'Your only insurance is that I am going with you'
Given the level of danger, you might think it would be difficult for Stanley to get liability insurance. You'd be right. To operate commercially in most countries, submarines require certification from an organization such as Lloyd's of London or the American Bureau of Shipping. But obtaining such certification would cost Stanley over $100,000, more than four times what he spent to build the sub in the first place. Honduras, however, is a country with relatively few safety regulations. Most car drivers don't have insurance, let alone submarine operators.
Still, Stanley's seat-of-the-pants approach puts him at odds with most of the submarine industry.
"A lot of people are concerned about Karl," says Will Kohnen, president of sub maker SEAmagine Hydrospace and an advocate for submarine safety standards. "If he were surveyed by any of the classification groups, he probably would not be permitted to operate."
Stanley's response: "I agree my sub would not meet certification. But I am 100% honest with people when I tell them, 'Your only insurance is that I am going with you.' "
Many who admire Stanley's entrepreneurial pluck are turned off by his cavalier attitude toward risk. "The guy's amazing - he's really cool," says Richard Boggs, technical superintendent at yacht brokerage firm Camper & Nicholsons International. "What disturbs me is that he's taking down people who don't fully understand the risk. That's just wrong, morally and ethically. It's illegal everywhere but the Third World, and for very good reason."
In the course of nearly 1,000 dives, Stanley has managed to amass an enthusiastic clientele. At the end of one ride, a customer was so wowed that he told Stanley that he owned a machine-tool plant in the rural town of Idabel, Okla., and that Stanley could use it free if he ever wanted to build another submarine. Stanley took him up on his offer and spent a year and a half there building a new sub that could carry three people instead of two. It cost him less than $200,000. In gratitude, he dubbed his new vessel Idabel.
Even when carrying one extra paying passenger, Stanley is hardly making a killing. He charges $1,500 per person for a shark dive, which can take more than five hours - not including the time it takes to prep the sub or haul a horse ahead as bait. Stanley conducts about 100 dives a year and posts annual revenues of slightly more than $100,000. He has only a single part-time employee.
To keep himself afloat, Stanley says, "I've had to exploit numerous niches." One is collecting a rare type of mollusk called a slit shell, or Pleurotomariidae, which lives below 300 feet. Stanley figured out how to rig a net on the end of a pole and snag the creatures, earning him up to $3,000 each. "Without them," he says, "I wouldn't have been able to stay in business." Pleurotomariidae are not on any conservationist's list of endangered species - yet.
What does seem to be endangered, however, is Stanley's penchant for operating without paperwork. Late last year, he says, a disagreement over dock access escalated to a full-scale fight with Roatan's government when it was discovered that Stanley had no residency permit or business license. Roatan mayor Dale Jackson asked Stanley to stop working until his papers were in order. Stanley ignored him.
"Karl is a genius," says Jackson, "but I think he's hurt himself with this attitude." Stanley has since hired a team of lawyers and acquired a residency permit. At presstime he was still seeking a business license.
Meanwhile, Stanley remains sunny as he steers Idabel through the abyss. At 1,000 feet down, we're mobbed by four-inch-long squid that garland us with blobs of glow-in-the-dark ink. At 1,500 feet, a two-foot tinsel fish tries to shoo us away by waggling its head. Stanley narrates each passing wonder with such excitement that you might think it was the first time he had seen each creature, rather than the thousandth.
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