I just landed on Roatán Island in Honduras for a sanity-questioning adventure with maverick Karl Stanley. According to National Geographic in 2002, Stanley once broke into a police station to destroy parking tickets, and teen troubles at a reform school landed him in a New Jersey state mental hospital, which surprisingly had nothing to do with the submarine he started building at age 15. The week he graduated from college, the New Jersey native took C-BUG, his first sub, on its maiden dive. Early issues included leaks, blown gaskets and a cracked window at 600 feet that soaked a passenger with seawater. With his new submarine Idabel, Stanley runs unlicensed and uninsured passenger dives in Honduras, one of the few countries that would allow it. Stanley famously tells people their only insurance is that “I am going with you.” In other words, if you die, I die, too.
I booked the submarine-dive option that goes 2,000 feet underwater. My future wife, who joined me on the adventure, said, “We absolutely cannot tell my family what we are about to do.”
Through a series of emails, I scheduled the submarine dive for Thanksgiving weekend. Stanley’s Roatán Institute of Deepsea Exploration (RIDE) operates out of Roatán, the largest of the Bay Islands located off the Caribbean coast of Honduras. The Bay Islands are Bonacca Ridge peaks from the extensive Mesoamerican Barrier Reef that one National Geographic writer favorably compared to the Great Barrier Reef. Christopher Columbus, so the story goes, helped name Honduras—an Old Spanish word for “depths”—in part after the Cayman Trench that drops to more than 25,000 feet right off the shoreline. This steep ocean topography allows Idabel to depart from the dock in Half Moon Bay as opposed to needing a boat to take the sub out to sea.
We met Stanley for the first time at 10 a.m. on the day of our dive. At the docks, Idabel hung a few feet above the water right in front of Stanley’s residence. The bright yellow sub looked smaller than I had expected. When we arrived, a man shouted toward the house, and Stanley appeared on his white-picket balcony wearing a light brown shirt, shorts and no shoes. Speaking in Spanish, the man on the dock said something about Tarzan right as Stanley grabbed a metal bar and sailed over the water to the dock on a zipline.
“I’m sorry, but we have a bit of a problem,” the sub captain said. Apparently he left Idabel’s lights on overnight—or at least that’s how we interpreted his tech speak—and it did not have enough juice for the dive. Furthermore, he had German scientists arriving the next morning for a week of deep-sea research, so we only had one option: “We have to reschedule for tonight.”
On a normal day dive, the submarine enters perpetual darkness at around 1,800 feet. For us, darkness would now come much earlier, but it also meant we had a better chance of seeing strange marine life. Pre-gaming with tropical cocktails at sunset, we returned to the dock at night.
Stanley’s youthful antics clearly gave his family fits, but the doctors at the mental hospital realized he was crazy in a good way and quickly ended his unwarranted stay. In reality, this brilliant young man merely had an explorer’s spirit that led to extreme risks, and he epitomized this spirit as the submarines’ human guinea pig. On his own without passengers, he often pushed the limits even taking Idabel to 2,660 feet. Should he ever go too deep, the sub will implode to the size of a small metal ball.
Infamous pirates like Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, Nicholas Van Horn, Laurens De Graff and John Coxen once chugged rum on the shores of Roatán, and possible Indiana Jones-inspiration Frederick Mitchell-Hedges supposedly found treasure chests here in the 1930s and called the islands remnants of mythical Atlantis. Stanley’s many submarine endeavors included sanctioned treasure searches near Cuba, but he chose to base his operations out of Roatán for other reasons. In addition to the offshore trench, the island allowed him to share his love of deep-sea exploration with the public at a low price unavailable anywhere else.
The budget dive (as of September 2015) for two passengers runs $1,000 (plus tax) to go 1,000 feet underwater. The 2,000-foot dive costs $1,800, while the Lophelia Reef Dive adds a sea-coral oasis at $2,400. Jaws-obsessed fans can even fork over $3,000 for the six-gill shark hunt in which Stanley attaches bait to the sub, dives deep at night and silently waits for hours. In time, a prehistoric shark longer than the sub will take the bait and give Idabel a heart-stopping shake. On our 2,000-foot night dive, Stanley attached bait just in case.
Before we squeezed into Idabel, Stanley weighed us on a scale, a less-than-ideal step after two months of travel-related eating and drinking. Nevertheless, it was necessary for making adjustments for buoyancy. Climbing in from the top of the sub, I descended into the belly, which was relatively cramped for a larger male passenger on a four-hour voyage. While the space will not change, passengers have more control over other comfort-related issues: Avoid drinking too much before a bathroom-less dive, and bring a sweatshirt for later when near-freezing water temperatures make Idabel much chillier. Though we brought a camera, Stanley provided a professional camera attached to an outside flash to take pictures through the 30-inch dome window. No pictures in the first 40 minutes, though, as we dove straight down the trench.
From the 2,000-foot mark, Idabel slowly ascended up the reef for the next few hours. As someone who logged in more than 50 dives in places like the Blue Hole in Belize, Sipadan in Malaysia and the Beagle Channel in the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago, I am not afraid to suggest that scuba divers generally do not see that much more than snorkelers. The same cannot be said when comparing submarine dives to scuba dives. Normal plant life stops at about 300 feet, and at extreme depths, the lack of light produces rocky terrain and strange adaptations in the marine life. Idabel illuminated the path with outside lights, but when the lights are off, the ink-black darkness imagines a bottomless abyss. From the metal confines of Idabel, we do not see colorful coral, rich plant life or even an abundance of fish. In fact, there is not much activity at these depths, but the aquatic life we do see seems alien.
Consider, for example, our early encounter with stalked crinoids. These sea lilies can actually walk and swim, which is seriously strange. Idabel also came upon a polka-dotted angler fish, a Cuban chimaera, brisingid starfish and a pink frogmouth apparently imitating Jack Nicholson’s scowl in A Few Good Men. Other fascinating finds included a dumbo octopus and an absolutely surreal free-swimming sea cucumber. Idabel putted along slowly, and we did not encounter any six-gill sharks, but many of the creatures we did cross won’t be found in any city aquariums. (For examples of these peculiarities in action, check out RIDE’s deep sea videos for 2013, 2014 and at 2,400 feet.)
After the multi-hour trench ascent, Stanley sped up the sub and headed back to shore. To put the experience in context, Hawaii offers submarine tours as well, but they only descend 100 feet. Stanley—who has discussed building an underwater hotel at 1,000 feet connected by a sub-like elevator—just took us 20 times deeper.
Countries like the U.S., Russia, Japan, France and England engage in limited deep-sea exploration in local waters, but Latin American countries not so much. For this reason, Idabel truly explores unknown waters and depths. As I squeezed out of the submarine late that night, I personally felt like I had just visited another planet.
Photos: Dave Whelan, CC-BY & Dorli Photography, CC-BY
deGeneration X columnist David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.