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The super-rich sink to unexplored depths with new breed of underwater toys

Among the astronauts, mountain-climbers and divers gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel last month for a black-tie dinner and auction was Larry Tracey, a businessman, who bid on an item he couldn’t refuse.

When the auctioneer called $17,000, Tracey lifted his hand and bought his wife the latest thrill for wealthy adventurers: a chance to explore the ocean from 500 feet below the surface without even getting wet.

“I know what she likes,” he said, as a man with a clipboard took the number of his gold American Express card. “She is the explorer, not me.”

Tracey purchased a three-day training session in a submarine-like machine called the Sub-Aviator. The craft is said to glide through the ocean like a small plane, allowing its pilot to follow large marine animals, hover at a reef’s edge or dive to depths where light is extinguished in even the cleanest of oceans.

The winged submersible is just one of a growing class of personal submersibles catching the eye of the super rich worldwide and making ocean exploration easier and more accessible, at least for a few.

Three-fifths of the earth is covered by water, but 95 percent of the oceans are virtually unexplored, according to members of the Explorers Club of New York, the organization that hosted the fund raising dinner at The Waldorf-Astoria. The theme for this year’s event was ocean exploration and conservation.

Experienced divers can safely explore more than 100 feet below the surface, and free-divers can reach 600 feet by holding their breath, but personal submersibles can take their owners, filmmakers and tourists between 500 and 3,000 feet deep for hours at a time.

“It’s shocking that people know more about the moon than they know about the sea,” said Sean Dooley, of Nautilus Underwater Systems in Florida, which makes a high-end submersible craft.

Ranging in capacity from one to five people, submersibles are being designed in different ways.

A single-person submersible is being constructed to go 36,000 feet deep, the deepest place in the ocean. Last fall, for the first time ever, a pair of two-person scientific submersibles navigated two-miles beneath the ocean surface to the North Pole.

At the other end of the spectrum are Nautilus’s five-person crafts, which range in price from $2 million to$4 million and are known as the Rolls-Royce of their class. These models look like more traditional submarines, with two pressurized compartments, and are often used by divers who dive to a depth, park the sub with a pilot inside, and exit out the back to explore the marine environment around them.

“There are very few limits on the things people can do, as long as you throw the engineering and money at it,” said Dooley.

One of the more interesting aspects of the industry is the range of unique designs.

The three-person Seamagine submersible looks and behaves almost like a helicopter. This model allows you to descend up to 3,000 feet while encased in a 9-inch-thick, 360-degree clear sphere.

This seven-year-old company, which recently sold two models for at least a $1 million each, is ramping up its sales team. Only last year did it open a marketing division, but in September its products will appear at the Monaco Yacht Show, the premier sales event for luxury yachts.

It seems the super-rich yacht owners hold the key to the future for these companies.

“We really look for this to be the next frontier on super-yachts,” said Michael Purdy, marketing vice president for Seamagine. “We are identifying the ones that are under construction and presenting it as an option.” Their target are the owners of yachts at least a couple hundred feet long.

Submersible manufacturers are marketing their products as the next great toy to add to the helicopter, motorboat or kayak that are already on large yachts. Some yachts are even trailed by “shadow boats,” which carry the toys and their crew at a convenient distance from the main ship.

Despite the buzz in Monaco and elsewhere, scientists like Rick Chandler, submersible operations coordinator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, don’t see much scientific benefit to these submersibles. It is still a very small niche market, he said. But “they give people a good look at the sub aquatic world. If there were more of them then they could probably be used, and then you could see an impact.”

Purdy, of Seamagine, is of a similar philosophy.

He can’t see any immediate benefit to the greater good because so few people are able to use them. But, “as more submersibles are sold the price comes down and it will be easier for other institutions and other people to use it.”

E-mail: tmd2115@columbia.edu