Life Inside an Underwater Burrito
I’ve been scuba diving plenty of times. I got certified in Australia. I’ve been diving in Antigua, in the tank with the whale sharks at Georgia Aquarium, in the Arabian Sea off of Dubai, the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve been down to 120 feet. I’ve swum through wrecks of old navy ships and have explored coral reefs. But the kind of diving I did yesterday was completely different than anything else I have ever experienced.
I slept underwater. Mob bosses in the movies make this threat all the time, that they’ll make people sleep wit da fishes. I totally did this the other day, and I didn’t have to nearly get whacked for the privilege.
The Jules Verne Undersea Lodge is located in Key Largo, Florida. It was originally built as an underwater research vessel in the late 1960s, it was called La Chalupa. It has been since decommissioned as a research vessel. But back in the day it was towed on a barge and then plopped on the ocean floor somewhere near Puerto Rico. Marine researchers would live inside La Chalupa while performing their research activities on coral reefs.
Now, it is the Jules Verne Undersea Lodge. It sits at 30 feet below the surface beside another underwater research (still active research facility) called Marine Lab. To access the undersea lodge, one needs to don scuba gear and descend to 30 feet. Entrance into the lodge is through a moon pool in the bottom of the center of the lodge.
We donned our gear and descended to the bottom. We followed a rope that was tied to the dock which led us to the moon pool at the lodge. We popped our heads out of the moon pool and checked out the wet room in the lodge. We jumped up and down, or tried to as we were laden down with our gear and tank and we were chest deep in the water. Our voices echoed as we marveled at staying there overnight. Then a voice boomed over the intercom. It was our mission leader welcoming us to the lodge from the command center on the surface. We would be monitored overnight to ensure our safety as we were in a tin can underwater.
We popped our regulators back into our mouth and ducked down from the moon pool and checked out the rest of the lagoon. Marine Lab was right next door, approximately 100 feet away. We followed another rope to the lab and swam around the outside of it to check it out. I peeked into the window and saw a microscope sitting on a table. We swam around a bit more then headed back to the lodge.
We popped up again in the lodge and found Rob, our mission leader. We doffed our gear, rinsed off in the shower, and then he showed us around in the lodge. To the left of the wet room was a round hatch leading upward into the common area. The lodge consists of two cylinder shapes, with a rectangular wet room in between them. So, imagine two enormous burritos side by side. One of the burritos was the common room, and the other was the dormitory. In the common room we could eat (the fridge was stocked with food) watch a movie, and hang out. We stepped down through the hatch, passed through the wet room, and on the other side is the other burrito—the dormitory. The dorm sleeps 6 and has two rooms. There is a window on either end of the burrito, and occasionally we saw a fish go by. After dark I pressed my dive light to the clear acrylic window to attract the fish. A red snapper came by to say hello.
This is the common room, where we ate meals and didn't bother to watch a movie. There is a fridge here and a microwave. They fully stocked the joint with snacks, too.
This is where we slept.
This is the wet room, how you enter and exit the lodge. The black square on the wall on the left is the door to the bedroom.
This cracked me up, They have these impressive screws holding the wall together. But one of them has a cork jammed in it.
Rob left. We had a few minutes to hang out inside our burritos, and then we were due for our lesson over at Marine Lab. We donned our gear and followed the rope over to the lab.
The moon pool over there was a lot smaller. Todd went in first while I waited underwater, as there was only room for one of us to enter at a time. Entering requires removing your fins, then your scuba unit (the thing you wear that holds your tank onto your back) and then hoisting yourself up into the lab to remove the wetsuit. He was removing his suit when I poked my head up into the moon pool. While I doffed my gear, his wetsuit as dripping on my face. Once I was un-geared we entered the lab.
The lab was also burrito shaped, but much smaller than the burritos over at the lodge—maybe it was about 15-20 feet long. It was originally an old boiler that the navy had repurposed into a submersible lab. Chris, the Chief Scientist, has been working in that lab since 1987. Every day he dons his gear and his commute consists to a dive to 30 feet. He carries a waterproof case with him that contains his lunch and other items he needs for his work. He showed us several species that live in the lagoon, and we got to hold a few of them and look at them through the microscope. Then we got to the best part.
“I’ve got this ROV, but sometimes it doesn’t work right. Let’s see if we can get it to work,” he opened a plastic bin at our feet. “Want to see if we can get it to work?”
“Hell yes,” we both said in unison.
We managed to get it to work. Chris plugged it in and dropped it out the moon pool. He motioned to the controls, which are in a pelican case with a monitor screen in the top half. Todd maneuvered the joystick and flew the underwater vehicle along the bottom. Chris pointed out a few landmarks and taught us how to “fly.” Then we brought it back to the lab, and Chris affixed a tool onto the ROV’s arm. The object was to hook the tool onto a reflector that Chris had planted in the lagoon. Todd was the first to have a go, and he managed to successfully clip the tool on. I wasn’t as successful. The clip on the tool is a bit sensitive, so I touched the target and the clip closed. It wasn’t able to be opened again remotely. So, I left my tool beside Todd’s successfully clipped one.
We played with that ROV for about an hour and a half. Then we started getting hungry, so we headed back to the lodge. Pull on the wetsuit, shimmy into my scuba unit, pull the mask onto my face, pop my reg into my mouth and follow the rope back to the lodge. When we got there a hot pizza was waiting for us.
Let me say that again, just so you understand. We had a pizza delivered underwater. And it wasn’t at all soggy. The support diver brought it down in a waterproof pelican case. We ate pizza, then we video conferenced with family and friends to show them our underwater burritos. Then Chris came back over to talk to us some more about the La Chalupa facility and others like it.
We decided to skip going on a night dive, because the water was murky. The diving wasn’t very scenic—but I can go on scenic dives anywhere. I went to the Jules Verne Lodge to be able to be inside an underwater burrito. We read, then slept, then woke in the morning. We rolled out of bed, donned our gear and went on a morning dive.
This lagoon is popular for students learning how to dive. So we got up before the students would arrive so that the bottom wouldn’t be as stirred up. Todd whipped out the GoPro and we tooled around the lagoon while he shot footage. (I’ll share this video with you later.)
We went back to the burritos, and ate some cereal for breakfast. Then the rest of the morning we lounged around until it was time to go back to the surface, at 1.
We broke through the surface and were blinded by the bright South Florida sun. We climbed the stairs, doffed our gear. And with that, I have now spent 24 consecutive hours underwater, in a burrito under the sea.
added on 02.05.16