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Private Subs Dive Flathead Lake For Local Researchers

A view from the depths of Flathead Lake.
David Colombo
Innerspace Science
A view from the depths of Flathead Lake.

There was something odd bubbling beneath the surface of Flathead Lake earlier this summer, but it wasn’t a lake monster. It was a submarine. Two, in fact. The subs' pilots were there to help cash-strapped researchers physically see the mostly unexplored depths of Flathead Lake for the unforgettable price of free.

If you’re an aquatic researcher focused on deep water bodies, it can be hard for scuba divers to see what’s at the bottom of your research subject. Unless, of course, you’re doing a different type of diving.

On a recent Tuesday morning, I left the Flathead Lake Biological Research Station dock to meet Hank Pronk. Pronk lives in nearby British Columbia, and it was his cramped two-man submarine we were climbing into.

We descended beneath Yellow Bay on the east side of the lake, diving to about 40 feet below the surface. Pronk's sub can dive much deeper, down to 1,000 feet, though he’s only run safety tests at around 300.

The Bio Station struggles to explore below 100 feet because its research divers need specialized experience and equipment to descend any further.

Research Scientist Jim Craft with the University of Montana’s Bio Station said they’ve only conducted limited deep-water research in Flathead Lake, which is 380 feet at its deepest point. A big reason is because the equipment required to reach the lake’s bottom is so expensive. Researchers also don’t really know a lot about what’s down there in the first place.

“Unless you’re going to do a lot with them, to put out $20,000 or so for a rover or shoot, I don’t know how much a submarine costs," Craft said.

"I’m going to probably put it into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. We just don’t have the research need to justify that kind of expense.”

Even hiring a commercial sub for a day can cost thousands of dollars. That’s why Craft jumped at the opportunity to work with Innerspace Science, a website connecting researchers with private submarine owners. Alec Smyth is the site’s founder.

“And seems to be working out," Smyth said. "I mean, we started it two years ago.”

Smyth is also one of the group's owners: Innerspace currently includes six submarines and one underwater Rover. The group solicits expedition ideas from researchers through its website, and each owner can decide whether they want to go on the trip. Because they’re not commercial operators, no money exchanges hands. They’re in it just for the experience.

“It's much more rewarding to use your sub that way than to just putter around and just come home with a family video or something," Smyth said. "So it's a win-win.”

The week Flathead Lake dives were the second scientific expedition Innerspace sub owners have taken. Last year, two pilots took University of California, Davis graduate students beneath the surface of Lake Tahoe.

Smyth hopes the resulting research will spread the word about Innerspace Science, and bring in more expedition requests in Europe and the U.S.

Jim Craft said he’s not entirely sure what research may come out of the Flathead dives. The collected algae and sediment samples will sit on Bio Station shelves until they can be processed this winter. Those results could lead to formal research proposals down the line.

Researchers also asked for video of the invasive mysis shrimp. That footage is set to be analyzed in the near future, and could inform ongoing research on the crustacean’s population and profound ecosystem effects.

“They do a daily migration up to the surface at night to feed and then back to the bottom to evade predators," Craft said. "So, understanding habits and what they’re doing is really nice. So we had them do a night dive, so I’m really excited to see that video.”

In Pronk's video, you can see thousands of mysis shrimp, tiny white specks swimming to the surface. It's something researchers have seen in the lab, but would've never seen in the wild if it weren’t for a few private sub owners combining their hobby with science.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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