Capt. Stanley’s unlicensed, DIY shark dives
No insurance? No problem! A U.S. entrepreneur takes tourists down deep and he just found a dead horse.
The entrepreneur made the discovery while cruising in his submarine, the Idabel, 1,700 feet beneath the waters off Roatan, Honduras. At that depth, amid jagged black boulders and hills of sediment, you can see some amazing creatures: lobsters with spindly arms as long as their bodies, silver-skinned fish the size of a cavalry saber, orange anglerfish with jaws locked in a perpetual grin.
But to see the really big beasts, you need some really big bait. So eight hours earlier, Stanley had bought a tired old horse from a nearby stable, led it onto a boat, shot it in the head, tied cinder blocks to its hooves, and dumped it in the ocean.
The sea this morning was rough, and an unexpected lurch tossed the carcass overboard before Stanley had reached his intended spot. In these murky depths, finding lost objects – even one as large as a horse – can be tough. But there it is, the body stiff but intact, and a foot-long, clawless crustacean called an isopod crawling up its flank.
Then the main attraction glides slowly, sinuously into view: Hexanchus griseus, a deep-dwelling, six-gilled shark rarely seen by human beings. At 14 feet, it is slightly longer than Stanley’s vessel. Watching it through an acrylic dome window, on which the water is pressing with the weight of a locomotive, I find it hard to decide which I should be more concerned about: the dead horse, the giant shark, or the fact that Stanley built this submarine himself.
Taking your customers this far down in an uninsured, homemade vessel may not seem like the smartest idea for a small business. But that is exactly what Stanley, 34, has been doing in Honduras for the past decade, taking advantage of a light regulatory environment to go deeper than any other tourist sub in the world. Despite the disapproval of U.S. operators, a string of accidents, and a business model that barely keeps his head above water, Stanley remains stubbornly optimistic. One of his favorite T-shirts reads: DON’T WORRY, I DO THIS ALL THE TIME.
Stanley can trace his obsession back to the age of 9, when he read a children’s book about a team of preteen detectives who build a submarine to help solve an underwater mystery. He started sketching plans for a craft of his own, and by 15 he had started construction in his parents’ backyard in Ridgewood, N.J. Stanley took the project with him to college in Florida, where he studied English literature (he has no formal training in engineering). The craft, dubbed C-BUG, took its maiden voyage the week he graduated.
A lot of would-be Captain Nemos start putting together subs in their backyards. Few ever get them in the water. The number who then turn them into a profitable business is minuscule. But Stanley persevered. Once he had proved the C-BUG could withstand dives of 70 feet, he trailered it to Fort Lauderdale and dove progressively deeper and deeper. He got tows out to the ocean from local yachtsmen by offering them rides in the sub.
In 1998, having gone down nearly 700 feet, Stanley felt ready to turn his sub into a business. What kind of business? He had no idea. So he signed up as an exhibitor at a local scuba-diving convention and sat alongside the C-BUG with a sign explaining that he was looking for ideas on how to use it. One of the first attendees to bite was the owner of a resort on the sleepy island of Roatan, 30 miles north of mainland Honduras, who thought that the prospect of a sub ride might draw new customers to his hotel.
Stanley flew down and was instantly smitten with the location. “You’ve got the protection of the reef in case you need to ride out a storm, yet you can motor ten minutes offshore and be in deep water,” he says. The C-BUG’s next dive was on Roatan, and this time Stanley had a paying passenger. At the age of 24, he had entered the ranks of professional submariners.
It has hardly been a risk-free enterprise. On one dive a window cracked 600 feet down, spraying seawater on a passenger. “That scared the crap out of me,” he admits. (He has broken three more windows since.) At other times the C-BUG has gotten stuck in a cave, been tangled in lobster traps, and suffered small onboard fires.
“I’ve never thought that I wasn’t coming up,” he says.
‘Your only insurance is that I am going with you’
Given the level of danger, you might think it would be difficult for Stanley to get liability insurance. You’d be right. To operate commercially in most countries, submarines require certification from an organization such as Lloyd’s of London or the American Bureau of Shipping. But obtaining such certification would cost Stanley over $100,000, more than four times what he spent to build the sub in the first place. Honduras, however, is a country with relatively few safety regulations. Most car drivers don’t have insurance, let alone submarine operators.
Still, Stanley’s seat-of-the-pants approach puts him at odds with most of the submarine industry.
“A lot of people are concerned about Karl,” says Will Kohnen, president of sub maker SEAmagine Hydrospace and an advocate for submarine safety standards. “If he were surveyed by any of the classification groups, he probably would not be permitted to operate.”
Stanley’s response: “I agree my sub would not meet certification. But I am 100% honest with people when I tell them, ‘Your only insurance is that I am going with you.’ ”
Many who admire Stanley’s entrepreneurial pluck are turned off by his cavalier attitude toward risk. “The guy’s amazing – he’s really cool,” says Richard Boggs, technical superintendent at yacht brokerage firm Camper & Nicholsons International. “What disturbs me is that he’s taking down people who don’t fully understand the risk. That’s just wrong, morally and ethically. It’s illegal everywhere but the Third World, and for very good reason.”
In the course of nearly 1,000 dives, Stanley has managed to amass an enthusiastic clientele. At the end of one ride, a customer was so wowed that he told Stanley that he owned a machine-tool plant in the rural town of Idabel, Okla., and that Stanley could use it free if he ever wanted to build another submarine. Stanley took him up on his offer and spent a year and a half there building a new sub that could carry three people instead of two. It cost him less than $200,000. In gratitude, he dubbed his new vessel Idabel.
Even when carrying one extra paying passenger, Stanley is hardly making a killing. He charges $1,500 per person for a shark dive, which can take more than five hours – not including the time it takes to prep the sub or haul a horse ahead as bait. Stanley conducts about 100 dives a year and posts annual revenues of slightly more than $100,000. He has only a single part-time employee.
To keep himself afloat, Stanley says, “I’ve had to exploit numerous niches.” One is collecting a rare type of mollusk called a slit shell, or Pleurotomariidae, which lives below 300 feet. Stanley figured out how to rig a net on the end of a pole and snag the creatures, earning him up to $3,000 each. “Without them,” he says, “I wouldn’t have been able to stay in business.” Pleurotomariidae are not on any conservationist’s list of endangered species – yet.
What does seem to be endangered, however, is Stanley’s penchant for operating without paperwork. Late last year, he says, a disagreement over dock access escalated to a full-scale fight with Roatan’s government when it was discovered that Stanley had no residency permit or business license. Roatan mayor Dale Jackson asked Stanley to stop working until his papers were in order. Stanley ignored him.
“Karl is a genius,” says Jackson, “but I think he’s hurt himself with this attitude.” Stanley has since hired a team of lawyers and acquired a residency permit. At presstime he was still seeking a business license.
Meanwhile, Stanley remains sunny as he steers Idabel through the abyss. At 1,000 feet down, we’re mobbed by four-inch-long squid that garland us with blobs of glow-in-the-dark ink. At 1,500 feet, a two-foot tinsel fish tries to shoo us away by waggling its head. Stanley narrates each passing wonder with such excitement that you might think it was the first time he had seen each creature, rather than the thousandth.
Whatever the complications of his life topside, down here in the watery darkness Stanley belongs to that rarest of species: a grown man living the life he dreamed of as a boy.