Volkswagen's caged Beetle Convertible swims with the sharks
A convertible shark cage may be a complete oxymoron, but Volkswagen and partners have built one for Discovery Channel's upcoming Shark Week. More than just a stationary exhibit, the shark cage is a functioning watercraft with impressive capabilities. Gizmag talked to Luke Tipple, the marine biologist, shark diving expert and TV personality responsible for building and driving the craft, to find out more about what it's like to scooter around shark-infested waters in a skeletal Beetle ragtop.
This is Volkswagen's second straight year as a presenting sponsor of Shark Week. Last year, it commissioned a unique Beetle Shark Cage that roved the ocean floor with the help of two thrusters. This year, working with Tipple and his team, along with Discovery’s branded entertainment team, it pulled the top off, modeling the cage after the recently debuted 2013 Beetle Convertible. The dimensions of the cage are within 1/4 inch (6 mm) of the production convertible.
Though Tipple's team had the basic framework from last year's Beetle, this year's version entailed more than just sawing off the top. Tipple calls it a ground-up rebuild completed over the course of about two weeks of 17-hour days.
"They gave us the dimensions, we turned it into a machine," Tipple says. "All they said is 'We want to make a convertible out of the old vehicle'. I said, well if we're going to do that, can't we do some of the things that we didn't have time to do last year, such as increasing the power, making it fly, doing all the stuff that we had dreamed for it. And they bought the idea; they liked it."
Last year's model was tied to the ocean floor, using dual thrusters to roll its way through the swarm of sharks. To give this one the enhanced ability of thrusting through the water like a submarine (more like an underwater small plane, as Tipple describes it ) the team added an extra power plant. The lithium ion-powered scooters from Florida-based Submerge, which Tipple classifies as the most powerful underwater propeller scooters in the world, were custom modified with fixed aluminum propellers and 85 pounds of thrust.
With plenty of power on tap, the team then had to lift the heavy metal vessel off the bottom of the sea.
"Underwater submarines have great big fins that stick out the sides, typically up front, that control your pitch," Tipple explains. "Because of the design specs, we couldn't put fins out from the actual exterior. Our challenge was having the fins inside."
The team installed front-mounted dive planes tucked underneath the Beetle's iconic rounded eyes. The pitch of each plane is controlled by a corresponding left and right foot pedal. The steering wheel controls the rear-mounted propeller scooters and front wheels, moving them side to side. The pitch of the propeller scooters is adjusted with independent handles. An air system increases buoyancy when air is pumped into the tubular aluminum frame.
"It's really accurately controlled. I can fly around, through, under, over pretty much anything. I mean we were flying around really sensitive coral that we would never want to bump into or destroy or damage in any way, and I was quite confident navigating within 6 inches of that coral pretty much at all times."
Tipple admits through a few exuberant chuckles that the drive was a lot of fun. However, it wasn't a relaxing cruise through the water. He and his crew had to learn on the job, testing the craft and figuring out the controls on the shoot, a process that included a couple of crashes.
"We knew the theory behind the vehicle would work, but we didn't have time to test it. So we literally had to go on the shoot, knowing that there's gonna' be some bugs we need to figure out."
"It was a big learning curve for me. Nobody's ever done this, so it was uncharted territory. It's quite hard work. I'm controlling my dive planes with my left and right foot; I'm steering left and right with my wheel; I'm constantly adjusting the pitch of three independent motors with the handles that you'll see right where the handbrake would be. Added to that, I'm also adjusting my breathing air supply through the air banks and the buoyancy of the vehicle."
The Volkswagen spots set to run throughout Shark Week will show Tipple driving his Beetle Convertible at around 4 knots, taking a "subterranean road trip" through 50-foot, Caribbean reef, lemon, and nurse shark-infested waters off the coast of the Bahamas.
While driving with the "top down" through a bad neighborhood of multiple types of sharks might seem crazy from the outside looking in, it was just another day of work for Tipple. He regularly swims freely with sharks, including Great Whites, so the Beetle "cage" was more for effect than protection.
"I'm regularly outside the cage with hammerheads and tiger sharks, lemons, Caribbeans. In all honesty, sharks are a very cautious predator. With a vehicle like this, we're not really in any danger of them getting too close or trying to get in. Once those motors are going and I'm flying along, I must look like a great, big battleship coming toward them. They'll swim away."
Shark Week begins on Sunday, August 4 at 8 p.m. ET/PT. Discovery and Volkswagen also teamed up on a web viewing feature that will provide 360-degree POV footage from inside the Beetle.
To whet your appetite, take a look at the video of last year's Beetle journey.