Take a Submarine to the Bottom of the Great Lakes

You too can sink down to the watery grave—er, depths.

When the waves of Lake Huron closed over my head as I sank down to the bottom of the Great Lake, I admit I was a little panicky. I definitely thought about drowning. After all, I’d nearly drowned three times in my life.

Though the first two times I was too young to now recall, the third time was in Wisconsin and the sensation has stuck with me. I remember how, as a middle schooler, I got pulled deeper and deeper into a wave pool until every wave sucked me underneath just long enough to choke on a gurgly mouthful of water. Despite kicking and fighting to swim back to safety, I could feel the water overtaking me, bubbling up over my head as I sank down. The pool was choking me, I was suffocating, and the fear of death was right in my face. As you can probably guess, I was eventually saved. Someone noticed and pulled me out of the pool, and that relief was enormous.

But here I was again, as an adult, watching sediment from the bottom of the lake swirl up around me. But this time I wasn’t drowning. This time I was perfectly safe. This time I was in a submarine.

My small group and I were passengers on one of Viking Cruises’ newest itineraries, the Great Lakes Explorer. The expedition allows guests on the Viking Octantis ship to see one of the great lakes from the other side of the surface. Though guests can participate in science-research activities like microplastics research, bird-watching, and weather balloon launches, it’s also just really cool to dive in a submarine. Whether you’re overcoming your own childhood experiences or you’re just an adventurer at heart, here’s what to know about going on a submarine expedition in the Great Lakes.

yellow submarine
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises

Boarding a submarine

These are—of course—yellow submarines. Can you guess their names? If you picked John, Paul, George, and Ringo… you’re absolutely right.

The Beatles can go down to about 1,000 feet and stay underwater for eight hours. Each side of the submarine has three very comfortable seats for passengers, surrounded by glass domes that allow optimal viewing at the dive site. It’s a small space (you can’t stand up straight), but you can hardly tell once you’re in the water. The seat platforms swivel so you can look out over the lake floor instead of staring at the pilot and other passengers.

The submarines are equipped with lights, cameras, and some handy claws to pick up anything valuable the pilot sees on the lakebed. They’re typically used as research vessels to take information back to the Octantis’ science program, which works in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA eventually plans to tack instruments to the bottoms of the submarines to get more detailed information about the water, the lakes, and the lakebed.

If you’re like me (that is, both claustrophobic and afraid of drowning), you’ll be happy to know that the subs are awash with safety features. Onboard, you’ll find directions on what to do if the pilot goes unconscious, supplemental oxygen hoods, a big green button to push if the sub needs to surface immediately, and a program that tells the submarine to surface if it doesn’t detect any activity from the pilot. Up above you, the sub is followed by a safety boat with a team that ensures the surrounding waters stay clear and everyone is safe beneath the surface. (So even when the safety boat radioed our pilot, Peppe from Sweden, and said, “You’re a little close to the rocks, but that’s as good a dive site as any,” I decided to trust the marine scientist.)

interior of submarine
Photo by Jennifer Billock

Sinking down to the depths

Here’s how the dive works. You take Viking-owned Zodiacs (military-grade rigid inflatable boats) to a predetermined dive site that the scientists onboard the ship picked out that morning. For now, the sites will always be in Canadian waters—because Viking is Norwegian, the Jones Act disallows them from deploying subs in the United States. To transfer from the Zodiac to the submarine, you have to hold onto a metal bar, climb out of the Zodiac, and sit down on the edge of the submarine hatch. You swing your legs into the hatch, then climb down a three-rung ladder into the middle of the sub to find your assigned seat.

Once everyone is in the sub, the pilot climbs in, closes the hatch, and then radios to the safety boat to make sure you’re clear to sink. With the all-clear, air is released from outside tanks on the submarine, and thrusters push the entire thing underwater.

For our dive, we went down about fifty feet to the floor of the lake. It had been raining all morning, which stirred up the sediment around us, making everything a mossy green color that spotlights sparkled through to highlight the lakebed. I saw a few tiny fish and a ton of invasive zebra mussel shells. Depending on the weather and your dive site, you’re likely to see more. But even just exploring the floor of the Great Lakes, something almost no one in history has done before, is an amazing thing.

Sign me up!

If you want to take a submarine dive into the Great Lakes yourself, you have to be a passenger on the Viking Octantis or sister ship, Viking Polaris. As of this writing, no other companies offer passenger submarine trips down into the lakes—especially not in a military-grade exploration submarine that is worth $6 million each. The Great Lakes expedition itineraries start at about $6,500 and can be booked on the Viking website.

four people sitting on rocks by lake
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Hike, kayak, or get yourself a cinnamon roll afterwards

What you can see nearby depends on your dive site. On Octantis, the subs went down in Lake Huron and Lake Superior—my dive was in Lake Huron, surrounded by the stunning Georgian Bay UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Canada. Here, you can kayak in the bay, hike through the surrounding landscape, and enjoy a Zodiac nature cruise.

Or if you can, try to take your submarine dive at Silver Islet in Ontario’s slice of Lake Superior. The small community is historic and completely off the grid, and the general store has some of the best cinnamon rolls you can find around the Great Lakes.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!

Jennifer Billock is a freelance writer and author, usually focusing on some combination of culinary travel, culture, sex, and history. Check her out at JenniferBillock.com and follow her on Twitter.