An American expatriate living off the coast of Honduras pilots his experimental vehicle 2,000 feet down. I joined him for an unforgettable encounter with the mysteries of the deep.
Our first meeting began with an unexpected question: “Do you have socks?”
Tattooed and dressed in cargo shorts, Captain Karl Stanley stood before me in the sluggish morning heat of Roatan Island. He would be taking me to a depth of 2,000 feet underwater in his experimental vehicle, and the first question he asked me was if I had socks.
Thus began my earliest face-to-face conversation with the deep-sea submarine designer and captain. His inquiry added to a curious persona cultivated by several bar patrons I had met the night before on the island, Honduras’ largest in the Caribbean, when I had mentioned that I was looking for him.
“His IQ is off the charts.”
“To some, he may come off as aloof, but in reality he’s just not that chatty.”
“Karl’s a little crazy, but in a good way. He just had a drink here. You just missed him.”
The responses bloomed from behind bottles of Salva Vida beer as breezes from the Caribbean refreshed our brows. I worked my way down Karl’s known haunts along the unpaved main road of West End, Roatan’s scuba headquarters and home to the island’s lively American expat community. Alas, I always seemed to be one beer behind him.
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For snorkel and scuba junkies, Roatan has become synonymous with its beautifully bizarre reefs that lie just minutes from the coast. The island that once served as a place of exile—the British deported a community of Garifuna, a culture of mixed African and Amerindian descent, to Roatan in 1797—is now coveted for its natural treasures both above and below the surf.
The scuba-accessible reefs off the island’s northern coast comprise the uppermost reaches of a nearly vertical underwater trench, which lured Karl away from the States in 1998. He built his newest submersible specifically for the location’s deep subterranean topography close to shore, offering us air-breathing creatures a window into depths where a wetsuit cannot go.
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After having obediently donned a pair of sporty, below-the-calf socks, I waited for Karl at his submarine dock with photographer Lia Barrett for our scheduled dive. Lia, an American in her twenties, specializes in underwater photography and also lives on the island. Electricity had been AWOL since morning, spurring a distant rattle of generators, a recurrent sound that I began to accept as part of the environmental din of the island.
The blue-green shallows of West End’s Half Moon Bay crawled with groups of scuba instructors and their charges. I briefly reflected on how I could have been one of those students in a protected environment—a decidedly known method of undersea exploration. There’s plenty of marvelous topography to investigate just a few meters down. But I had already been caught up in the spirit of the GO DEEPER block letters that Karl had painted on the roof over his submarine dock, as if to taunt the scuba students on the other side of the bay.
Roatan explodes with color above and below the sea. For a view through other travelers’ eyes, check out this photo gallery of Honduras from our partners at Expedia.
I swiveled to identify something airborne and closing in: a chiseled, bare-chested frame of a surfer, swooshing toward us on a zip line. That was our thirty-four-year-old captain, arriving from his house’s second-floor balcony across from the dock. He was also the person with whom I had chosen to entrust my life in exchange for an opportunity to explore a little-known nether landscape and swap glances with life forms few humans, if any, had ever seen before. If his arrival represented the kind of adventurous-yet-unflappable nature Karl exploited to return safely from his over 1,000 previous sub dives, then he had my blessing.
We had already crawled into the snug confines of the three-person, 9,000-pound submersible, which he named Idabel after the town in Oklahoma where he welded it together, when I sensed a throbbing omission: the in-case-of-emergency briefing. Something like “In case of evacuation, a compression suit can be found under your bench.” Except that there is no such thing as a compression suit. I just made that up. The truth is that at 2,000 feet underwater, if something horrible happens, the best you can hope for is that you’ll be instantly squashed like a grape in the name of science.
An almost-as-dubious scenario would be if the sub became stuck between large boulders. Who knows, a vessel from another part of the world might be sent to Roatan looking for the pinned sub (which is why he painted the sub bright yellow), but with so few vessels capable of the depths Idabel can achieve, salvation will most likely remain in the cheery territory of Hollywood scripts. Karl has furnished three days’ worth of food and oxygen for the optimists.
