Flying through ocean depths


World-renowned inventor and engineer Graham Hawkes hopes to inspire the next generation of ocean explorers with his latest machine.

Hawkes leads Hawkes Ocean Technologies, a privately held company based in the San Francisco Bay Area that designs and builds some of the more advanced manned and remote vehicles for ocean exploration. He has spent the past four decades creating these vehicles for research, industry and even personal pleasure. The DeepFlight Super Falcon is something he has longed for and worked toward for roughly 20 years.

This 20-foot, two-seat submersible resembles a sleek aircraft, with wings, tail surfaces and ailerons. There are two large, rounded windows, or domes, which allow 360-degree viewing. It can cruise depths of up to 1,000 feet at a speed of nearly 7 mph. Agile, long and somewhat shark-like in shape, the DeepFlight Super Falcon was designed to move gracefully underwater and move for the first time with the big marine animals, Hawkes said.

Already the vehicle has received visits for curious onlookers. Hawkes said a large female great white shark eyeballed him and British billionaire Sir Richard Branson for about one minute, from just a few feet away, as he was flying through the water surrounding Guadalupe Island, off Mexico’s west coast.

He is very optimistic about the possibility of it someday being used for studying even the most mysterious of sea creatures, such as the ever-elusive giant squid that can grow up to 55 feet long. But for now, Hawkes was quite happy about using the vehicle to experience the humpback whales that come to Hawaii annually.

Two weeks ago, Hawkes and his team arrived on the Big Island for their expedition: to listen to and record whale songs. Adhering to the laws and maintaining the required 100-yard distance at all times, the DeepFlight Super Falcon dove three days last week out of Kawaihae Harbor and along the Kohala Coast. Attached to the submersible were more than 20 GoPro cameras and external hydrophones, which can hear whales 5 to 20 miles away.

“Doing the expedition in Hawaii with its nice, clear blue water and it being home to humpback whales, just made sense,” Hawkes said. “I still remember the first time I, as a young engineer, listened to whale songs. I was enthralled.”

Besides hearing and possibly witnessing humpback whales in one of their most important breeding, calving and nursing grounds, Hawkes Ocean Technologies also performed a few tests like piloting the DeepFlight Super Falcon inverted.

Hawkes will give a special free presentation tonight about underwater flight and this latest expedition. His talk begins at 6 p.m. in Kanu o ka Aina Learning Ohana’s Hoolako Building A, located at 64-1043 Hiiaka Street in Waimea.

Some of the audio recordings and footage will likely be shared. Most of it will end up on YouTube, Hawkes added.

For years, Hawkes has been changing the way people think about undersea vehicles and has dealt with criticism ever since he set out to build his first winged submersible, the single-passenger DeepFlight I, which successfully launched in 1996. He said traditional submersibles are like balloons or blimps, built basically to make themselves heavier or lighter to sink or rise in the water. Their movement is limited. They also produce a lot of noise and light.

The DeepFlight Super Falcon, on the other hand, was built to explore the ocean, whether for science, education or adventure, Hawkes said. He described maneuvering it as “like flying — wonderfully exciting, with a tremendous sense of privilege and freedom.” Hawkes said he built the submersible not to prove that it could be done, but to allow a more direct experience of human exploration of the ocean.

That experience, he added, is not just intended for the billionaires club, but for all people, something he hopes to achieve possibly through undersea tourism.

What Hawkes most hopes attendees of tonight’s talk take away is that a huge part of the Earth — the ocean — remains unexplored and there is little known and so much work to be done, as well as enjoyed and discovered.

For more information about tonight’s talk, call Kanani Frazier at 327-3697 or email kanani.frazier@noaa.gov. Also, visit deepflight.com.