Montana Public Radio

Submarines Probe The Unexplored Depths Of Flathead Lake

Aug 6, 2019

Boaters on Flathead Lake might see a strange sight this week: small submarines surfacing at various locations. The subs are diving in an effort to help researchers at the Flathead Biological Station reach unexplored depths. 

"Want me to go down? Ok, we’re going to dive."

Hank Pronk is the pilot of the Nekton Gamma, a small two-man submarine that will be one of two subs aiding in Flathead Lake Bio Station’s research efforts this week.

On Monday, Pronk gave several people a quick ride in Yellow Bay.

"So we’re 14 feet from the bottom right now."

As we go down, the water becomes murky and after a few minutes, we’re 40 feet below the surface. Visibility improves and you can see along the muddy bottom for about 15 feet.

Back on the dock, Bio Station researcher Jim Craft explains that this opportunity was made available at no cost to the station through a group of private sub owners called Innerspace Science, which connects people like Pronk with research organizations like the Bio Station.

"A group of hobbyists, I guess you would call them, but they also like to incorporate science if they can and they wanted to come to Flathead Lake and asked if we had any interest in utilizing their submarines," Craft said. "I was very excited to do be able to do that." 

The Nekton Gamma takes off from the Flathead Lake Biological Station’s dock on Flathead Lake August 6, 2019.
Credit Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio

The subs will explore a number of locations around the lake through Friday and will collect sediment and algae samples from depths over 100 feet, which is a rare opportunity for researchers.

"Below where our scuba divers can typically get to, which is about 100 feet, it takes specialty gases to start diving deeper than that, so they tend not to do it," Craft said. "The subs are able to get down to those depths and show us what’s there."

Craft says it’s unclear what research could come out of those samples, but now that researchers are getting a glimpse of Flathead Lake’s depths, they can begin formulating research questions that will be the basis of future studies.