Sleeping with the Fishes

Jennifer Hellman Issue: Section:

One of the greatest joys of childhood is believing in your dreams. One of the greatest joys of adulthood is making childhood dreams come true. So it was that the crew of Mission 4005 awoke on the ocean floor 12 January 2009 in La Chalupa underwater habitat.
Water was never a fanciful idea, it was as much a part of my youth as building forts or running down hills but I did dream about living beneath the sea in the same way other kids dream about becoming astronauts. It never occurred to me I wouldn’t be able to breathe in an alien environment when I grew up. I took for granted it was something that would just evolve over time like height or the breasts everyone assured me I would someday have.
The ideas of a young child eventually morphed into those of a slightly larger child who had grown impatient with waiting and demanded a breath from her father’s regulator. So began a lifelong love of SCUBA and the quest for extended submersion.
I eventually had the great good fortune to fall in love with someone equally as passionate about my joy. Trace has gone several miles further in his devotion making SCUBA and lifesaving his full-time trade. He’s graciously agreed to assist in the telling of this tale, as my recollect is rarely as clear or technically concise.
“Trimix is your friend,” Trace quips, joking about my memory loss. He’s referring to the deep diving gas he loves to use for its ability to reduce the intoxicating effects of nitrogen in air at depth, by replacing much of the nitrogen with helium. It’s also an excuse for grown men to behave like little boys by taking deep breaths from their regulators to speak in high-pitched Mickey Mouse-like voices, “Good gas! Good gas!” As we dive deeper, nitrogen in air acts like alcohol or narcotics. At about 100 feet the average diver is buzzed. At 200 feet, a diver is drunk. Totally smashed occurs around 250 feet. To go deeper, helium and even hydrogen is added to the breathing cocktail and these gases could allow us to venture outside underwater homes as deep as 2000 feet

“I don’t know exactly how many of those kids who wanted to become astronauts actually made it into space, but I doubt there are many. Something tells me those who did make it probably have yet to space-walk at their leisure, amble about the capsule naked and make love to their partner at will”


In his 20th year as a SCUBA instructor, and what would become my 1st, (I later completed a rigorous instructor training program in the Turks & Caicos), we decided to take a trip to Florida together. The impetus for this travel was two-fold: to spend a few weeks cave diving in High Springs and to enjoy the birthday present of all birthday presents — the chance to live under the sea. In between, we managed to spend New Year’s Eve underwater, taking part in “The Galaxy Dive” during which chemicals from glow sticks were released to celebrate the arrival of 2010 like glowing beads of mercury throughout a cave at Ginnie Springs. It was like swimming through the Milky Way. We kayaked the Crystal River to swim and free dive with manatees, took the back-roads down Alligator Alley to discover our own Jurassic Park after enjoying an airboat ride through The Everglades, and we even found time to eek in some wreck and reef diving off Key Largo. But, those adventures are stories for another time. The real gift to our selves was a night in Jules’ Undersea Lodge.
What used to be the La Chalupa (Spanish for “the longboat”) research laboratory, and a NASA close quarters training habitat, is now, for lack of a better term, an underwater hotel — the only one of its kind on the planet. Jules’ Undersea Lodge, named in honor of the French science fiction writer, Jules Verne, is located on the ocean side of Key Largo in a brown, brackish, mangrove lagoon on the property of Key Largo Undersea Park. Though not the prettiest underwater environment we’ve encountered, it is without question, one of the most fascinating.
jen diving

