Last July Adriaan 'Dutch' Schrier watched the arrival of a new two million dollar, five-man submarine named Substation Curaçao. For Adriaan, creator of the Curaçao Sea Aquarium, it was a dream come true.
Substation Curaçao is the world's first deep water submarine, specially designed for tourists and researchers, capable of descending to an extraordinary depth of 1000 feet. The 15-foot 'Curasub' took two years to design and build. Special three quarter inch steel was used, thick enough to withstand the pressure at 2000 feet, a safety margin of double its maximum working depth. For maximum viewing the sub's window had to be as large as possible. The window fabrication process is complex as the dome is a cast of liquid acrylic components. During the process factors such as hot spots, air bubbles and other contaminants can affect the quality. Costing $40,000 each, one out of five casts do not pass final inspection.
For life support the sub carries four large oxygen (O2) tanks. The sub is intended to carry the pilot and four passengers at a time. To keep it from filling with deadly levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), air scrubbers, similar to what is used in navy subs filter out the CO2 exhaled by the passengers.
In case of emergency every system on board is designed to keep passengers and crew alive for at least three days, enough time for a rescue. "We paid incredible detailed attention to safety and we have back-ups for everything," said the subs Canadian builder Phil Nuytten in an interview for the Canadian Discovery Channel.
'Come and submerge with us', says the Substation Curaçao website, while the pilots' business cards encourage you to 'discover the unknown depths'.
Last September it was my turn to experience the unknown. Not only was it the deepest dive of my life, but also the most surprising and unforgettable and one I never dreamed of when visiting the substation while it was under construction last June.
The stories told by pilots Michiel van der Huls and Bruce Brandt about the test dives they carried out in Vancouver, really intrigued me and, knowing that Dutch Schrier heads a dedicated team, reaching new heights, or depths … I didn't need much persuading when Michiel and Bruce offered me a ride.
After a short briefing I'm ready to go. With four of the five 'seats' occupied, it's quite tight inside the sub once the hatch is closed and latched.
Soon we're off on another test dive in which I have the privilege to participate. After completing the pre-dive system check and a radio check with 'Top Side', our surface escort, pilot Michiel starts the thrusters. Our deepwater adventure has begun.
With the reassuring sound of the radio and thrusters for company we carefully glide away from the narrow dock, custom built by Schrier and his construction team. A scuba diver equipped with an underwater camera appears in the front of the sub to immortalize this special moment.
We are heading for a place where no scuba diver could survive. We descend alongside a steep wall full of corals and sponges on our way to the wreck of the 220-foot ship Stella Maris. The Curasub stays about 20 feet from the wall, but through the round concaved window everything seems small and very close; and you feel as if you could touch the coral and the curious red snappers that swim by. Below, the huge bulk of the Stella Maris looks like a toy!
While we are trying to get used to the optical illusion, Michiel carries out one of several 'life support checks', reporting cabin pressure, voltage, the percentage of oxygen (O2), the status of the scrubbers and more to the surface crew. For orientation the pilot has three cameras and sonar at his disposal. Observation, however, requires experience and many hours of training.
The dive is so fascinating that you don't realize how deep you are. The clear water hardly filters out the sunlight and the many living creatures so far below the surface absorb your atten-
Returning to the surface we receive an extra bonus: a big lionfish shows up when we pass its habitat at 300 feet. We follow the 'down line', a steel cable that leads us back to the substation. After exactly 77 minutes the hatch opens and fresh air is allowed to enter the cabin.
I am now a member of an elite club of deep sea explorers. Substation Curaçao is pushing the limits of technology by bringing reporters, researchers and tourists into the deep ocean. An important step in a world hungering for discovery and, according to Schrier, this is just the beginning!
For more information visit: www.substation-curacao.com
Els Kroon is a Dutch former teacher who now lives and works as an award-winning free-lance photojournalist on Curaçao.