Although underwater hotels may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, divers have been visiting the Jules’ Undersea Lodge for almost 30 years. The lodge is the only underwater hotel in the United States, and it offers guests the chance to spend anywhere from a few hours to a full day and night beneath the surface of the Florida Keys’ Emerald Lagoon. The lodge is the brainchild of world-renowned submarine explorers Ian Koblick and Neil Monney, both of whom have spent much of their lives developing and managing undersea habitats for marine research. Koblick was responsible for developing Jules’ Undersea Lodge in its initial incarnation as an underwater laboratory, known as La Chalupa. The lab was used to survey and explore the continental shelf off the coast of Puerto Rico before being relocated to the Key Largo Undersea Park in 1986. There, it was renamed the Jules’ Undersea Lodge in honor of Jules Verne, the author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, and became the first submarine research habitat to be made accessible to the public.
The hotel, which is the size of a small cottage, can comfortably accommodate six guests. It’s supported on stilts that keep it suspended approximately 5 feet (1.5 m) off the lagoon floor. To access the habitat, guests must dive to 21 feet (6 m) and enter through a circular hole cut into the underside of the building, which opens into a sealed wet room where divers can shower and change into dry clothes before entering the hotel proper. The Lodge is filled with compressed air, which keeps the surrounding water from flooding through the access hole, and also means that those who stay overnight are effectively completing a saturation dive. Inside, the air-conditioned living space comprises two private bedrooms and a common room that includes a kitchen and a dining and entertainment area. Those who don’t feel like cooking during their time at Jules’ Undersea Lodge can either employ the services of the hotel’s professional “mer-chef,” or even order takeout pizza to be delivered from the world above. Despite its small size, the lodge is equipped with the kind of amenities you might expect from a conventional hotel, including a telephone, an intercom, a DVD player and a sound system.
Despite its creature comforts, the main attractions of the lodge are the 42-inch portholes in each bedroom, through which visitors can clearly see the lagoon and the creatures that live there. Visibility in the lagoon is rarely greater than 33 feet (10 m) and yet, as Koblick succinctly puts it “waking up to view a pair of angelfish looking in at your bedroom window is a moment you’ll never forget.” The lagoon supports a thriving mangrove ecosystem, and is home to an array of tropical species including angelfish, parrotfish, snappers and barracuda. The habitat itself serves as an artificial reef, providing shelter and substrate for a wide variety of marine flora and fauna. The hotel is connected to a control center on the surface by an umbilical cord that supplies fresh air, water, power and communications. According to Koblick, “the flow of air to the Lodge constantly adds oxygen to the entire surrounding body of water, creating a symbiotic relationship between the technology of man and the beauty of nature.” Those who stay at Jules’ Undersea Lodge are given an unlimited supply of scuba cylinders as part of their room rate, allowing them to explore the lagoon at leisure.
For safety’s sake, the Jules’ Undersea Lodge is monitored 24 hours a day by the land-based command center, while the hotel’s staff is also available to cater to guests’ needs around the clock. All those who visit the lodge must be scuba certified, or alternatively, can first enroll in a Discover Scuba Diving program run by the lagoon’s PADI dive center. A night at Jules’ Undersea Lodge costs $675 per person, with a 3-hour visit to the hotel priced at $150 per person.