We headed to Jules’ after lunch and a 2 hour surface interval (diver speak for off-gassing that nasty nitrogen) from a 110’ decompression dive on one of the largest shipwrecks in the world, the USS Spiegel Grove. Upon arrival, we commenced the standard “sign your life away” waiver process encountered at all SCUBA facilities. You know the form, lots of phrases like “hold harmless” and “not liable” that few people in extreme sports bother to read anymore. Then there was the bit about money. Needless to say it wasn’t cheap, but how do you put a price on a dream? An extended briefing was given, a topside tour accomplished, and after all the i’s were dotted and assents nodded, we went about the business of getting our gear together.
The equipment Trace and I use differs somewhat from a contemporary recreational SCUBA configuration. We often dive in overhead environments; this is more safely accomplished with double tanks, which give us plenty of breathing gas. We also use a steel back-plate to hold the tanks in place with a harness, and a buoyancy control system mounted behind us, called a “wing.” Our primary regulator runs from the tanks on a 7’ long hose with a short back-up regulator worn draped around our necks on bungee cord. If one diver runs low on air, the other can switch to his back-up and deploy the long regulator hose, allowing both to swim easily through the tight places often found in caves and sunken wrecks.

Many dive operators in resort areas are not used to catering to “technical divers,” the term that pretty much separates deep explorers from recreational single tank divers who prefer shallow reefs. Tech guys are mostly a little twisted and venture into places like caves, where signs at the entrance portray the Grim Reaper and a warning that you might die in there. Adding to the staff’s nervousness was the fact that we had a (very modest) blend of residual Nitrox in our tanks from topping them off after the previous dive. Nitrox differs from air in that it contains higher concentrations of oxygen. Recognized as a standard breathing gas the world over, Nitrox is used to reduce decompression time at those depths ranging between recreational air diving and deeper trimix diving.
But, gases with funny names scare the lodge’s lawyers, so it’s worth noting Nitrox is verboten at the hotel. I mention these things for those of you who might want to spend a stupid amount of money doing something absolutely worthwhile and unforgettable with your personal rig. If I had it to do over again, and I genuinely hope to, I would rent tanks from the facility (and full gear if I didn’t own it). At this stage in my career however, renting gear is kind of like renting bowling shoes. If you do it once every 2 years fungus doesn’t seem so creepy. If you do it twice a day, perhaps it’s worth investing in your own kicks.
Trace definitely wanted to use the “cool kid” toys, so we spent time draining our tanks of Nitrox and then refilling them with air. We lost some time and an ounce of positivity over the gear misunderstanding but finally got into the water at 4:45pm, 4 hours after our arrival. Since we’d memorized the map we opted to descend without a guide and tour around the lagoon for a while. It was a great way to start. Curious critters clustered about man-made reef building opportunities like the pipes, hoses and cables that make it possible to cycle air, communications, fresh and non-potable water and waste between the lodge and the surface. We passed the internally illuminated “Marine Lab” (another active scientific research center) and peered in the window at stacks of fresh, fluffy towels, dive gear and desks lined with microscopes, bizarre articles to look at while swimming below 20’ of water. When we saw our “Mission Director” making his 2nd trip from the surface to the lodge with a waterproof case of our belongings, we headed for the hatch. There’s no way to get to it other than diving, however, since the lodge is only in 30’ of water with the hatch at 22’, new divers, or even those who aren’t certified, can be safely trained in a short period of time to stay at Jules Undersea Lodge.
I don’t know how to describe entering a dry space, 2 stories beneath the sea other than to say… it was incredibly cool.
Picture the lodge like a horizontal H. The outside lines are tubes, 8’ in diameter and 20’ long connected by a 10’ wide also 20’ long, aptly named “wet-room”. As you’ve no doubt surmised, the 5’ x 7’ hatch is located toward one end of the wet-room which is lined with rubber matting so as not to slip and kill yourself or crack the tile with your tanks. At the other end are 2 doors. One is a “marine head” (toilet for you land lubbers) the other is a fresh water shower.
We assisted one another in removing our cumbersome rigs with additional help from the Mission Director, lined everything up neatly, peeled off our wetsuits and opted to take advantage of the shower and dry towels instead of dripping our way through the tour of the facility. It was kind of like not peeking at Christmas gifts stashed in your parents closet before a mask of wrapping paper has been applied. While showering off and attempting to master my excitement I tried to adjust to the air quality in the cabin. One of the first things to hit your senses is the aroma of diesel, a result of the adjacent marina traffic. I find that my sense of smell is often heightened after breathing compressed gas through a regulator anyway but the fumes in addition to the humidity took some getting used to. It was a small price to pay though and I found that after repeated excursions in and out of the lodge I no longer noticed it after the first several minutes.
If you stand in the wet-room facing the hatch, the common room is in the tube to your right and the sleeping quarters to the left. The latter is divided into 2 adjoining compartments, accessible both from large circular hatches off the wet room and via an internal door between sleeping berths. Each room is a mirror of the other and contains a full bed over which hangs a fold-down cot. In this way 6 guests can occupy the lodge simultaneously and you can bet they try to fill it whenever possible. Though I tried to schedule our stay for a weeknight when I hoped no one else would be there, we were still very lucky to have the space all to ourselves. The remaining features of each cabin are a small refrigerator and television, DVD and VCR players, a stereo, an alarm clock, a private sink and a fantastic 42” porthole looking into the lagoon.

