Come Dive with Me

No scuba gear required: A Berkeley submarine collective wants to bring San Francisco Bay sea life up close and personal for the general public.

Shanee Stopnitzky, founder of the Community Submersibles Project, hopes to raise awareness of the oceans.
Shanee Stopnitzky, founder of the Community Submersibles Project, hopes to raise awareness of the oceans.
PETER PRATO

The Community Submersibles Project wants to make the wonders of the deep sea “available to the not-rich wonderers of the world.” Over the past two years, it has taken regular citizens to the depths of the San Francisco Bay, Lake Tahoe, the Monterey Bay, and beyond.

Founded in 2018 by Shanee Stopnitzky, a 36-year-old marine scientist, the Berkeley-based collective is run by a handful of engineers, makers, and scientists. The fleet consists of two submarines: the homemade 11-foot, electric Fangtooth and the 32-foot, diesel-electric Noctiluca, which was built in England in 1987 and used by the Swedish navy, then sold to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and eventually purchased by Community Submersibles. (The project netted $25,000 from a 2019 Kickstarter campaign and relies on regular crowdsourcing efforts to cover upkeep and improvements.)

Fangtooth is an 11-foot, 4,500-pound, homemade submarine. A large, glass window in the bow enables passengers to view the underwater world.
Fangtooth is an 11-foot, 4,500-pound, homemade submarine. A large, glass window in the bow enables passengers to view the underwater world.
PETER PRATO

On a recent morning, eight volunteers lent a hand to free the 4,500-pound, two-person Fangtooth from its warehouse confines (forklift heroics!), transport it to the Berkeley Marina, dash to the diving store for air tanks, and improvise a dockside plan to rid the sub’s rear of an air pocket—all preliminary steps to the main event: a 20-minute training run during which Fangtooth strayed only a few feet from the dock and barely went underwater.

While this humble expedition was perhaps not as daring as some of the other 90 or so-plus dives the group has made—trips on Noctiluca go hundreds of feet deep and last as long as two hours—the appeal of going below the waves for even a moment is irresistible. “Everything is so chaotic and noisy at the surface,” Stopnitzky says, “and then you get down below and the world just fades away.”

Fangtooth on a training run at the Berkeley Marina.
Fangtooth on a training run at the Berkeley Marina.
PETER PRATO

Stopnitzky is delighted that a community has sprung up to bring submersibles to the public and to raise interest in the oceans. “The real story is all the people that want to be involved,” she says. “We have over 300 members, which shows the interest is there and that people want a way to be doing this.”

Zack Ruskin is a freelance arts and culture writer living in San Francisco.

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