The Wacky, Risky World Of DIY Submarines

The Wacky, Risky World Of DIY Submarines

When marine scientist Shanee Stopnitzky learned that police had hauled her stolen yellow sub out of San Francisco Bay and taken it to an impound lot, she was relieved. Not for the vehicle, but for whoever took it for a joy ride.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can die,” Stopnitzky told Earther.

Stopnitzky knows the risks better than most, having spent the last year immersing herself in the wild west world of DIY submersibles. This past spring, she quit her PhD program at UC Santa Cruz to become captain of two submersibles, and to lead the Berkeley-based Community Submersibles Project, a 300-strong cooperative of volunteer engineers and fabricators dedicated to upgrading the machines and piloting them at sea.

Fangtooth, a bright yellow 2-person sub with a top-hatch painted to look like Captain America’s shield, was the group’s first acquisition, purchased in March 2018 on six thousand dollar loan. Shortly after its misadventure at the hands of an unknown thief, in June, the group purchased their second submersible, Noctiluca, on a $US100,000 ($135,920) loan from a generous individual. Larger and more powerful than Fangtooth, Noctiluca—formerly S-101—is a diesel-electric sub with a storied history, built by the British-based Marlin Submarines in the 1980s and upgraded by amateurs over the years. In the ‘90s, the sub briefly fell into the hands of to anti-whaling activist organisation Sea Shepherd, where it acquired its distinctive orca whale paint job. The Community Submersibles Project purchased it from its last owner, U.S. Submarines co-founder Ellis Adams, who’d had it in storage in Florida for the past five years.

Ultimately—once both subs are paid off and upgrades and repairs are completed—Stopnitzky and her crew hope to use them conduct exploratory research in some of the most poorly-studied ocean environments on Earth. Their dream destination? The mysterious Tonga trench in the South Pacific.

“The end goal is for our crew to do our own expeditions,” Stopnitzky said. “I would basically be trying to target areas that have been least studied.”

Virtually every type of locomotion has spawned a hobbyist community, from tinkerers who build their own cars to moonlighting aerospace engineers who fly their own ultra-light aircraft. But somehow, the idea of a homemade sub feels even more unusual and dangerous than taking to the skies in a DIY-plane. Perhaps it’s the fact that most of us will never step into a commercial sub in our lives, or that a great deal of technical training is required to safely explore the deep, from knowing how to operate life support systems to navigating poorly-mapped undersea geology, sometimes in total darkness.

You’ve also got to keep any personal claustrophobia and anxiety about being mere inches away from the crushing pressure of the cold, dark sea in check. In that sense, diving in a sub is more like piloting a spaceship than an aircraft.

“There are endless numbers of hazards” at the bottom of the ocean, John Wiltshire, the director of Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa told Earther. He named just a few, including getting stuck under a ledge, trapped in a cave, or simply becoming so mesmerised with your surroundings you forget to keep an eye out for danger.

Those hazards haven’t deterred a niche community of DIY-ers from trying to explore the ocean on their own, without insurance or the aid of an expensive, certified vehicle. Perhaps the most famous of them is Karl Stanley, a self-taught engineer who turned his passion for DIY subs into a thriving business by skirting US government oversight and offering thrill-seekers the chance for a deep sea dive in one of his homemade subs off the coast of Honduras.

He’s the one who sparked Stopnitzky’s interest in submersibles after she spent a week last year doing volunteer work at his business in Roatán in exchange for a dive to 2,000 feet.

“I realised it’s actually not out as far out of reach, engineering-wise, as I was expecting,” she said. “The systems are often really simple.”

Now, the Community Submersibles Project is in a position to try and prove that. Skilled engineers can volunteer to work on the subs, which need upgrades and repairs. Or, folks can pay a membership fee to become part owner of Noctiluca, with higher tier memberships including a comprehensive submarine training course, after which members are allowed to pilot the sub for any non-commercial purpose, from pelagic pleasure-cruises to filmmaking.

Think of it like a food co-op, but for ocean exploration.

Fangtooth is currently only equipped to dive to about 9.14m for half an hour. Stopnitzky says the group would like to upgrade it to become capable of dives to 120 feet for up to 72 hours, by adding an oxygen-diffusing, CO2-scrubbing life support system. Those upgrades are ongoing, but when the sub will be ready to hit the waves again depends on how quickly the Community Submersibles Project can crowdfund the money needed to finish them.

Noctiluca, meanwhile, already has a life support system and is rated for 72 hours underwater and dives of up to several hundred feet. But the sub’s diesel motor, which gives it the somewhat unusual ability to cruise hundreds of miles along the ocean’s surface, needs repairs, and the batteries that power it during dives need replacing. The sub’s loan also needs to be paid off before it can be used, something the group hopes to accomplish through a mix of crowdfunding, renting it out as a prop, and their membership club. 

“It’s mostly financially constrained,” Stopnitzky said. “We have the expertise to make it [the repairs and upgrades] happen right away.”

But while the Community Submersibles Project may indeed have technical expertise, not everyone’s comfortable with this model of community-led ocean exploration. Industry experts cited safety concerns with subs built and upgraded outside the purview of a shipping classification organisation, non-governmental groups that maintain standards for the construction and maintenance of subs.

In the US, certification is necessary for subs to become insured for commercial purposes. While Noctiluca is insured against theft or damage, neither submersible has liability insurance should something go wrong on a dive.

“Strictly speaking I wouldn’t recommend someone go out in a sub like this,” said Bruce Jones, co-founder and President of Triton submarines, where Noctiluca was housed before Stopnitzky and her crew decided to purchase it.

Triton builds a wide array of personal submersibles, geared toward everyone from wealthy thrill-seekers to film crews. Unlike a DIY sub, all of its wares are built to the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) submarine classification standards or to a complementary set of European standards. While certification is, in Jones’ words, “a very arduous process” it ensures every component and life support system is tested and retested before a civilian is allowed to take the vessel out for a spin. Folks in the commercial sub business like to point out that classed civilian subs are, statistically speaking, the safest form of transit in the world.

Most U.S. scientific research also happens in an ABS-certified vessel, according to Wiltshire. He explained that a researcher working with an uncertified vessel won’t get funding from a major U.S. granting organisation like the National Science Foundation or the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Even if private funds could be procured, most major marine science universities’ dive safety officers wouldn’t let their scientists step aboard a backyard sub.

But while certification and major US research partnerships may be out of reach for a group like Community Submersibles Project, there’s not much stopping them from shipping off to sea when their subs ready to go. As far as safety goes, Stopnitzky emphasised that personal subs have an “excellent safety record” and are typically designed by “very serious engineers.”

“Having a good engineer and skilled fabricators makes for a good submersible, not certification,” she said.

Stopnitzky’s ultimate goal is to travel to parts South Pacific that have seen very little undersea exploration. She’d like to survey biodiversity and study the ecology of the diel migration, a vast daily diaspora of ocean life to the surface at night and back into the ocean’s depths when the sun rises.

She says she’s hoping to start another PhD overseas in a year or two, with a department that’ll support such work.

In theory, the possibilities are as wide as the open ocean, given that we’ve only explored a small percentage of it carefully. And Wiltshire—although he felt homemade subs weren’t necessarily safe—admitted there’s likely no shortage of scientists who’d jump at the opportunity to take one for a spin.

“If you’re willing to provide the sub,” he said, “they’re gonna be lined up down the block.”

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