Wreck of the Sub Marine Explorer – Balboa District, Panama - Atlas Obscura

Wreck of the Sub Marine Explorer

Balboa District, Panama

The rusting hulk of a hand-powered, nearly 160-year-old submarine abandoned in 1869 due to the ravages of decompression sickness. 


The recently discovered Wreck of the Sub Marine Explorer, the first submersible that was capable of diving and rising without help from the surface, completes a story of marine science discovery that saw multiple deaths due to decompression sickness. 

Finished in 1866 by German inventor Julius Kroehl, the Sub Marine Explorer was a wonder of contemporary naval design. Despite being hand-powered, the long, “cigar-shaped” vessel contained pressurized working compartments for passengers and a sophisticated-for-the-time ballast system which allowed the ship to take on water to sink and use pressurized air to rise. The Explorer was known to dive more than 100 feet below the surface for hours at a time, an unmitigated success save for the strange “fever” that seemed to afflict the sailors after dives. The boat ran proof of concept trials for just one year until Kroehl himself died of the mysterious fever which is now known to have been violent decompression sickness, otherwise called “the bends.”   

Despite the universal sickness that afflicted the early passengers of the vessel, its revolutionary operating technology caused critics to overlook the strange illness and the ship was set to work as a diving ship among Panama’s Pearl Islands. However, the fatal sickness continued to claim the lives of the submarine’s crew and soon the historic ship was simply lost and forgotten.

However, the severely rusting hull of the Sub Marine Explorer was finally rediscovered in 2001 by randomly passing archeologist, James Delgado. The ship is in a severe state of decay after more than a century of neglect, but joint efforts from America and Panama are being discussed to preserve the important, if deadly, piece of maritime history.

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