also part of Triton CEO Jones' submarine empire.
Passengers on this 65-meter (210-foot) submersible yacht can travel in comfort both above and below water. Its luxury berths easily hold 20 guests. The manufacturer promotes the Phoenix 1000 as a the unique "opportunity to explore the depths of the world's oceans in perfect comfort and safety."
Such luxury comes at a price, of course. The Phoenix 1000 costs approximately $80 million.