The Hijacked Submarine That Launched a Citizen Science Submersibles Club
The police thought her report of a missing yellow submarine was a joke; now Bay Area adventurers are lining up for pilot certification in the recovered vessel.
Shanee Stopnitzky’s submarine was missing. The marine biologist and community activist had left it with friends while she was on vacation, and they couldn’t figure out where she’d docked it. She tried giving them very precise directions; she asked the Berkeley Marina if their staff might have moved it; she started to suspect foul play.
“I was calling every local law enforcement jurisdiction I could possibly find, saying, ‘Okay, this is not a joke, I am missing my yellow submarine.’”
Local media loved it. Stopnitzky was hesitant to answer journalists’ calls, thinking press about the theft would reflect negatively on the citizen science community program she had hoped to build with the missing sub. She finally gave in when a determined reporter showed up on her doorstep. “The interview just kind of exploded. It got syndicated everywhere.” Someone eventually spotted the abandoned vehicle about 10 miles from where she had left it, and the police dragged it back to shore.
The irony is that the submarine thief’s eagerness to explore is (sort of) the adventurous spirit that Stopnitzky wants to promote with her Community Submersibles Project. “I would’ve taken them on the joy ride — they just had to ask!” she jokes. “It feels like they’re our kind of person. My friends put up a missed connections ad on Craigslist about it. It was like, ‘You stole our submarine — and our hearts.’”
The ad didn’t get answered, but Stopnitzky’s ordeal caught the attention of famed submersibles designer and sea explorer Graham Hawkes. “He must have a Google alert for news about submarines, and instead of saying, ‘What the hell what are these crazy people doing?’ he was excited about the grassroots-style submersibles project. He got a hold of me, and we started meeting and scheming.”
Now, Stopnitzky is back to what she’d hoped to be doing all along: teaching people how to operate submarines and explore the vast “alien” worlds that exist right here on Earth. Her live Kickstarter campaign aims to create the first public-facing submersibles pilot certification program, provide hands-on training in submersibles mechanics, and promote open-source technology for ocean exploration.
Wading into aquatic activism
Stopnitzky has been involved in a number of oceanic projects — good and bad. She ran marine science public outreach programs in Australia. She woke up at 4:00 am to feed baby sea turtles at SeaWorld — and arranged behind the scenes tours for activists to get a glimpse of life inside the problematic water park. She built predictive oceanographic models for The Seasteading Institute, the floating alternative social system founded by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman’s grandson Patri Friedman and tech billionaire Peter Thiel (Slate calls it “luxury bunkers for the end of the world”; Stopnitzky would rather not comment on her experience there).
Before moving to the Bay Area, she heard about the open-source biology hackerspace BioCurious, and soon got involved. “I came from the Burning Man world of radical inclusion and trying to make things open and available for people who are prepared to engage. When I first heard about BioCurious, I went there, and it was this utopia. That’s when I started doing community-based initiatives,” she says.
“Over the course of my life in the Bay [Area], that just kept evolving. And for the last few years I’ve done a lot of large-scale experiential art installations at a variety of festivals and as performances. That imperative kept growing and growing for me, to the point where I felt a really strong need to get people direct experience.” In 2014 she helped found Counter Culture Labs to develop a fully stocked public microbiology laboratory for citizen science, now over 1,000 members strong.
So when she bought a submarine last March, it wasn’t exactly out of character. But it was a much more involved model. “It draws inspiration from the open science of BioCurious and Counter Culture Labs, but there’s also this immersive experience and a lot of educational components,” she says. “It’s a new kind of territory; the closest equivalent might be a spaceship. Subs and spaceships both go to the edge of what humans are capable of and give people perspectives that are completely inaccessible to them in their land-bound lives.”
Volunteer coordinator Alessandra Nölting adds, “We’re still figuring out the model, but people are realizing it’s not just Elon Musk or whoever who has the power to go explore. You don’t have to be a billionaire to explore the ocean.”
Oceanic tourism is prohibitively expensive; empowering pilots isn’t
The Community Submersibles Project is able to bring down the cost of an expedition in two ways: The team operates a rare type of vessel that doesn’t require a mothership, and they train pilots instead of ferrying passengers.
“Historically, contracting out a sub for research costs $60,000 to $120,000 a day,” Stopnitzky explains. “Our subs can launch from the shore, so we avoid the bulk of the expenses associated with a mothership: recharging batteries and systems, transporting fuel, and carrying this heavy load. Our big one, Noctiluca, is a really strange, rare hybrid: she has a surface range of up to 500 miles, so she can go really far away under her own steam.”
The way the ship is operated matters, too. Commercial subs are scrutinized by surveyors every three years; they have to do a full retrofit and replace anything that can be replaced, like viewports and acrylics; the cost of insurance is “astronomical.”
“We’re instead undergoing rigorous professional certification and testing as an experimental submersible,” says Stopnitzky. “The project makes the subs available to members who have successfully earned a crew certification or higher from the Submersible Diving Academy.”
Hawkes is helping with this. “He’s our overall spirit advisor, and we have a formal collaboration with the Submersible Diving Academy, which is one arm of this bigger picture open-access submersible project. We produced a curriculum for the first submersible pilot certification agency,” says Stopnitzky. “He’s also separately a technical advisor, part of a team of submarine professionals that I reach out to every time I need advice about something, whether it’s something mechanical or materials.”
Propelling unexpected interest
It helps to have one of the world’s most prolific submarine explorers on board — Hawkes designed the majority of the manned submersibles produced through the ’80s and ’90s, and has held the record for solo dives. But Stopnitzky is seeing an interest from a much wider community than she initially anticipated.
“I thought it was this obscure thing that just me and some other people would be interested in. Then we started diving in public, and dozens of people would come watch,” she says. “They’d come over and ask me a million questions. They were so excited, and they wanted to get in. Similarly, after a talk I was invited to give at MIT about open ocean exploration, a swarm of people came to ask questions, and they were so supportive and enthusiastic.
“Given our relationship with the ocean as our circulatory system, this is one of the most beautiful conceptualizations of what a human life can do,” Stopnitzky says. “Diving is like going to space, but it’s full of life — glowing, rainbow, dazzling, twinkling, sparkling life.”
The public is also coming to understand the urgency of protecting all the life that oceans contain. “We’re starting to feel the actual effects of climate change,” she continues. “We’re having direct experiences of crazy storms, fires, all these things. I think young people especially want to take matters into their own hands. We have a reckless maniac chaos agent trying to lead the country, so I think people feel very distrustful of any kind of authority, frankly. People really want to go see it for themselves, in a lot of different areas in life.
“The point here is to give people access to engaging audaciously with things that seem completely out of their hands. Most people don’t think that they can work on a submarine. If you put the tools in their hands and guide them through the process, that leads to this empowerment and bravery to embody curiosity and address problems.”