The Rich and Famous Go Down Under

If life were like Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the underwater world would be the playground of wealthy eccentrics plowing the depths in their own personal submarines.

Fast forward to 2002, and you'll find that the real world isn't too different: The market for if not the reality of privately owned luxury submarines is here.

"It's the beginning of the 21st century," said Bill Brown, president of Nautical Niche and Integrity Submarines. "Nobody had ever conceived that there'd be a demand for people to explore underwater on a personal level. Basically up to now it's been military and research that have utilized the technology of submersibles. Now it's just for the thrill of being underwater."

Brown's Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based company is one of a handful in the business of selling modern-day Nautiluses to wanna-be Nemos.

Selling private subs wouldn't have made much sense a few years ago, when the technology for recreational submersibles wasn't sophisticated enough, according to Bruce Jones, president of U.S. Submarines, which offered a $20 million submarine through the Neiman-Marcus catalogue during the 2000 Christmas season.

"The technology has progressed considerably, and one of the major technological benefits comes from the advent of the large, acrylic-plastic viewports," he said. "We can build viewports eight feet in diameter capable of withstanding the hydrostatic pressure of 1,000 feet."

And, naturally, viewports are crucial when the reason you're going under is to get a window on another world.

"You get an opportunity to see unusual things six-gill sharks and large barrel sponges," Jones said. "There's a whole plethora of things you can see and experience if you own your own submarine."

Not everyone can own a luxury submarine, though, and so far only one large luxury sub exists off the drawing board. Jones said he's sold several small- and medium-sized subs, but is currently in negotiations to build a $20 million one that would be the submersible equivalent of a "megayacht."

Brown said he sold a single submarine for $7 million to the fabulously wealthy Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

A spokesman for Allen said he wouldn't comment on his "private items."

"Not many people can afford the price of their own submarine," Brown said. "They have to be a bit eccentric, a bit passionate about the ocean, and my market is primarily directed at the super wealthy."

But for their money, submariners will get the best living one could hope for 20,000 leagues under the sea.

The Integrity 65, currently being created by Nautical Niche, will be 64.5 feet long and carry up to 24 passengers to depths of up to 1,000 feet. And it will boast queen-sized beds in its well-appointed staterooms.

"It's just like a private jet, with dining areas and galleys and heads and the whole bit," Brown said.

Jones's proposed unnamed sub would be 118 feet long, essentially an underwater yacht with five luxury staterooms that could comfortably be home to 10 for extended periods whether on the surface or 1,000 feet below it a steal at $20 million.

And he's got designs for an even larger sub, the Phoenix 1000, which would be 213 feet long, include two decks of passenger staterooms and a minisub. The Phoenix's price tag: $78 million.

While owning a sub like these is only possible for the elite, piloting it is another matter entirely. Submarines are considered among the safest modes of transportation and are surprisingly easy to operate.

"It's more like flying an airship than anything else," Jones said. "It's not altogether that complex."

It might take them longer to learn the regulations they'll have to obey in various countries about submarines as they explore the undersea world in a manner that might have convinced Verne to rewrite his angry Captain Nemo as a life-loving playboy.

"In a submarine you're comfortable, you can sit in your padded lounge chair and stay down as long as you want," Jones said. "You're going to set eyes on things no one else has ever seen."