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The marine life on National Geographic TV shows always fascinates us. We don't scuba dive, so we jumped at the opportunity to ride a real submarine during our last Barbados vacation.

Passengers and pilot look through submarine windows.
Passengers and pilot look through submarine windows.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Atlantis descends 100 to 150 feet (30 to 46 meters) into the clear turquoise Caribbean Sea at Freshwater Bay Reef, on the west coast of Barbados. Also called Clarkes Reef, its coral formations stretch for two miles (3.2 kilometers) and rise to a height of 60 feet (18 meters).

The submarine trip lasts 40 minutes, but the total excursion takes 140 minutes. A shuttle boat transferred us and our fellow passengers from The Shallow Draft, in Bridgetown, to the submarine, which was submerged in the Caribbean Sea. After the seven-minute trip and safety briefing, our boat stopped next to another surface vessel.

As we watched, the 65-foot-long (20-meter-long) submarine surfaced — first the radio antenna, then a circular cone, and finally, a tubular, gleaming white steel hull. It took only a few minutes for the disembarking passengers to board our vessel and for us to climb down the ten-step ladder into the submarine.

Submarine tour

The trip aboard the 80-ton Atlantis is a comfortable one. Up to 24 passengers sit on each side, opposite large portholes. The pilot sits, surrounded by controls, in front of a larger 52-inch (1.3-meter) viewport at the bow.

The cabin is air-conditioned and maintained at sea-level pressure. Quiet electric thrusters move the Green-certified submarine along at a leisurely 1.5 knots for optimum viewing of the coral reef and marine life.

Guide and family observe fish through portholes.
Guide and family observe fish through portholes.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Giant batteries, that are recharged nightly, are below our seats. "The batteries are good for about 15,000 dives," explained Willy, our copilot and guide.

Safety of tourist submarines

Nevertheless, Atlantis officials take no chances. "If the power ever failed, the lights would go out, but the air conditioner would continue to work," he said. "The submarine will float back up to the surface."

Willy showed us where the lifejackets were stowed away and how to use a respirator. (You open it like a beer can, then put it into your mouth like a snorkel mouthpiece.)

It's unlikely that any of these devices will ever be used. The subs have had no major problems since the first Atlantis Barbados underwater tours began in 1987. The Atlantis submarine has duplicate equipment and it's safety-certified, every year, for insurance coverage. In addition, the pilot is in constant radio contact with the officer in the surface vessel.

Underwater photography

As the sub descended in a cloud of bubbles, we readied our cameras. "The portholes are made of four-inch (10-centimeter)-thick acrylic, so don't use a flash," advised Willy. "Flashes will reflect off the windows and your pictures will turn out black." There was no problem taking flash photos inside.

Passenger identifies fish outside porthole.
Passenger identifies fish outside porthole.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll
Tropical fish at Freshwater Bay Reef on Barbados west coast.
Tropical fish at Freshwater Bay Reef on Barbados west coast.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A dazzling array of marine life grabbed our attention as we submerged to 98 feet (30 meters). On a typical dive, passengers can see up to 80 different species. Each porthole has a card attached, picturing the tropical fish for easy identification.

Coral reef fish

Butterfly fish drifted by like snowflakes. A gleaming school of silversides swam by in unison, then suddenly darted away as a barracuda appeared. We came eyeball to eyeball with a yellowtail and practically rubbed noses with a green turtle. We felt like reaching out to touch it.

Iridescent blue-green parrot fish nibbled on algae growing on some coral. "You see the sandy bottom?" asked our guide. "Well, 80 per cent of it comes from the erosion of hard coral. The other 20 per cent comes from the digestive tract of parrot fish. A sandy beach is made from the remains of the coral that parrot fish ingest while eating algae. An adult parrot fish can produce a ton of sand each year!"

Tropical fish and gorgonian coral
Tropical fish and gorgonian coral
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Sea fans

Willy also pointed out orange sponges, purple-green sea fans and several corals. "The hard corals look like flowers," he explained, "while the soft ones look like stumps. The corals that look like burned-out trees are gorgonians."

We descended 148 feet (45 meters) into the Caribbean Sea. At this depth, we saw few fish and no coral except for something that looked like a spring, coiling up from the sand. "That's wire coral," said Willy. "The curve comes from the rotation of the earth. In the southern hemisphere, it coils in the opposite direction."

Ship wreck

Suddenly, a ghost of a ship appeared out of the blue. It was the wreck of the Lord Willoughby.

"Scuba divers sunk the ship in 40 feet (12 meters) of water, so it could be used as a dive site," said Willy. "They underestimated the current, and the boat fell down to 151 feet (46 meters). It still has its cargo on board." (Barbados has nearly three dozen named coral reef and shipwreck dive sites.)

Unfortunately, few scuba divers explore it. "They can only stay at this depth for two or three minutes without decompressing," our copilot explained, as we hovered over the ship.

We glided effortlessly around it, and then slowly began our ascent. The coral gardens reappeared. And so did the marine life — a school of tiny neon-blue fish and a passing parade of black and yellow sergeant majors. Our Barbados submarine tour finished all too quickly.

Winner of Caribbean Tourism Organization Award for Best Online Article

Winner of Caribbean Tourism Organization Award
for Best Online Article



Atlantis Barbados

Barbados Tourism Authority

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Romantic Barbados

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