I had initially thought the most logical rescue vessel would be Karl’s first sub, a tubular, two-person submersible the inventor finished while in college (a rather practical extracurricular alternative to the chess club and spin-the-bottle), which he took on hundreds of dives without getting wet. But after a hurricane and complex negotiations sidelined both the sub’s sale and donation prospects, Karl decided to decommission it. As we motored out of Roatan’s Half Moon Bay, we passed over the first sub’s final resting place, where Karl intentionally sank it. My imagined backup plan would have never sufficed, however, because unlike Idabel, his first submersible was not built to withstand the pressure at 2,000 feet.
From the acrylic viewing dome at the front, Lia and I looked straight up and watched the disk of wave-tossed daylight gradually shrink, until blackness swallowed it. I felt the peculiar sensation of leaving the planet, even as we were probing deeper into it.
I believe the act of travel, at its most fundamental, is an exploration. But I have never felt the raw power of travel-fueled discovery more than when entering a place where one finds no light, no breathable oxygen, and no humanity. No tether connected us to the surface and the world we knew. And we were traveling to the ocean floor in a homemade submarine. Sure, we’ve all heard of homemade vehicles; soapbox racers come to mind. Maybe a pimped-out motorcycle. But a submarine?
I felt reassured when I tapped the half-inch thick, four-foot diameter steel sphere around Lia and me. I had expected it to ping metallically in response, but it didn’t. Instead, I heard a dull pat. We could have been sitting in a hulky concrete alcove from the set of “A Clockwork Orange.”
A benefit to riding in Idabel (not that you can easily choose a mass-produced submersible instead) is that you ride with its creator, who has taken it on hundreds of dives. Karl, who wanted to build submarines since he was nine, taught himself the technology and physics necessary for deep-water sub construction. He tracked down retired Navy engineers who specialize in submarine research. The technology Karl has employed builds on the submarine’s history spanning over three hundred years, albeit most of the submarine’s evolution came about from military applications, including hand-steered suicide torpedoes and crude vehicles designed for drilling into hulls. Refreshingly, Idabel is armed with floodlights instead of warheads.
I turned around and met with Karl’s bare feet. The sub’s three spheres form an L shape, and Karl stood just behind us through the two vertically stacked spheres, where he operated toggle switches and controls in the topmost sphere. “Can you two lean forward a little? That would help us get down,” Karl asked, demonstrating that even though the vessel weighs 9,000 pounds, it is so well balanced that the weight distribution of three people makes a difference.
With my tall frame and tiny camera sitting next to Lia’s petite frame and large-barreled camera, it became obvious who was better suited to the confines of the forward sphere. But soon the emerging views would make me forget what my pain receptors, due to whatever kind of hunch-balled posture I had assumed, had been squawking about. At over 1,000 feet below sea level, the nothingness came alive as squadrons of tiny bioluminescent creatures burst into firework patterns inches in front of the dome. So omnipresent were the speck-sized organisms, dancing in a satiny ballet whose plot remains as puzzling as its characters, that they did not seem to be living in the water: they seemed to be the water. In their electrified theater, twitches of macaroni-sized shrimp and glowing wakes of jellyfish escorted our trip into their hauntingly peaceful playground, all to the soundtrack of soft engine murmur and a spacey Enya CD Karl was playing.
The sphere began to sweat with condensation from the colder water temperatures at the depths we were entering. Karl had asked that we take our shoes off before climbing in, and that we place our feet on bags of lead shot. The walls were clammy, but our feet were warm and dry. That’s where the all-important socks came into play. I like a captain who looks out for the comfort of his passengers.
The depth gauge needle discreetly passed the 2,000 feet below sea level mark. Only half an inch of steel separated us from sixty times sea-level pressure, enough to crush a World War II-era German U-boat. But inside the sub, a chilly bubble, we still enjoyed the same pressure as when we were on the dock: one atmosphere. It felt like cheating Mother Nature. In this stratum of permanent darkness, I hoped she wouldn’t notice.
