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Documenting Lake Huron in a homemade submarine

August 22, 2012
Jordan Travis - News Staff Writer , The Alpena News

ROCKPORT - Two brothers with ties to Northeast Michigan have been testing their homemade submarine in the clear waters of Lake Huron off Rockport.

Russell and Doug Canfield have been working together to photograph wildlife in its natural habitat, they said. The two also are gathering film for what they hope to be a TV show focused on freshwater ecosystems, as well as seeking out ways to put their innovative craft to use.

Doug, who lives near Black Lake, worked for a yacht manufacturer in Holland, he said. He used this knowledge to mold the Fugusub, as the brothers call it, out of fiberglas. Doug and Russell, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., made three altogether, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and five years on the project.

"These were built for an eco-tourism business," Russell said. "We made these so the average scuba diver could understand them."

The brothers took advantage of the Rockport State Recreation Area boat ramp to launch their underwater vehicle. The clarity of the water and availability of interesting sights nearby also worked in their favor. Russell would be taking the submarine out to Rockport Springs, an underwater spot along the recreation area's shoreline where underground springs empty into Lake Huron.

Along with the geological traits of the springs, they were hoping to get photographs and video of wildlife in the area, they said. Russell said he saw walleyes swimming near the crumbling pier during a trip three weeks earlier, and Doug said it was possible there would be fish swimming near the springs.

After sitting inside, the operator turns two knobs on a clear plastic box to control the left and right thrusters. Turn on one, or slow down the other, and the submarine starts to turn. Once underwater, the submarine can be steered higher or lower by pushing and pulling the box itself, not unlike a lever or wheel in an airplane.

"It's a precision machine," he said. "You can move it a little this way or that way."

Once inside, the operator locks down the dome and opens a flood valve, allowing water to rise up to waist level, Russell said. The operator can breathe from one of three regulators, as well as use the regulators to maintain the air bubble size. Underwater, the submarine has neutral buoyancy. By unlocking the dome and using a 20-foot hose on one of the air tanks, the user can leave the sub and explore or retrieve something nearby.

Fugusub users are still subject to the same effects of decompression as scuba divers, Russell said. Operators would need to follow the same dive tables, and any trip below 33 feet would require decompression stops.

At one time, the Canfields were hoping to go into business for well-heeled tourists looking for a glimpse of the undersea ecology, they said. Insurance costs in the United States were prohibitive to any domestic business, and a plan at a Caribbean destination fell through. Now, the two have hopes for a TV show based on exploring freshwater ecosystems, recording wildlife on the sub's three external cameras.

"It's still in the preliminary stages," Doug said. "Right now, we're shooting footage and learning our cameras."

In the meantime, the Canfield brothers are having fun using the sub to photograph freshwater ecosystems in the state. Russell has been to many inland lakes and Great Lake harbors, including Harbor Springs, Cheboygan, Lake Esau and Black Lake, he said.

"We're mainly trying to get photographs of different lakes and their different habitats," Doug said. "They can be quite different from lake to lake, even the tints of water."

At shallow depths, the Fugusub has a range of several miles, Doug said. The range is shorter at deeper depths, as decompression requires more time and the pilot would use more air under higher pressures. Fugusubs are designed to go no deeper than 100 feet.

"Most diving around here is centered on wreck diving," focused on a single destination, he said. "We've found that the stuff in between is largely unknown."

The Canfields also are interested in partnering with universities or other institutions on research or education projects, they said. A potential deal with an institution in northern Michigan is in the works, but Russell said it's premature to get into specifics.

Starting an eco-tourism business is still on the brothers' wish-list, as well as finding a manufacturer able to mass-produce Fugusubs, Doug said. The vehicle could sell for around $40,000 if a maker is found.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5688.



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