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Taking the Plunge : The Delta, a Jules Verne-style sub-for-hire, plumbs ocean depths doing scientific tasks and searching for sunken treasure from its base at Ventura Harbor.

November 10, 1994|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An on-board crane gently lifts the little yellow submarine off the mother ship and plops it into Ventura Harbor. Climbing down to the sub, a burly silver-haired man squeezes into the conning tower, closes the hatch and circumnavigates the harbor.

Tourists on the docks stop to gawk at the strange metal craft, no bigger than a compact car. Somebody asks, "Can you rent one of those?"

The answer is yes. But your harbor cruise will cost $3,500 a day, with another $3,000 for the mother ship, plus expenses.

The sub-for-hire is the pocket-size Delta, which, despite its Disneyesque appearance, is a serious research vessel. Certified to dive to 1,200 feet, it is used primarily for scientific endeavors--mapping underwater earthquake faults, tracking crab populations. But the two-man sub is also rented for more exotic missions, such as searching for sunken Spanish galleons or exploring fabled wrecks such as the Lusitania and the Edmund Fitzgerald.

"I talk to guys every year wanting us to find Amelia Earhart," says Rich Slater, the man inside the sub.

Slater, a 57-old marine geologist, is not looking for the missing aviator in Ventura Harbor. He is taking the Delta on a short test run before its midnight departure aboard the mother ship Cavalier, a 110-foot utility vessel leased from Buccaneer Marine Ltd. of Ventura. Slater's company, Delta Oceanographics of Oxnard, has been contracted by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to find lost current-reading instruments in the Santa Barbara Channel.

"There ain't a lot of work out there" for subs, says Slater's partner, Doug Privitt, a taciturn, self-taught sub-builder. "But there's enough to keep us busy."

The Delta is one of only a handful of private research subs in use today and probably the most active, Slater says. Stubby, ungainly but remarkably safe, the Delta has logged 85 dive-days and 318 dives this year and close to 3,500 dives in 12 years.

The 15 1/2-foot, 5,000-pound steel cylinder looks like the brainchild of Jules Verne's Capt. Nemo in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" but was actually designed and built by the 63-year-old Privitt. It has 19 bug-eyed ports and several protuberances, including mechanical and hydraulic arms. Eight 12-volt batteries power the screw, producing a cruising speed of only 1 1/2 knots, a slow walk.

British sports cars are roomier than the Delta. Instruments such as sonar, a computerized navigation system, gyroscope and Fathometer line the sub's interior. The pilot sits on a bench amidships, his head poking up into the conning (observation) tower. Wedged in, the passenger has to curl up in the padded nose section.

When the hatch is sealed shut and the Delta drops into the black ocean on a quarter-mile descent, the pilot and passenger look through 1 1/2-inch-thick Plexiglas, their field of vision illuminated for 20 or 30 feet by two side-mounted lights. The pilot controls his depth by either filling storage compartments with water or using compressed air to empty them. Regardless of the depth, the pressure inside the Delta remains at one atmosphere, the same as on land.

"The sub's a simple design," Slater says. "Everything's mechanical."

THE TREASURE SEEKERS

Slater figures that 95% of Delta's work is scientific--it does a lot of diving for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration--and the rest of its time is devoted to "the wild-goose people." It seems everybody with a treasure map and a snorkel knows Delta's Oxnard phone number. Slater and Privitt are continually approached by speculators who want them to lower their rates in exchange for a percentage of the alleged booty. Occasionally, they agree.

"Gold always sounds good to us," Slater says.

But they haven't got rich. Once, they were lured to Florida by a treasure hunter's secret map, but "all we found were a lot of fish holes," Privitt says sardonically.

A year ago, the Delta went looking for the Brother Jonathan, a paddle-wheel steamer that sank in 1865 off the Northern California coast, supposedly with $2 million in gold and $250,000 in U.S. Army payroll on board. With Chris Ijames and Slater's son Dave taking turns piloting the Delta, and Privitt along as observer, they found the wreck "not where it was supposed to be," Privitt says. "Everybody else had looked in the wrong place."

Is there treasure aboard? Nobody knows, says Slater, because the state is holding up exploration of the wreck pending a court battle over salvage rights.

Slater has been tempted to go after the San Jose, "the richest Spanish galleon of all time," he says. The ship rests somewhere at the bottom of the sea near Cartagena, Colombia. But treasure hunters are deterred by the Colombian government, which would insist on keeping the San Jose's contents and putting them in a museum, Slater says.

"Some people approached us about sneaking into Colombia," Tackett says. "No way we're going down there illegally."

Slater says they could pull it off. Privitt gasps. "No way I wanna spend time in a Colombian prison."

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