Part plane, part sub -- totally cool

July 16, 2009: 12:29 PM ET

For a mere $1.5 million, you can unleash your inner submariner

If you have been wondering why anybody would want a submarine, here's the answer: Because slipping under the ocean surface at the speed of a cruising grey whale is one of the coolest things you'll EVER do.

Of course, getting your submariner card punched isn't such an easy thing. The sub world is broken down into two rarefied fleets. There are nuclear-powered subs for the military. You ship out for three months, and do classified loops through the world's oceans. There are also a handful of subs that take scientists into watery research zones or help out in search and rescue efforts. That's it.

The upshot is, to get anything close to a submarine ride; the vast majority of the world has been relegated to the "Finding Nemo" attraction at Disneyland or watching "Das Boot" until their beards grow long. Graham Hawkes, your typical madman inventor/submariner, hopes to remedy that by making the depths of the ocean much more accessible via a two-person submarine his Bay Area company has designed and built.

Nautilus for the rest of us

Dubbed the "Deep Flight Super Falcon," the $1.5 million sub looks just like something James Bond or Luke Skywalker would be at home in.  Unlike traditional subs that travel through the oceans using ballast to descend and ascend, the composite-hulled Super Falcon uses a propeller in the rear and stubby wings and flaps to maneuver beneath the waves to depths of around 1,000 feet. A gentle bend in the hull resembles nothing more than the arch of a Beluga whale's back.

Once the thick Plexiglas bubbles are sealed around your head, the initial sensation is one of being in a washing machine as the water and waves slosh around your face. Then Hawkes points the sub beneath the surface. The world changes to a cool, silent green. In the stretch of the Pacific that includes the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where the Super Falcon is now based, the world outside the Plexiglas is filled with curious harbor seals, bulbous jellyfish and long, waving strands of kelp.

Because the sub is positively buoyant (it floats in other words), it moves forward and dives by giving the fan-like blade some juice from the lithium ion battery pack. Ease up on the throttle, and the sub pops to the surface like a cork. Start 40-feet down, point it skyward and give it some juice, and the Super Falcon dives out of the water like a leaping dolphin.

Hawkes, who has been building and testing submarines for more than two decades, figures he's onto something completely new, for humans at least. "All we are doing is what every shark, every dolphin, every creature that has mastered that space does," Hawkes says. "We're flying underwater."

Tom Perkins' other ride

The prototype Super Falcon was built for venture capital legend Tom Perkins, one of the founders of Silicon Valley heavyweight VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. That sub now rides atop the deck of Perkins' mega-yacht the Maltese Falcon. If you've got $1.5 million burning a hole in your pocket, Hawkes Ocean Technologies will build one for you ($500,000 will get you a "wet" or open-cockpit sub).

Are subs going to be big business? Not even Hawkes thinks so. Hawkes compares what he is doing, to what the Wright brothers did when they first started building planes. "They didn't see the aviation industry out there, they did it because they had a passion for solving the problem of flight," Hawkes says. "Any person who is pioneering something and tells you otherwise is a lying, they do it because they can't help themselves."

Hawkes passion is exploring the ocean, and he wants to open that up to as many people as he can. There aren't too many Perkins in the world that can afford their own submarine, but Hawkes envisions submarine clubs that own a Super Falcon collectively and share the cost and the fun. As more subs get built, the price will come down, and then maybe, like the aviation industry, there is a business there. Until then, Hawkes will be spending as much time as he can beneath the waves.

"I think humans are hard-wired to explore our planet," he says. "It wasn't good enough to walk, we had to ride a horse. We wanted to soar in the air, so we had to build airplanes. We wanted to go to space we built spaceships. For some reason the last thing was let's go in the ocean and explore, let's move with the big animals. We had to build this. The only question I have is, why didn't a thousand people do it before?"

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About This Author
Michael Copeland
Michael Copeland

Michael V. Copeland joined FORTUNE as a senior writer in September 2007. Copeland has covered everything from electric cars to e-readers. He is a creator of Tech Mate, an irreverent video series in which he debates (and skewers) digital issues of the day. Before joining FORTUNE, Copeland was a senior writer at Business 2.0. Copeland graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

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