Can you afford to swim among dolphins with Sir Richard Branson?
For the price of a three-bedroom, two-bath home in Omaha, Neb., couples can take Branson's new Necker Nymph aero submarine for a test dive during a seven-day stay at his swanky getaway on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. The price includes an $88,000 weekly charter fee for Necker Belle, a 105-foot catamaran which will act as the winged sub's launchpad.
Developed by Point Richmond, Calif.-based Hawkes Ocean Technologies, the three-passenger sub glides on the water's surface "like an aeroplane on a runway," according to a statement from Virgin Limited Edition, the luxury arm of Virgin hotels.
The $693,000 craft then dives below the surface using inverse lift to push itself down into the water, as opposed to ballast, which traditional submarines rely upon to sink. Open cockpits afford a 360-degree view for passengers, who will be required to wear a face mask and a regulator while traveling in the sub with a certified pilot and scuba instructor.
Air tanks will be mounted on the sub, which can travel from two to five nautical miles per hour and will rise to the surface if it experiences a power outage.
"We have essentially made the same transition sub-sea that the Wright brothers did in air, transitioning from ballooning to fixed wing aircraft, thus underwater flight," wrote Karen Hawkes, of Hawkes Ocean Technologies to WalletPop.
Hawkes said the sub -- 20 years in the making -- will only dive to depths reached by most open water divers. The 1,653-pound craft will "uncover ancient shipwrecks, fly side-by-side with dolphins, or spyhop with whales," according to the breathless release from Virgin Limited Edition. It will remain underwater for about an hour.
Wait a minute.
Learning how to scuba dive in open water takes several days and a couple hundred dollars. Even people who dislike swimming in a big way -- like me, for example -- can become a certified scuba diver and experience all sorts of intimate encounters with sea animals. Like the time I came face to face with an enormous lemon shark about 40 feet down off of a Tahitian reef. Or the trip when I hyperventilated after being stung by a jellyfish as I was descending.
But there are magical moments, such as when I blew bubbles with a seal in Sonora Bay, Mexico, became one of a school of flashing silver anchovies darting in and out of a sunken trawler, or floated alongside a 4-foot-long green and blue Napoleon fish.
It doesn't seem possible to replicate these memorable moments in a craft that reminds me more of Disneyland's popular Nemo ride -- minus the long lines, of course.
But Hawkes counters that DeepFlight's Merlin class of submarines -- of which Branson's Nymph is the first -- are designed to heighten the experience of scuba with the "added enhancement of underwater flight."
"With scuba, you are encumbered with your air tank, BC vest, weight belt, etc. When you fly in our DeepFlight Merlin submersible, all you need is your face mask and a regulator," Hawkes wrote in an e-mail. "You can move through the water like big animals and keep up with the dolphins."
Hawkes Ocean Technologies hopes someday to have a fleet of submersibles available for sub-sea tourism and for use by scientists and filmmakers. But for now, you have to have access to a trust fund to fly with the dolphins.