Bored With Snorkeling? Time to Take a Dive In a Yellow Submarine

For years people have rented cars, tuxedos, costumes, bicycles, folding chairs, even supermarket carpet-cleaning machines.

Now about to surface, at a rental cost most adults can afford at least once, is the two-passenger recreational submarine.

The new water toy is bound to make a splash at resorts and hotels. And it sure beats a canoe ride around a lake. It's a unique way for children and adults to explore a treasure trove of marine life.

SEAmobile was designed by entrepreneur Will Kohnen who got the idea for an "inexpensive" recreational sub while snorkeling in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1984.

"I couldn't believe how much marine life I was seeing in Acapulco waters with just snorkeling equipment," says Mr. Kohnen, an engineer at the time for one of California's top aerospace industries.

"And I hadn't even gone very deep. Later, when the idea of building a small submarine hit me, I realized that to attract customers a viewing depth of 50 feet would be plenty," he says.

SEAimagine Hydrospace Corp. of Claremont, Calif., is the builder of this highly engineered, sophisticated submersible, which last summer made 130 test dives of more than 50 feet off California's Catalina Island.

According to Mr. Kohnen, the company president, so much safety has been built into this product that even a 12-year-old can be trusted to man the controls.

One of the SEAmobile's biggest boosters is veteran underwater expert Don Walsh, president of International Maritime Inc., a firm that specializes in underwater projects.

Mr. Walsh made world headlines in 1960 when he dove almost seven miles beneath the ocean near Guam in a research sub named Trieste.

"A number of small, personal submarines have been built in the last 30 years, only most of them were undercapitalized and not insurable," Walsh says. "But the SEAmobile people are different. They have taken their time. They have built a foolproof submersible that is simple, rugged, and affordable.

"They have surveyors coming into their shop on a regular basis to make sure that their standards are in keeping with the American Bureau of Shipping, which will eventually classify their product," Walsh says. "[SEAimagine] is building an underwater craft that will be both practical and insurable."

Outstanding safety is provided by having an experienced diver tethered to the sub's deck, directly behind the waterproof bubble that holds the passengers and the controls they use to operate the sub. Also engineered into that deck are waterproof controls that the diver can use to override passenger decisions in emergencies. In addition, there is constant three-way radio communication between passengers, diver, and the support boat crew that remains anchored on the surface of the water. Part of that boat crew's job is to keep surface traffic away from the dive area.

"Diving can be an awesome yet peaceful feeling," Kohnen explained. "Things immediately become very quiet when you close the top of the bubble and begin to slip beneath the water's surface. And with 360 degree vision, you never feel confined."

The cost for a two-passenger SEAmobile is expected to be around $200,000, along with a yearly maintenance contract not included in the price.

It will cost each of the two passengers $90 an hour to dive in the SEAmobile's pressurized hull - a huge acrylic bubble.

What Kohnen eventually did was to recruit 18 investors, including himself. Three of those investors gave up top-level engineering jobs to work full time on the sub's development. Overall the 18 partners raised $750,000 in project funds in just one year.

The SEAmobile - constructed from a combination of aluminum, fiberglass, and modern acrylics - is powered by 20 all-electric batteries. They resemble car batteries in size and can be recharged overnight. The sub has a maximum speed of 2 knots.

Basically the approximately 14-foot-long yellow SEAmobile resembles a two-passenger helicopter, minus the helicopter's vertical shaft and the propeller itself.

Inside the cabin, controls designed to make the sub move consist of a joy stick and push buttons. Passenger instruction takes about five minutes.

The SEAmobile's chief asset will be its low price, compared with other recreational subs costing millions, Kohnen says.

Once testing is completed early this year, the SEAmobile will be classified by the American Bureau of Shipping and certified by the US Coast Guard to the same standards as recreational submarines costing millions and designed to hold 48 passengers.

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