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Dive deep at the Maritime Museum of San Diego | Bartell's Backroads

“Home to the deepest diving submarine in the world.”

SAN DIEGO — More than a dozen vessels are anchored at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Some sail some, cruise, and some fire cannons, but there’s one vessel that holds the title of the "world’s deepest diving submarine."

Tethered to the pier at the North San Diego Bay is the USS Dolphin, a research submarine that took navy submariners to a depth of more than 3,000 feet so they could answer one question according to Captain Steve Zoltan Kelty. 

“Is it a good idea for a combat submarine to go really deep?” 

Zoltan, as he likes to be called, was one of the last captains on the Dolphin and learned the answer to that question firsthand. 

“The Navy found out during the cold war that deep diving subs were not the best choice. Quiet subs were the best choice,” said Zoltan.

The USS Dolphin was a diesel-powered submarine meaning it was loud. The Navy ultimately went with nuclear-powered submarines which were much quieter and turned the Dolphin into a deep-water research submarine. 

From the day it launched in 1968 to its decommission in 2007, the USS Dolphin accomplished a long list of deep-water experiments including being the first submarine to communicate with a plane and launching a torpedo at the deepest depth. 

“It’s the framing that (made) the dolphin so tough,” said Zoltan.

Spaced every five feet or so the reinforced steel frame gave the 151-foot-long submarine its strength, unfortunately, that frame took up a lot of the living space for the 44 crew members. 

“We would put half the crew in one room and everyone had an assigned task,” said Zoltan. 

If one of those crew members had to take a restroom break during their shift, they had to use a single toilet shower combo.  

“You do your business quick,” said Zoltan.

He captained the Dolphin for 37 months. He said submariners quickly got used to the bathroom situation, but the sleeping situation took a little longer to get used to. Each submariner had to share beds that were stacked on top of each other with just enough room to roll over.

“The middle bunk was the best because the person on the bottom gets stepped on,” said Zoltan.

The Dolphin was not built for comfort, it was built to be stealthy. With the help of sophisticated surveillance systems, the enemy and even the occasional sunbather can be spotted from miles away. 

“So if they are sunning themselves, with the help of the periscope you can get a pretty good view,” said Zoltan.

The Navy’s submarine service is an all-volunteer service only. That means everyone on the submarine wants to be in the submarine and when you walk through the USS Dolphin you can feel the comradery.  

“You very quickly become tight-knit. We are a family. Every single submarine I served on became a family,” said Zoltan.

HIT THE BACKROADS:  Summer is here! Plan your ultimate road trip with John Bartell's list of California's top 10 destinations to visit.

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