The common room resembles the kitchen and salon layout of an RV or motor home. Twin tables for two are set in front of an L-shaped couch set alongside another 42” diameter and 4” thick acrylic viewing port. It is also the space where, guests may mingle, entertain or relax with music from a stereo, watch VHS tapes or DVD’s on a color television set or read books or magazines from the small library.
As safety is a principal concern, every dry room in the lodge is equipped with an intercom to the surface and a telephone that will make calling card calls to whoever you think would get a kick out of hearing from you down there. An even more impressive communications array is stationed in the common room with the additions of a marine radio, and a Navy auxiliary handset phone that will work if all power is lost. Not only can divers communicate with the surface, and make telephone calls, NASA was able to support a conversation between inner-space aquanauts and shuttle astronauts in outer space.
Lofty goals aren’t the only mission of humankind, however. Jules’ Undersea Lodge also boasts the first ever, underwater pizza delivery. This is perfectly understandable being that open flame is a big no-no in the lodge. (so is alcohol, by the way. We presume this means firearms are out of the question.) As a result of this restriction, our grilled chicken dinner was cooked topside and reheated by microwave in a kitchen much like any other. Electricity is provided via surface lines and backed-up by a generator so, theoretically, even in the event of a black-out, all lighting, appliances, water pumps and most importantly, the pressurization and air handling systems will continue to function normally.
During dinner, the mission director acted as cook, server, busboy and diving instructor all in one. We opted in for a 1 hour “Underwater Habitat” specialty certification course which focused on saturation diving, how not to destroy the habitat, its history, how its design compares to that of others which are only available to the science community at this time, and about how much work it takes to maintain the world’s only public underwater habitat. After preparing dinner, the mission director went about the business of giving us our lecture while we enjoyed our first experience of dining 5 fathoms down.
We learned that the magic depth for underwater habitats is 20.5 feet for indefinite stays. This allows divers to ascend without decompression and is the depth of the hatch and the constant pressure in the habitat. Some visitors are disappointed that the lodge is in a mangrove lagoon rather out on a pretty reef, but the location is not a tourist trap by any means. The massive amount of maintenance that the habitat requires in addition to proximity of life-support compressors and potable water-pumps, would make it too cost prohibitive to operate off-shore without extraordinary funding. The public is privileged to have this opportunity at all and have it be affordable. It’s a splurge for sure at $475.00 per person per night, (sans courses or potential bells and whistles) but more than worth it if you’ve always wanted to do things most people only see on TV.
Following dinner, our mission director left and we were free to “move about the cabin.” Trace was all about pulling juice, milk and soda out of the fully stocked fridge just so he could say he drank them underwater. We used the microwave to make popcorn and tea and selected a ‘60’s campy comedy with Tony Randall called, Hello Down There, to watch a movie about an underwater habitat, while in an underwater habitat. Just lounging around in your favorite jeans and t-shirt under the sea is awesome.

