Somewhere between where recreational scuba divers venture and the darkness of the deep, there’s a “twilight zone” where big animals live. That’s where Graham Hawkes wants to hover in near silence and wait for giant squids, whales, and others to float by and look him in the eyes.
Hawkes is the founder and chief technology officer of DeepFlight, the maker of some of the most innovative personal submarines in the world.
In the past, Hawkes tells me, hovering in a submersible was pretty well impossible, or at least required a professional pilot. But with DeepFlight’s newest sub, the $1.5 million Dragon, hovering is a piece of cake, even for the most inexperienced pilot.
Even for someone like me.
Last year, I’d gotten the rare privilege to dive in Lake Tahoe in DeepFlight’s Super Falcon Mark II, an incredible machine built according to some of the same principles as an airplane. The machine took me down 150 feet below the surface, to what Hawkes called “the edge of darkness.”
At the time, he told me that more people had gone into space than done what I’d just done–fly underwater. That was pretty damned cool, and I wanted to do it again. Flash-forward to earlier this month when an email arrived inviting me back to Tahoe to dive in the Dragon. I couldn’t get there fast enough.
The two-seater Dragon is like a cross between an Indy race car and a drone. If you saw the machine in a James Bond movie, you’d totally expect 007 to emerge from the Mediterranean Sea in Monaco, push a button, drop down some wheels, and race off in pursuit of bad guys or beautiful women.
The real-world version doesn’t have any wheels, but it’s still damn sleek, and when you get in it and drop below the surface of the water, everything gets real quiet. That’s exactly what you need if you want to sit still and watch for giants of the deep.
Hawkes, 67, speaks with an English accent. He has salt-and-pepper hair, wears glasses, and looks just like the kind of guy who rides around underwater with Richard Branson (he does). He even designed and piloted a submersible for an actual James Bond film.
The Super Falcon Mark II flies through the water with ease. The Dragon, on the other hand, is meant for a different kind of underwater experience: slow, precise movements, and hovering.
It might sound simple to hover, Hawkes says, but it’s anything but. He explains that conventional subs have what is known as a variable buoyancy system, and if you want to go down, you open valves and flood external tanks with water. To hover, you blow gas back into those tanks, but it’s precision work, because water is heavy. “It’s very hard to control,” Hawkes told me. “You do have vertical thrust, but it’s very feeble. It’s easily overwhelmed.”
Indeed, he said, “if you asked anyone on a submarine if [an amateur] could dive…and hover at 30 feet, they’d be horrified. No way. You’ve got to be a professional.”
The Dragon, however, was built for hovering. It’s got a set of rotors, much like a drone, which allow very precise, stable, movements thanks to specialized software developed by the DeepFlight team.
I was there on a Wednesday. Hawkes told me that it was just the day before that they’d finally gotten the software working properly.
“Yesterday at 4 o’clock was the dive that changed everything,” he said. That meant I would be the very first outsider to dive in the Dragon with all its systems working.
Diving in the Dragon requires climbing inside a narrow space and having a clear dome close above your head. It can be a little unnerving at first–but actually, it’s quite comfortable, despite the confined quarters. Once the dome is closed and you’re under water, the glass disappears and it’s almost like your head is sticking up above the sub in open water. Given how quiet the machine is, pretty much the only sound you hear as you glide along is Hawkes’ voice on the headphones you’re wearing.
After he took us down and around the bottom of the lake near the Homewood Marina, where we’d launched, showing me just how stable the sub is and how subtly it moves, it was time for me to take over “the conn.”
On the Dragon, this couldn’t have been simpler. To go up or down, I gently pushed or pulled a lever to my left. To go forward, backward, left, or right, I used a little joystick. Hovering was as simple as settling in at just the right spot with the lever on my left.
This is key for the Dragon’s commercial prospects. DeepFlight knows that the sub’s first customers are likely to be mega-wealthy individuals with super-yachts, a category of boat that starts at a mere $17 million. But the long game is all about finding resorts that will buy the subs with an eye toward renting them out to people for the day. In order to do that, the machine has to be incredibly easy to pilot. Based on my experience, I can say confidently that it is.
Next month, DeepFlight will embark on the Dragon’s formal marketing push, taking the same machine I dived in to the posh Monaco Yacht Show.
DeepFlight is very much a Silicon Valley startup, despite its 20-plus-year background, explained the company’s president, Adam Wright. Recently, it closed a round of venture funding specifically intended to help the company finish development of the Dragon, build its sales team and marketing efforts, and make a serious sales push in Monaco.
“It is the difference between a blimp and a drone,” he says of those differences. “There is a market for blimpy subs, to go deep and pick things up and play amateur oceanographer.”
That’s not what the Dragon is for. It’s for letting lucky pilots and passengers ride not far below the surface, moving slowly, smoothly, and methodically. And hopefully, getting to sidle up to some of the most beautiful creatures the Earth has to offer.
Last year, Hawkes told me about the most incredible ride of his career, a dive in the waters of Mexico with Branson during which they found themselves looking directly at a Great White shark.
“We were two crazy Englishmen. We were just in awe,” Hawkes told me at the time. “Richard was going, ‘Get closer, get closer!’ And I’m like, ‘Richard, I’m not going to lunge at a great white…But I did edge closer, and in the end, she backed off. She gave a big flick of her tail, and she was gone.”
Then he added, “For a human being to be that close to a big predator, it’s just awe. Your mind just goes very quiet. I’m sure my jaw dropped, my eyes went wide. There she was. I was looking at her straight in her eye. What can I say? That was worth every bit of my life’s work, to be honest, just those few moments.”
So what’s left for a world-class adventurer like Hawkes?
Giant squids, that’s what.
As Hawkes explained it to me last week, no human being has ever been face-to-face with one and lived to tell the tale. And while they live deeper than Dragon can dive, they do rise to the surface–and if you happened to be hovering quietly in the sub, it could theoretically be possible to have another encounter of a lifetime.