The perfect gift for a billionaire friend: a personal submarine

You don’t have to be a scientist or a naval officer to explore the ocean's depths

South Florida Dive Journal

What do you get for the billionaire who has everything? Maybe a new toy for the mega-yacht, like a tiny submarine. For the ultra-rich, the deep sea is now the most exclusive of playgrounds.

This week Triton Submarines will show off its line of personal subs, complete with comfy seats, air conditioning and transparent acrylic hulls for that eye-popping view, at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.

The Vero Beach, Fla., company makes four different models that can be launched from boats. The smallest is just 3.2 m long, meaning it won’t take up too much space on the deck. The battery-powered submersibles, which stay underwater for several hours, can carry two or three passengers, including a pilot, to depths from 300 to 1,000 m. “Tritons are designed to be highly intuitive to operate,” says Marc Deppe, vice-president of sales and marketing. With a few weeks of training, owners can learn to pilot the vessel themselves.

For many of Triton’s clients, price is no object. Large luxury yachts can resemble floating villas, with a full staff and maybe a disco or helipad. On what’s reported to be the world’s largest yacht, the 180-m Azzam (commissioned by an anonymous billionaire), it could cost $100,000 to fill the fuel tank. Someone like that “typically isn’t going to get much heartburn about adding a submersible,” Deppe says, but for those who aren’t convinced, Triton’s launching a new luxury sub charter service so they can try one out without the $2- to $3-million price tag.

Vancouver-based Atlantis Submarines is one of a tiny number of companies that’s been taking tourists underwater for years. “We built our first sub in the Cayman Islands in 1985,” says president and CEO Dennis Hurd. He calls Atlantis—which operates in Hawaii, Barbados, Aruba, Guam, the Mexican island of Cozumel and the Caymans—the largest underwater tourism company in the world. More than 14 million people have taken a ride on their subs, which typically fit 48 passengers and measure 20 m long (a 2½-hour ride costs about $90, putting it within reach of non-billionaires). “They cruise very slowly, close to the reefs” so everybody gets a good view, and can dive to a depth of 46 m. “We like to show people the real ocean,” he says.

Nuytco Research Ltd., also in Vancouver, which creates underwater technologies like high-tech diving suits and remotely operated vehicles, designed and built the Curasub, which operates on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. For about $600 per person, the sub can take passengers 300 m down. By comparison, “Scuba divers don’t go to 40 m,” says Phil Nuytten, founder and president of Nuytco. Down there, “the reefs are just unbelievable. Absolutely pristine,” he continues. “There’s fish everywhere, and moray eels sticking out of every crevice.” Nuytco is looking into a similar sub tour in the Mediterranean, where there are two Roman wrecks that would make for an interesting sightseeing trip.

And not all sub owners are show-offs, says Nuytten, a legendary Canadian deep-sea explorer and inventor. “I think the days of sticking your thumbs under your suspenders and saying, ‘I’ve got a sub and you don’t,’ are long over.” Billionaires are increasingly keen to use subs for research and exploration. He points to Ted Waitt, co-founder of computer company Gateway Inc., based in Irvine, Calif., whose mega-yacht Plan B is outfitted with a Nuytco Dual DeepWorker two-person sub that can operate at depths of up to 600 m.“They do real science,” like environmental impact studies in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. Canadian filmmaker James Cameron has also visited and filmed the wrecks of the Titanic and the battleship Bismarck. In March, the Avatar director piloted a self-designed sub, the DeepSea Challenger, 11 km to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the ocean’s deepest point, to shoot video and collect samples. The trench bottom had only been visited once before, in 1960.

If Triton has its way, even the Mariana Trench will soon be accessible to the ultra-wealthy tourist on a special sub it is now developing. The projected cost? A quarter of a million per seat.

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