Karl followed the contours of the reef and gently positioned the sub in front of a boulder bustling with tight symbiosis: gangly crustaceans keeping guard around sponges, spiny pincushion creatures hiding under orange-red crinoids. The crinoids, whose sixteen limbs appear as sprigs of orange rosemary, are not plants, even though they appear as such (photosynthesis ceases a few hundred feet from the surface). While humans cannot survive in this realm, our hunger—both economic and gastronomic—has been known to occasionally send tools a lot less sophisticated than a submarine to such depths, thanks to trawling. The boulder was the kind of critter condo that could get wiped out with one unwitting pass of a trawler’s jaws.
My hair dripped with condensation after grazing the top of the sphere. As Lia and I were feverishly examining and photographing the action on the boulder, the neighborhood was about to get more crowded. The floodlights captured an unmistakable outline approaching the sub. “Shark!” I yelled, which came out like an alarming bark, the only way to yell the word.
The six-gill shark, as long as the sub, took its time swimming toward us, vaguely entertained by our visit, offering a disturbingly expressionless stare. It circled us a few times before losing interest, but not before passing within a fin’s length of the viewing dome and showing off a scar on its side that looked like bite marks from another shark.
If we had arranged for what Karl calls a “shark dive,” the encounter might have ended up even cozier. For the shark dives, Karl purchases a pig head from the market at a nearby town and dangles it off a pole on the front of the sub. The passengers receive an unhindered view of the shark’s dental health when it gorges on pig jowls just an arm’s length from the sub.
The terrain began to border on fantasy. On flat patches of grey lunar sand, albino lobsters with two-foot antennae peeked out of their burrows. A lanky fish with the shine and shape of a sword floated perpendicular to the ocean floor, as if it were all that remained of a conquistador-era swashbuckler who thought he could slash his way past a shark. Karl had seen it before, but still hasn’t found its scientific nomenclature—that is, if any scientist has even classified and named it yet.
I asked Karl if he has shared his discoveries with the scientific community on the island. “We don’t really have that here,” he answered. I realized that the entire community I had asked about was standing behind me. 2,000 feet below and beyond: it’s a region of ocean covering more than half the planet, yet it remains almost completely unexplored.
Karl found and approached something that not only has a name, but whose genus’ illustrated likeness already appears on T-shirts of the literary website McSweeneys.net: the dumbo octopus. About the size of a grapefruit, this recently-discovered, shape-shifting comic relief of the deep resembled a purplish Gilligan hat someone dropped in the water, except for his big black eyes and ears that leisurely flap him across the sea bed. They’re not actually ears; they’re fins, but the Disney-esque nomenclature stuck. At one point he (she?) hunkered down on the sand in a flat blob—tucking in his stubby, pizza-dough legs—and moments later, he ended his vaudevillian skit by stretching into a bell shape to propel himself away, ear-fins flapping in sync.
A reverse aquarium: that’s the only way I can describe it. Instead of the sea life being cooped up in a tank while landlubbers gawk and leave, we were the ones tightly sealed in while the creatures around us gawked at us and then disappeared into their immeasurable world. Of course, some of the creatures, having no need for eyesight in a dark void only lit by occasional bioluminescence, may have been blind and couldn’t gawk at all, but probably smelled us with amused snorts from rubbery olfactory organs.
Somewhere between critters—maybe between the shark and the albino lobster—Karl had changed the musical selection to a Led Zeppelin mix, which matched our energy and awe levels. But soon we heard something more piercing than Jimmy Page’s guitar solos: a hasty, violent hissing. It was too loud, too unnatural, too close to us to have originated from the sea floor. It came from the sub. I turned around to Karl and opened my mouth, but no words formed.