“Like Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, our 5-fathom excursion found us dropping through the hatch where a myriad of small fish drawn to the light scattered as we descended.“

Next, it was on to the diving! Actually, while in the habitat, you are constantly “diving.” Your tissues eventually become saturated (hence the term “saturation diving”) with the ambient pressure of nitrogen at 20.5’, which is 23.8’ of pressure per square inch compared to the 14.7 psi we experience at sea level. It’s kind of disturbing to see your depth gauge and timer still working when you’re no longer in the water! At 10:00pm we made the call to topside to inform them of our dive plan, geared up and entered the water for a night dive. It was science fiction turned science fact. Like Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, our 5-fathom excursion found us dropping through the hatch where a myriad of small fish drawn to the light scattered as we descended. Around us, in the beams of our high- powered cave diving lights, barracuda, grouper, parrotfish and other reef denizens eyed us with curiosity. We explored various scientific projects such as an underwater archaeology “classroom,” toured the undersea park, and more thoroughly explored both habitats from the outside. Trace used to work for another dive operator in Key Largo and, over time, had trained several students in this very lagoon. He had even been allowed to pop his head up into the habitat’s wet room yet still he wasn’t bored on this dive. It was thrilling to experience such a taste of adventure in such a tame location. Diving is a very personal thing. You find yourself just as blown away some days in shallow water as when you have discovered ancient human remains hundreds of feet back in a cave.
Even in warm water and wearing a wetsuit one chills through so, after about an hour, I decided to signal it was time to go “home.” As we swam back to the lodge, the faint warm glow of lights from the hatch made me realize why it is also called the “moon pool.” It was otherworldly to return from a dive and reenter the immediate warmth and comfort of a shower and one’s pajamas just a few feet away without ever having surfaced. Trace decided to stay in the water for a bit of solo diving and tried to get pictures of me from outside (The only disappointment we had from the experience is that most of our photos didn’t come out.) while I examined what he’d written in the vessels’ logbook. He returned 30 minutes later and called topside to confirm we were in for the night. Our excursion was logged at an hour and a half.
After Trace got out of his wetsuit, we made a snack in the kitchen and proceeded to do something that must be an underwater habitat first - having a plastic army guy rubber band war. There was, it turns out, baseless concern we might get bored being in the habitat all night, so when we happened upon some small soldiers and rubber bands at a drug store, we decided to purchase them to bring them down with us for some silly amusement. After my crushing defeat, it was getting late and time to undress for bed and, of course … to join the 5 Fathom Club. (For those of you in the mile high club, it beats the hell out of being pinned against a  lavatory door for a paltry 4 and a half minutes.)
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to give you an accurate accounting of our adventure, tell you all about the layout of the facility, the way it’s set up, and what you can expect but, most of this stuff can be found on-line where there are more than enough photos and information to keep you busy for the next hour… or more if you share a similar dream. What I really want to impart is how strange and wonderful this experience was for both of us. I don’t know exactly how many of those kids who wanted to become astronauts actually made it into space, but I doubt there are many. Something tells me those who did make it probably have yet to space-walk at their leisure, amble about the capsule naked and make love to their partner at will, have rubber-band wars with miniature plastic army guys flying all over the place, or have the ground crew pop ‘round to cook dinner for them.
Because of our late arrival and the need to drain and fill our double scuba tanks, we lost some time in the habitat. After 24 hours underwater, a person is given the official title of “Aquanaut” by the science and diving communities. Our saturation dive lasted 17 hours and 36 minutes, coming short of being aquanauts due to the official “checkout time” of 10 A.M. Since it is, after all, a “hotel”, we plan to return and stay at least 24 hours on the next trip. Please understand, this experience is not full of colorful coral and clear water. The visibility is less than 30 feet and the water is dark green. It would be like diving off New York or New Jersey except with warm water and a few pretty reef fish. But, for those with the spirit for adventure, romance and intrigue, you can become a part of history yourself and make any fanciful childhood dream come true. Perhaps, we’ll see your name in the guest log when we return.

 

And for the very wealthy or fantastically lucky

other underwater attractions, real and imagined

Ithaa Undersea Restaurant ,Conrad Maldives Rangali Island (real) ------Poseidon Undersea Resort, Fiji (under construction)

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