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Submarine owners who found plane wreck off Miami Beach show off hardware

Owners of the research submarine Antipodes made quite a splash when they announced the discovery of a sunken U.S. Navy World War II fighter plane lying upside down on the ocean floor off Miami Beach.

The mostly intact wreck of the 1940s Grumman F6F Hellcat, built to combat Japanese Zeros during World War II, was a great find, based on a list of some 50 to 60 unknown targets the Miami-Dade County’s artificial reef program furnished to the sub’s owners.

Now, owners Stockton Rush and Guillermo Sohnlein are eager to demonstrate the 15-foot-long sub’s capabilities. They recently invited members of the media to visit the Hellcat wreck site, encrusted with marine growth 240 feet under water off Miami Beach.

“When Stockton and I started this, our vision was to help open the oceans to exploration, discovery, research and commercialization,” said Sohnlein, co-founder of OceanGate, a Seattle-based firm that acquired the seven-ton sub in 2010 that can carry five people to a depth of 1,000 feet.

“We wanted to build a private-sector alternative to government-run, deep, manned submersible programs.”

On this day, in a bumpy, two-hour voyage in three- to four-foot seas, Captain Erika Bergman and her crew towed the sub out to the wreck site behind the 38-foot trawler, HeadRoom.

Expedition leader Shane Zigler and sub pilot Randy Holt untethered Antipodes from the HeadRoom. Sohnlein and three other passengers were transported by dinghy to the sub, where they climbed down a narrow hatch and sat down in front of twin, transparent domes.

After they were cleared to dive, Antipodes slipped below the ocean’s frothy surface, with Holt calling out the depth every few seconds. The HeadRoom continued to ping the sub with its sonar to keep track of its position.

Soon the sub was hovering just above the sandy bottom in 180 feet of water, Holt directing its movements with a joystick resembling a Gameboy. There wasn’t much to look at except for two gray triggerfish that ambled by.

The HeadRoom skipper informed Antipodes that it was about a quarter-mile north of the sunken Hellcat. Compensating for a strong current, Holt used a compass, a 3-D sonar and manipulated the joystick to locate the wreck.

After about 20 minutes, the first brown outline of the fighter plane’s upside-down tail emerged from the gloom. Two-dozen exotic lionfish hovered, and a school of silvery minnows rushed by, chased by a couple of jacks.

Holt put Antipodes down gently on the sandy ocean floor next to the plane. Soon, three bold lionfish, one at least a foot long, swam up to the viewing dome, cocking their peppermint-striped heads to look at OceanGate chief marketing officer Colleen Hahn.

“Like a horror movie,” Hahn said of the lionfish infestation.

Holt made a couple of slow passes over and alongside the Hellcat, its retractable landing gear visible in the murky water.

Then it was time to surface and return to shore.

This isn’t the first big find for Antipodes. The sub made another interesting discovery last year during a dive in the Pacific Northwest’s Puget Sound.

It found what is believed to be the wreck of the SS Dix, a passenger steamer that collided with another ship in 1906 and sank with 39 aboard. The Dix’s location was unknown until Antipodes found it in 500 feet of water.

Antipodes was built in 1973 by Perry Submarines for service in the North Sea oilfields. In 1995 it was rebuilt and became an accessory on a luxury yacht.

For a while, it was used in underwater tours in New Zealand.

Rush and Sohnlein founded OceanGate in Seattle and purchased Antipodes, mainly a research vessel but which can be hired out privately.

They based the sub in Miami and offered it for all kinds of marine explorations — including fisheries research and collection, underwater surveys, environmental monitoring, even filmmaking.

Want to charter it privately for a day? That will cost $15,000 to $20,000 depending on what it’s used for.

Antipodes is rated by the American Bureau of Shipping to dive 1,000 feet and certified as an oceanographic research vessel by the Coast Guard.

It may be the only commercial sub that can carry up to five people to such depths.

With six two-horsepower reversible thrusters, it has a top speed of 3 knots and life-support capabilities for more than 72 hours. Its twin 58-inch acrylic domes provide a wide view of the ocean floor.

Weighing 14,000 pounds, it can be transported on a ship or a flatbed truck.

Steve Blair, chief of Miami-Dade’s artificial reef program, has never ridden aboard the Antipodes, but he is happy with its work.

“I think it’s been a benefit to us for sure,” Blair said. “They came to us and said, ‘where should we go look?’ We’re giving them ideas for areas for investigation.’’

They go down, take a look and alert officials to what they’ve found in the waters.

“They’ve given us some pretty neat information of some of these areas that were out of our range,’’ Blair said.