Oceans: Sub Wars off Waikiki

By Don Walsh

The Auguste Piccard was ahead of its time; never again did it carry paying passengers. Finally, in 1985 the tourist submarine business got its real start when Canada's Atlantis Submarines launched their 28-passenger Atlantis I . It operated out of Grand Cayman in the Caribbean, where it became an immediate success. This first operating site remains as one of the firm's most profitable operations.

Today, Atlantis operates 11 tourist submarines located at nine sites. While Atlantis II (Barbados) also carries 28 passengers, subsequent Atlantis submarines (III-XII) carry 48 passenger and a crew of three. The new Atlantis XIV , which displaces 105 tons and carries 64 passengers, is the largest tourist submarine ever built. It operates off Waikiki Beach along with two of its 48-passenger sisters.

Atlantis Submarines was not alone for long. From 1985 to the early 1990s, 16 other companies designed and built tourist submarines. Located in Scotland, Finland, Germany, Russia, France, Switzerland, Canada, South Korea, Brazil, and Japan, most built only one or two before going out of business. Finland's W-Submarine OY built 13 before going bankrupt about five years ago. Only two companies remain: Atlantis Submarines and Deep Sea Submarines (a U.S. firm). The real profits come from operations, not construction.

The typical tourist submarine is designed to operate to depths of 150 feet, although rarely do they go below 100 feet because the outside light becomes too dim for viewing and picture taking. Also, most marine sea life can be found in the upper 100 feet. Some submersibles carry external lights to permit dives at night when different sea life can be found out and about.

Inside, outward-facing bench seats port and starboard permit views through large acrylic viewing ports that are 20 inches to 30 inches in diameter. The pilot's station in the bow is contained in an acrylic hemisphere that forms the forward end of the steel pressure hull. A copilot normally is located forward near the pilot while a third crew member is stationed aft near the enclosed machinery space (air conditioning, electrical panels, etc.). The third person acts as the narrator, describing the dive procedures and discussing the marine life outside. Large entrance hatches forward and aft provide for rapid loading and unloading of passengers.

A large body of rules and regulations govern tourist submarine design, construction, and operations. All are designed, built, and maintained to a recognized classification society standard such as that promulgated by the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). The U.S. Coast Guard maintains regulatory control over the 10 tourist submarines registered in the United States. This control extends from technical to operational aspects and includes the licensing of crew members. Several other countries have developed similar regulations. At present, the International Maritime Organization (IMO, a United Nations agency) is developing international technical and operational standards for tourist submarines.

It is very safe industry. Since 1985, nearly 8.5 million people have made dives with no serious-injury incidents. In fact, this number may exceed the total number of individual naval submariners who have gone underwater during the past 100 years of military submarine operations.

Almost all of the best operating sites have been occupied, so demand for additional tourist submarines (at $4 to $6 million each) is minimal. Even industry-leader Atlantis recognizes that they will not build many more; the firm, however, owns and operates nearly two-thirds of the submarines they built and plans to stay in this profitable business for many years to come—and they will probably win the "War off Waikiki."


Dr. Walsh is neither marine archaeologist nor treasure hunter. He has spent the past four decades involved with design, manufacture, and operation of submersible systems. A retired naval officer (submarines) he was designated U.S. Navy deep submersible pilot #1 in the early 1970s. During 2001, in addition to Atlantic Sands, hehas participated in diving operations at the battleship Bismarck (16,000 feet) and RMS Titanic (12,500 feet). On 20 July 2001, he had lunch on board the Titanic, when the Mir 2 landed on the bridge so the sub crew could eat.

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