Exploring Lake Tahoeâ€™s Twilight Zone With the Super Falcon Submersible
J Thoendell stashed this in Awesome
As infamous nautical engineer Graham Hawkes gently twists the joystick with his right hand, we pitch forward precipitously, down into the depths of Lake Tahoe. Iâ€™m in the back seat of the latest iteration of Hawkesâ€™Â Super Falcon, enjoying the slow-motion roller coaster ride as shades of blue envelop the acrylic dome around my head.
Beneath the surface, theÂ Super FalconÂ enables unencumbered explorationâ€”twisting, turning through the water with the fluent ease of a sea lion. A large, unwieldy sea lion, admittedly, but itâ€™s enough to confer the feeling of belonging; weâ€™re water creatures now, and itâ€™s liberating. In other subs, the feeling of entering a foreign realm is more definitive, and youâ€™re often there for a well-defined purpose, to â€śdo scienceâ€ť and bring back answers, or at least the tools to get answers. The mind-set is more clinical, the immersion more invasive. TheÂ Super FalconÂ offers a distinctly natural process, with the sole aim of providing a thrilling experience.
Which is not to say theÂ Super FalconÂ couldnâ€™t be used for scientific purposes. Observing the behavior of upper-water column megafaunaâ€”whales, dolphins, sharksâ€”is one potential use: â€śOne day a scientist is going to come along,â€ť says Hawkes, â€śand realize that there are so many things you can do observationally that this enables that couldnâ€™t be done before.â€ť
And while such uses may well be scientifically productive, even minor modifications could vastly expand the repertoire. The ability to stop the craft in one place (Super FalconÂ will float to the surface if it stops moving) would allow sampling or more prolonged observations, while the addition of stronger lights would enable pilots to descend beneath the photic zone (visibility becomes problematic at about 200 feet).
These complaints are well-trodden territory for Hawkes: â€śIf we wanted to stop, weâ€™d stop; there are hundreds of machines that stop, and none of my clients particularly needs that.â€ť As for the lights, â€śwe like to go to the twilight zone where human eyes can dark-adapt,â€ť in part for the aesthetics and visceral exploratory sensation. Besides, â€śif you put lights in to suit human eyeballs, and take them down to where animals have never seen lights,â€ť Hawkes contends, â€śyouâ€™re blowing up eyeballs left, right, and center.â€ť Put simply, heâ€™s likes theÂ Super FalconÂ just the way it is, dammit, and he feels no need to apologize for his engineering proclivities. â€śWeâ€™re not asking permission from anybody; this is what we want to be doing, and weâ€™re doing it.â€ť
Hawkes speaks with the dramatic turn-of-phrase reminiscent of a Western film hero. â€śThere are no passengers,â€ť he had said gravely during the safety briefing, â€śonly pilots.â€ť Heâ€™s certainly giving me too much credit for the few turns I takeâ€”jumpilyâ€”with the joystick, but itâ€™s almost enough to convince me that my ability to sit still was borderline heroic.Â As we descend to an outcrop of rock 200 feet beneath the lakeâ€™s surface, Hawkesâ€™ voice crackles in my earpiece. â€śYouâ€™re seeing a part of the planet that no one has ever seen before,â€ť he says. Weâ€™re a stoneâ€™s throw from some Bay Area tech wunderkindâ€™s cabin, and yet, strictly speaking, Hawkes may well be right.