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Tuesday, October 17, 2000

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Jarrett Saito and Christine Pangilinan hold hands
while roaming the ocean off Hawaii Kai in their
underwater scooters, or breathing observation bubbles.

Bob ...
bob ...

Bubbleheads take a
high-tech trip for an
undersea adventure

By Rod Ohira

There's a new high-tech toy in Hawaii that can be ridden like a moped underwater without any scuba gear strapped to the rider's body.

"It's fun and doesn't take much effort," 29-year-old Paul Chun said of his recent experience on the 400-pound submersible vehicle called a breathing observation bubble -- BOB for short.

Chun, manager of the House of Hong restaurant, said BOB is easier to ride than a moped.

"You don't have to balance because you're in the water," he said. "You press buttons to go left or right, forward, down or up. The only thing is, you can't reverse."

BOB's Hawaii Adventure and Morning Star Cruises have been renting units locally for supervised use since early summer. Both companies use the submersibles manufactured in Palm Beach, Fla., by Bellaqua.

"It's very safe," BOB's Hawaii Adventure president Gabriel Siu said. "It's supervised from above and below.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Jarrett Saito, left, and Christine Pangilinan,
in their breathing observation bubbles, are
joined in the ocean by Tim Paul in his scuba gear.

"When underwater, we have a tether line from a buoy attached to each unit, and there's a dive master in the water for every three people."

Outside Hawaii, the submersibles are rented only in Florida, Guam and Saipan, Siu said.

"It appears to be no more dangerous than introductory scuba," said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Warren Cone, a marine inspector.

Siu purchased 10 BOB units for $12,000 apiece. Each is powered by a 12-volt, jell-cell battery.

"The whole thing is all parts of scuba gear," Siu said. "The tank holds 40 minutes and is in front."

Air is pumped into a large bubble that covers the rider from head to shoulder, but doesn't restrict movement.

Three clear frames offer 360-degree viewing from the bubble.

"In the bubble, you can see 30-40 feet to the bottom," Chun said. "The view is clear because the plastic magnifies everything.

"It actually can be used by a non-swimmer because you're sitting down on something and wearing the bubble. It's better than scuba diving since there's no weight on your back."

BOB's weight is concentrated on the bottom.

"The bottom weighs 300 pounds," Siu said. "It serves like a fishing weight, keeping the unit upright and floating."

The only restriction is that users must be at least 12 years old and at least 4 feet tall to operate a BOB.

Siu's base at Koko Marina Center in Hawaii Kai includes a specially designed 42-foot boat, several powerboats used for shuttling and 10 full-time employees.

Customers receive 30 minutes of breathing and safety instructions before being transported from the marina to "Turtle Reef" outside Maunalua Bay.

The depth there is 30 to 45 feet, but the BOB activity takes place at 20 to 25 feet, although the submersible can go deeper, said Siu.

The total underwater time on the BOB is 25 to 30 minutes.

"It's a total high-tech experience and gives tourists something to talk about when they go home that's different from sightseeing or going to a luau," Siu said.

Siu's rental charge is $110 per person, which Paul Yip of Morning Star Cruises said is comparable to what he's charging.

Yip owns 11 BOB units. His operation is concentrated in the waters outside Ko Olina Ocean Marina, about a mile offshore from the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa Hotel.

Both agree business could be better.

"It's much slower than expected," Siu said. "Right now we're averaging 10-12 people a week. We'd like 10-20 a day.

"But the tourists' spending attitude has changed. They tend to look for cheaper activities now."

Yip added, "For any new business, you need time to promote. The potential for this is it's a new activity for tourists."

Siu, a 45-year-old Hong Kong native who came to Hawaii in 1975, is also president of All Hawaii Cruises Inc. and Hawaii Blue Water Sailing Inc.

He first heard about BOB in 1993.

"One of my divers saw it in a Neiman Marcus catalog and brought it to my attention," Siu said. "I made inquiries, but really got serious about it in 1995."

But Siu ran into a sea of red tape when he tried to introduce BOB to Hawaii five years ago.

"I was hanging in mid-air," he said. "It got to be a big circle with paper trails going back years."

The Coast Guard and state refused to approve permits for what Siu and Bellaqua were calling "scuba gear."

"We finally sent it out to our legal folks in 1997 and they identified it as a vessel because it was propelled," Cone said. "After that, it took a while to categorize it as a recreational vessel."

Siu tried unsuccessfully to get BOB approved for use in Kaneohe Bay and eventually set up shop at Koko Marina Center.

He cleared the final hurdle by submitting a detailed operation and safety-procedure book to the Coast Guard and state.

Siu was cleared to proceed in June and opened for business in August.

"I'm using BOB9s, which is the ninth model, so over the five years we waited, I got a better product," he said. "But I ended up with a poorer market."

Operating in a designated ocean management recreation area restricts commercial activity on Sundays and holidays.

"It's hard because counting bad weather days, we only get seven or eight months' actual use from a 12-month permit," Siu said.

But being a small businessman in Hawaii, Siu has learned to hang tough.

"You know, the biggest gamble in life is starting a business because you're gambling more than money," he said. "You're gambling your time, effort and skill.

"To me, it's not exactly all about dollars. I like providing new high-tech activity that's exciting, safe and environment friendly.

"Besides, I'm too old now to learn how to work in a computer room somewhere."

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