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A new class of private submarines has become the latest plaything for the super rich. They allow would-be adventurers to navigate the wonders of the coral reefs, explore shipwrecks or even to cruise alongside dolphins. The cheapest models start at $1.7 million, but prices can go as high as $80 million.
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.
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.
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.
"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.