Imagine you are diving beneath the surface of the Caribbean Sea.
A school of horse-eyed jacks suddenly changes direction, flashing
its silvery sheet. A shipwreck emerges in the deep blue distance.
You head in that direction, cruising alongside a picturesque coral
In this underwater adventure, but you’re neither a snorkeler
nor a scuba diver. You’re a passenger in an authentic submarine.
Since 1986, when Atlantis Submarines International Inc. launched
the world’s first public-passenger submarine off the coast
of Grand Cayman Island in the British West Indies, more than 11 million
customers have taken the plunge. The voyages are now offered in 28-,
48- and 64-passenger subs at 12 island destinations in the Caribbean,
Hawaii and Guam.
I went under in Atlantis III, a 48-passenger sub operating off the
coast of Barbados. The journey began at the departure dock in Bridgetown,
the capital. Along with a full compliment of passengers, I boarded
the Ocean Quest transfer boat for the 10-minute trip to the dive
site at Fresh Water Bay Reef, a mile off the coast of Paradise Beach
on the west coast of the island.
The submarine was waiting there, bobbing on the choppy surface like
a prop in an action film. Images from The Hunt for Red October flashed
before my eyes. But unlike the nuclear bomb-toting sub from the movie,
Atlantis III is all about fun.
After the Ocean Quest nuzzled up to the submarine, passengers walked
one-by-one down the gangplank. We stepped through a hatch, climbed
down a ladder and sat back-to-back along a long molded plastic bench
in the passenger cabin.
Large viewing ports provided front row seats to a world most of us
see only on The Discovery Channel. Colored placards, with the names
and images of the many sea creatures we would see along the way,
were provided as educational aides.
The submarine itself is a technical marvel. Battery-powered and non-polluting,
it makes a minimal impact on the environment. Because the passenger
cabin is air-conditioned and pressure-controlled, the ride is surprisingly
As the craft submerged, I felt as if we were flying rather than diving.
Looking through the viewing port, the ocean seemed more like outer
space. Patches of sunlight shimmered in the water like stars.
The pilot, positioned behind a large window at the front of the craft,
navigated through the craft through aquamarine water. The low hum
of the engine was interrupted by a series of “ooohs” and “ahhhs” as
kids and adults pointed through the viewing ports.
Our pilot gave a running commentary throughout the 50-minute trip.
Speaking in a soft Barbadian accent through the P.A. system, he pointed
out the Lord Willoughby—a water carrying barge—which
had been sunk as an artificial reef nearly 40 years earlier.
During the “Living Classroom” segment of the tour, kids
learned that the reef is a living ecosystem made up of millions of
animals. The two-mile reef area is built with hard and soft corals
upon which thousands of fish feed.
We saw trumpet fish wriggling among the sea fans. Sergeant majors
poked around the branches of stag horn coral. There were tin foil
barbs, barracuda, and French angelfish that like to swim in pairs.
Green back turtles, whose numbers are steadily increasing, have been
known to peer at passengers through the viewing ports. I didn’t
see turtles during my trip. But I did see the large school of horse-eyed
jacks that has visited each Barbados dive for more than 20 years.
En route to a maximum depth of 150 feet, twice as deep as a recreational
scuba diver might go, I fought off a mild panic attack. Perhaps it
was a petty dose of claustrophobia. Or maybe I’ve seen too
many movies in which naval submarines become stranded at the bottom
of the ocean. (See The Hunt for Red October, or U-571 starring Matthew
I peered through the viewing port into the semi-darkness, reminding
myself that Atlantis submarines have a built-in safety feature. Unlike
naval submarines which normally operate at neutral buoyancy, Atlantis
subs maintain constant positive buoyancy. In the event of a power
failure, the sub will automatically rise to the surface.
As Atlantis III rose to the surface, safe and sound like always,
I wondered if I should stick to Disney Films.
Submarines operates submarine tours in the Caribbean
(Aruba, Barbados, Cozumel, Curacao, Grand Cayman,
St. John, St. Martin, St. Thomas); Hawaii (Kona,
Maui, Oahu); and Guam. Prices vary by destination.
In Barbados, adults pay $90; teens (13 – 17),
$70; children (4 – 12), $45. (The 64-seat,
120-feet-long Atlantis XIV, which operates out
of Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, is the world’s
largest passenger submarine.) For more information