LEISURE

Life underwater

Diving 30 feet to the hotel is half the fun

March 13 1989
LEISURE

Life underwater

Diving 30 feet to the hotel is half the fun

March 13 1989

Life underwater

LEISURE

Diving 30 feet to the hotel is half the fun

As vacationers search for new and exotic destinations, a tiny hotel in Key Largo, Fla., has opened in an unusual place: the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Maclean’s Associate Editor Barbara Wickens recently spent a night in Jules’ Undersea Lodge. Her report:

Checking into a hotel is usually a straightforward matter—a clerk takes a credit card imprint and gives you a room key. The credit card ritual is where the similarity between Jules’ Undersea Lodge and an ordinary hotel ends. To begin with, there is no room key. Jules’ is located in 30 feet of water in the sheltered Bora Bora lagoon at Key Largo, about 80 km south of Miami, and simply getting into the lodge is half the adventure. A diesel-powered skiff, which staff members call the African Queen—the original vessel used in the 1951 movie of the same name is moored nearby as a tourist attraction—chugs about 100 yards from shore to a floating platform. Thousands of bubbles breaking the water’s surface are the only indication that something unusual is below.

Once in diving gear, it is time for a guest to jump into the water and seize a thick orange rope that leads from the platform down to the lodge. After going hand over hand partway down the rope, bellhop Christopher Olstad pointed to a school of grey grouper that have taken up residence in the waters just above the two-room hotel. The rope ends at the bottom edge of the hotel, which rests on adjustable legs, and so it is necessary to swim underwater about six feet. The lodge entrance is a small pool in a central wet room where divers emerge from the water and shed their diving gear. No hatches are necessary because air pressure keeps the water out—in much the same way that a glass turned upside down in a kitchen sink does not fill with water.

Jules’ Undersea Lodge is the latest step in a process that has taken centuries. In the fourth century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle described the first known diving bells—simple bell-shaped structures that trapped an air pocket underwater. Sponge divers used them to extend their diving time. But finding a way for man to live undersea ultimately proved almost as difficult as conquering space. Water exerts enormous pressure on the human body, an

effect that is intensified the deeper a diver goes. The technology needed to safely deliver the compressed air needed for a permanent underwater dwelling was not developed until 1962, when marine scientist Edward Link became the first human being to sleep overnight in the ocean in a vessel in which air pressure keeps water out while allowing the occupant to exit and enter freely. From that year until the hotel opened in December, 1986, only about 500 people, all of them researchers, had spent a night underwater in such pressurized compartments.

The Jules’ lodge—named in honor of Jules Verne, the author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—is the first commercial venture that allows the public to live under the waves, said co-owner Neil Monney. So far, more than 2,000 people have tried it.

There are constant reminders that Jules’ is no ordinary lodge. Although the outside world seems far away, the silence of the deep is interrupted by the sound of the steady flow of air in and out. The constant burbling made me think that this is what life must be like in a fish tank. The feeling increased when Olstad was outside the lodge looking in as he scraped off aquatic creatures, including spiky sea anemones and feathery tube worms, that had attached themselves to the four-inch-thick acrylic windows.

A few personal belongings—a change of dry clothes and a few toiletries are all that is really necessary—had arrived triple-wrapped in plastic bags inside slightly leaky black plastic cases, which were screwed shut and attached to 40lb. weights. A round plastic cosmetics bottle, which cannot be squeezed on dry land, was compressed on three sides—a reminder that even in 30 feet of water, the pressure is nearly double that on the land above.

Jules’ Undersea Lodge was originally built in 1971 as an underwater laboratory, La Chalupa, and used for a wide range of marine research 10 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. The current owners, Ian Koblick and Monney, were members of the scientific teams that lived and worked there for two-week stretches. The lab’s owners later sold the capsule to a treasure hunter, who planned to use it in his quest for riches on sunken Spanish galleons. He abandoned the venture, and Koblick and Monney were able to buy the lab for a fraction of its original cost of $1 million. They then converted

the 50-foot-long structure into a hotel. Each of the two comfortably furnished bedrooms is about the size of the largest sleeping compartment on a Canadian train. The dining and entertainment area includes a mini-kitchen where guests heat their own precooked meals, including a choice of steak, lobster tail or chicken, in a microwave oven.

There is one way, however, in which Jules’ Undersea Lodge is like a typical resort hotel anywhere—it is fun to feed the local wildlife. Several grouper—large, bass-shaped fish— have developed such a taste for processed cheese slices that they swim right to the edge of the wet-room pool for a sample. It was, I guess, reassuring to know that anywhere on the planet, there are always friends to be made. □