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Swimmers Can Journey to Florida's Inner Space

April 05, 1987|CARL PURCELL and ANN PURCELL | The Purcells are Alexandria, Va., free-lance writers and photographers.

KEY LARGO, Fla. — Through the large circular window we watched tiny fish and bioluminescent plankton drift past while eating dinner in the cozy room 30 feet beneath the sea. Our stay in this extraordinary underwater hotel was a strange and awesome journey to inner space.

Jules' Undersea Lodge is a new facility, constructed inside the shell of what was the La Chalupa sea lab in Puerto Rico. The austere interior of the sea lab habitat has been converted into luxurious guest quarters, complete with a compact microwave kitchen, TV monitors with VCRs, stereos, telephones, a two-way radio, a chemical toilet and a hot shower.

A continuous flow of fresh, clean air is pumped into the lab at a constant temperature and there are automatic backup air and electrical systems in case of a power failure. A closed-circuit TV camera monitors the "wet room" between the two living chambers.

The cost of $600 a night for two is high. However, we came to appreciate the unusual logistics of running a hotel underwater. Maid service must be performed by a mermaid or merman who is a certified scuba diver.

All personal belongings, including clothes, toilet articles and cameras, must be carried down to the hotel in waterproof containers known as Pelican cases, which have O-ring seals. Meals, linens and other supplies must be transported in the same manner.

Aquanaut Orientation

It takes more than 2 1/2 hours of briefing and aquanaut orientation just to check into the hotel. All guests must be certified divers or take a special scuba training course in the area before their stay at the lodge. A resort training course can usually be accomplished in half a day for about $90.

On our dive to reach Jules' Undersea Lodge the clarity of the water was not outstanding. The general manager, Jim Maddox, explained that the mangrove lagoon had just undergone an algae bloom from changes in salinity and temperature.

That, combined with the natural sediment, reduced visibility to about 10 feet. Visibility normally ranges between 30 and 60 feet, but diving enthusiasts should be aware that even under the best conditions this is not "The Blue Lagoon."

After we had been fitted with short wet suits and weight belts, Maddox took us out to the staging platform (raft) for our dive to the lodge. Instead of scuba tanks, our air was supplied with long hookah air hoses and regulators.

We entered the water and immediately were in a strange, quiet world of soft green light. Sediment drifted past our face masks, air bubbles trailed up like tiny pearls and our flippers propelled us down to the shadowy forms below.

Beneath us was the ghostly bow of a sunken boat that pointed directly toward the lodge. We swam a short distance and suddenly the dark form of the lodge loomed over us.

Sharp Contrast

One enters the facility from the underside, the open port acting on the same principle as an inverted glass pushed down into a container of water. Air is trapped in the glass and the water cannot rise.

Going through the port singly, we emerged into a brightly lit tile room, a sharp contrast to the murky water we had just left. There were neat racks to hang up our wet suits and hookah regulators. The hot shower was a welcome luxury.

Three ports form entry doors into the living chambers and after toweling ourselves dry we climbed through one on the left side leading to the kitchen and common living room. The difference in the humidity was noticeable immediately. The living area is comfortably dry, with a perfect temperature near 72 degrees.

The interior walls and floors are covered with carpeting, and a large port looks into the green world outside. Maddox showed us through the lodge and then left, promising to return later for a brief visit with his 9-year-old son, Michael.

In about 10 minutes the radio crackled and Jim cheerfully announced that he and Michael would be joining us again at 4:30. He also said that they would swim past the port of the common living room to give us a chance to take pictures.

Almost precisely on the minute, father and son appeared in the window, waving and feeding the hungry little fish around them. A few minutes later they joined us in the living room.

Michael is among the youngest aquanauts in the world. He lives a glamorous, adventurous life with his father aboard their 36-foot sailboat, which is tied up in the lagoon. Like any fourth-grader, he catches the school bus every weekday morning.

Easygoing Humor

His father is a former naval diver, certified as a medical deep-sea diving technician. Equally important is Jim's easygoing good humor and assurance, which inspires confidence in hotel guests.

It was then that we were suddenly aware of being alone . . . in alien surroundings. The sound of the air bubbling through the port was disquieting and the sense of isolation intense. If we had not been together, it could have been overwhelming. It was comforting to share the experience.

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