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First dive: Dodging jellyfish in a personal submarine off the Canadian coast

Walking into Sub Aviator Systems’ workshop in Vancouver, Canada made me feel a bit like James Bond strolling into MI6’s Q Branch for the first time.

Submersibles and deep diving suits were scattered around the warehouse, and smack dab in the middle sat the Super Aviator – the world’s first “personal luxury submarine.” With a sleek body, stubby little wings, and a V-shaped tail reminiscent of an F-22 Raptor, it truly looked like a ride befitting of Mr. Bond.

Except instead of Daniel Craig, today I got to play the role. Armed with decades of James Bond references at the ready, and a childlike sense of excitement, I was off to find out first-hand what it’s like to fly under the sea.

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Much as I would have liked to undertake a secret mission at the request of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I was actually taking a ride at the behest of Clerc watches, the company that helped develop the Super Aviator.

Besides prestige, the Super Aviator gives Clerc a way to test the mettle of its watches.

Odd as it may seem for a watchmaker to help build a submarine, both gadgets share one common, very important goal: keeping water out. Besides prestige, the Super Aviator gives Clerc a way to test the mettle of its watches. Typically, dive watches are tested in a controlled environment: Drop the watch in a pressure tank and wait. With access to the sub, Clerc can test at true underwater depths in real-world conditions, adding motion, vibration and other factors to the equation as well.

Though it was founded in 1874, Clerc has only recently become synonymous with building seriously bold dive watches like the Hydroscaph Chronograph and H1. Aptly referred to as “exploration machines,” they’re designed to be incredibly comfortable on the wrist, yet still stand up to the rigors of life 500 meters below the ocean surface.

I was about to find out if I could do the same.

Meet your personal submarine

By attaching two small, pressurized hulls in a roughly 20-foot long winged craft, the Super Aviator is able to deliver an astounding level of undersea maneuverability almost like that of a single-engine plane. It’s engineered to reach depths as deep as 6,000 feet, and packed with enough on-board life support to sustain 80 hours with two passengers on board. Thanks to its compact size and weight, the sub is also able to launch either from the side of a yacht, or directly into the water via any boat launch ramp.

As complicated as the premise of controlling such a beast may seem in your mind, we covered the bases in a single afternoon, from how to maintain oxygen, to all the things you do on the off chance something goes wrong. Throttle here, pitch here, oxygen levels there. Pull this, turn that, or the other that in case of emergency. But there won’t be an emergency. This is truly a submarine that anyone can figure out with some good coaching. Fortunately, you get plenty of training included in the $1.8 million purchase price.

But as soon as that dome closes and the sub is backed into the water, all the technical details and training seem remote. Suddenly there you are, bobbing along the ocean’s surface, about to plunge beneath in a capsule barely bigger than you are.

This is truly a submarine that anyone can figure out with some good coaching.

These pressurized steel hulls, which are just large enough to comfortably fit a single person, are key to taking passengers down to these extreme depths without the hassles of decompression. Once sealed with a passenger inside, oxygen levels are adjusted and the hulls are put under vacuum before launch. From there on the sub can rocket straight down as far as its pilot is willing to take it – all the while its cabin maintains oxygen and pressure levels the same as one experiences at sea level. With a well-trained crew, this means the Super Aviator can be in the water in diving in a matter of minutes.

Dive, dive!

Before I could take the helm, Sub Aviator Systems managing director John J. Lewis took the sub through its paces for me. After tooling out to sea, we executed rapid dives as deep as 350 feet, sharp banking turns, and climbs that did justice to the sub’s jet-like design. Though the murky waters just north of Vancouver offered less than ideal visibility, and only a nominal amount of undersea life to see (including a massive 2-foot wide jellyfish!), experiencing the dive in the Super Aviator opens up a sense of excitement and wonder that no spec sheet will ever deliver.

Once the roller coaster ride was over, it was my turn to take the controls.

Without a horizon or even the ground to look at, it took some time to get my bearings and learn to steer the sub. But it’s certainly not beyond the skillset of anyone willing to listen to a bit of friendly guidance. Like learning to ride a motorcycle, banking around turns takes a few nervous attempts before the motions begin to become second nature.

All that zip comes from a pair of electric Nuytco thrusters that generate enough thrust to achieve hit a top cruising speed of 10 knots. Through individual controls, these two thrusters can operate both forwards and reverse independently, allowing you to pivot the sub around while hovering at a standstill, rather than having to move it back and forth like a car. The onboard wings and rudders that steer are controlled by a helicopter-like flight stick, as well as a pair of rudder pedals.

Ready for a spin?

Before I knew it, we sprang back into daylight, and I was back on dry land.

As it stands, Clerc and Sub Aviator Systems are still awaiting the first order for the Super Aviator, though it’s only a matter of time before the first unit begins production. Anyone with the budget who gets a whiff of this thing will no doubt fall under its spell and be drawn to explore every bit of water they can find. And what’s $1.8 million compared to a $275 million superyacht, anyway?

Whether its new owners are wealthy dilettantes, aspiring underwater cinematographers, or chartered exploration companies I have no doubt in my mind that the Orcasub will spark an entire new group of citizen scientists eager to explore the uncharted depths of our vast oceans around the globe.

Or like me, maybe just play James Bond.