‘Irma is gone, Jules is back’

Jules Undersea Lodge dive instructor Dan Blezio fixes a sign in the park’s lagoon. Parts of the property were badly damaged during Hurricane Irma.
Jules Undersea Lodge dive instructor Dan Blezio fixes a sign in the park’s lagoon. Parts of the property were badly damaged during Hurricane Irma.

After being shut down by Hurricane Irma in early September, the lagoon at the Key Largo Undersea Park, home to Jules’ Undersea Lodge, will open for divers and snorkelers starting Nov. 4.

The lodge, the park’s underwater hotel, will welcome guests starting Nov. 21.

“We are taking reservations now for the lodge now,” said Teresa McKinna, vice president and chief financial officer.

“The underwater hotel was not damaged, but we are taking some extra time to make it ready. All supplies, linen and everything you expect in a hotel room are transported to the facility by scuba divers and delivered through an underwater opening called a moon pool,” she said.

“Getting the park up and running was a very tense experience and stressful work. We were able to keep all our employees on the payroll and used them, along with several volunteers, to put the place back together.”

“This is an excellent time for us to reopen,” said McKinna. “Many dive operators send their instructors and students to our calm lagoon in late fall and winter when the waves start getting too high for training in the open ocean.”

“Our lagoon also is a favorite location for training and testing new scuba instructors,” she said. “We already have an [instructor examination] scheduled.”

When McKinna returned to the park after the Category 4 Sept. 10 hurricane, the generator was damaged, the gift shop and office were flooded and the restrooms and above-ground guest rooms were damaged.

“We lost all our business records,” said McKinna. “The lagoon looked like mud, and we couldn’t see the underwater platforms [used by student divers] for over two weeks.”

“The volunteers used kayaks and other small boats to help remove floating debris, plastic, and oil and gas containers that had washed into the lagoon during Irma,” McKinna said. “We made sure they wore protective gloves.”

With compressors repaired, air has been pumped into the lagoon to help water circulation and vacuuming to bring water quality to safe levels. “We wouldn’t let our maintenance folks into the water until it had been inspected,” McKinna said.

For the hurricane, Sebrina Havens, the park’s retail manager, stayed at her home, which is up the street from the park. “I’ve been through five hurricanes and lost property, but this was one of the worst,” she said.

Havens’ home survived Irma but her son, who lived on a houseboat in the inlet adjacent to Jules’ Lagoon, wasn’t as fortunate. He lost his houseboat.

To keep water from entering its underwater entrance, the habitat is pressurized to 1.8 times the amount of pressure at sea level.

“We knew the Jules’ might lose power. So we took 10 scuba tanks filled with air into the underwater hotel a day before Irma hit,” said Havens. “That way, if additional air pressure was needed, we could use the air from the tanks.”

“When Irma got down to tropical-force-wind levels and it looked like the power was out in the park, we dove into Jules’ and slightly opened the value on one of the tanks. Twelve hours later, we opened two more tanks.”

A backup generator was put into use before more air tanks were needed. The park now has its regular supply of electricity. The park’s gift shop and office are repaired and ready for business. The compressors are working, and big plumes of air bubbles are rising from the lodge and nearby lab.

Havens is very proud of a new display case in the gift shop built out of materials found scattered around the park.

‘Safest place’

Ian Koblick, who founded and is president of Jules’ and the adjacent Marine Resources Development Foundation, laughed and said “the lodge was the safest place to be during Hurricane Irma. It was not going to flood and it is protected in the lagoon.”

“We had the director of the National Association of Underwater Diving Instructors stay in the lodge during one of the hurricanes several years ago without any problems,” he said.

Jules’ Lodge has been the venue for historic events and notable visitors.

Roane State associate professor of biology Bruce Cantrell and adjunct instructor Jessica Fain stayed in the lodge for a record-breaking 73 days from Oct. 3, 2014, to Dec. 15, 2014. While in the lodge, they hosted weekly programs featuring broadcasted interviews covering conservation, undersea exploration and recreational diving.

Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Mike Gernhardt visited the habitat to take part in a broadcast titled “The Sea and Space Connection,” discussing how the undersea environment is used to train astronauts.

Aldrin was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing in history. He was the second person to walk on the moon, a few steps behind Neal Armstrong, who was the first.

Gernardt logged more than 43 days in space, including four spacewalks totaling 23 hours and 16 minutes. His diving background includes more than 700 deep-sea dives involving air, mixed gas and saturation diving.

Jules’ Undersea Lodge served as the site for the 1995 sea-space link-up during which astronaut and oceanographer Scott Carpenter and Koblick spoke with Gernhardt when Gernhardt was circling above the earth aboard the space shuttle Endeavor.

“Irma is gone; Jules’ is back; we are Keys strong,” said McKinna.