The noise stopped as quickly as it had arrived. “The sound you just heard was a high pressure air leak,” remarked Karl matter-of-factly, as when he’d said “There’s a cool jellyfish off the starboard side” just a few minutes earlier.
“How serious is that?” Lia asked, in a rare glance away from her DSLR camera.
“Not a problem,” Karl responded with a voice muffled from the closet-like acoustics of the sub. As he explained the operation of his ballast system in the same conversational tone—he inflates the ballasts with air to rise to the surface without the need of the motor-powered propellers—it was clear that the leak was minor and would not draw us to the three-day rations, nor would it even affect our speed to the surface. Robert Plant’s scrotum-squished yelps didn’t miss a note.
As Karl began a gradual rise to the surface, we rose up aside the wall of the trench, where terrain of sponge-covered boulders gave way to a rolling landscape of what Lia said resembled “snow-covered mountains.” A venus-fly trap critter here, a bulgy-eyed langoustine cousin there. The longer we inspected a boulder, the more inhabitants appeared through the deliciously transparent waters, reframing my perspective of how humanity fits into this world.
The community wants the reef to remain as such. Due to lack of support from the Honduran government, local dive shops and businesses recently founded—and funded—the Sandy Bay West End Marine Park, an organization that now owns two boats and employs eleven staff members who protect the reefs from poachers and overfishing.
Curbing pollution remains another challenge. Roatan possesses just the kind of stunning, beach-studded coastline that makes absentee speculators salivate. More development will mean more waste. Underscoring the importance of the Park’s work, Karl’s floodlights picked up a discarded toilet bowl resting sideways on a shelf about 500 feet below sea level. “That’s the first time I’ve seen that,” he said.
“The eastern part of the island is about to be ransacked by development,” Lia mentioned. She was referring to the lands near the oldest communities of Garifuna, one of several cultures which comprise Roatan’s cultural fusion, along with recently arrived Hondurans from the mainland. Since the Park’s protection zone only wraps around the westernmost point of the island, they are actively trying to expand their range.
In the meantime, Karl wants to keep sharing a literal window into a hidden part of our own earthly ecosystem, all while the inventor in him is continually experimenting, whether it’s a new set of floodlights or a better way to hang the pig head off the sub. When he has trouble locating a new part for his ever-evolving submarine, he sometimes has friends coming to the island bring them in.
He even has a standing offer of half off his standard rate for anyone from Idabel’s county in Oklahoma to dive with him. He’s had several takers already.
When the sub bobbed to the surface and the unapologetically bright Roatan sky splashed onto the dome, I was relieved that my eyes once again felt that tiny recoil of pain when adjusting to sudden sunlight. Two smiling boys from town waved to us from the dock, apparently not the first time they had enjoyed the uniquely Roatanian pastime of watching a submarine surface. Visions of ear-flapping octopi seemed like delusions, or, at best, half-baked memories from a past life as an albino lobster.
Lia remarked that she had to go make a few “I’m alive” phone calls. I did too, but for me, they turned out to be more like “holy shit” calls, since what I’d just experienced had served as a humbling reminder of how much we don’t know about our world and whom we share it with. I hadn’t intended to hide the dangers that could plague a submarine, but while no dive is one hundred percent safe, what is? You could be smashed to an unsightly pulp by a drunk driver in the burbs when you return home after picking up a container of non-dairy creamer.
Thanks to Karl’s experience, however, my largest concern of the day was a pair of socks.
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Darrin DuFord is the author of Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. Has written for BBC Travel, the San Francisco Chronicle, Roads & Kingdoms, Gastronomica, and Transitions Abroad, among other publications.
Lia Barrett has made it her life mission to be underwater, and to travel as much as possible. After years of persistence and hard work, she is a widely published underwater photographer, the Photo Editor of the photography publication Dive Photo Guide, and the Creative Director and co-founder of the ocean inspired company Prawno Apparel.
Roatan explodes with color above and below the sea. For a view through other travelers’ eyes, check out this photo gallery of Honduras from our partners at Expedia.