BURLINGTON – From the comfort of their classrooms, wide-eyed youngsters soon will have a chance to experience what it’s like to be a deep-sea explorer, navigating the ocean’s depths to photograph whales and study shipwrecks.
The “Yellow Submarine” that hung in the New England Aquarium in Boston for more than 30 years, sparking the fanciful imaginings of a generation of children, will soon visit Burlington elementary students. In time, the vessel – a life-size fiberglass model of the minisubmarine, or cubmarine, built by Perry Submarine Builders when John F. Kennedy occupied the Oval Office – may also make it to classrooms elsewhere in the state.
“The kids are just going to go crazy over it,” said John Papadonis, director of the Burlington Science Center and the man responsible for bringing the Yellow Submarine to local students. “When we’re done restoring it, the kids will be able to climb inside it and really get a feel for what it was like to explore the ocean in a cubmarine.”
A venture aboard a two-seat cubmarine could be harrowing. When Don DeHart, former director of the New England Aquarium, was persuaded in the 1960s by a friend at Perry to go exploring in a cub marine, the vessel developed a short circuit and burst into flames. Fortunately, no one was injured.
The experience didn’t dampen DeHart’s passion for underwater exploration. Soon after, he persuaded the company to donate a full-scale model of the Cubmarine PC3B, minus its steel frame and machinery, to the aquarium. It was one of the aquarium’s original exhibits, installed just before the facility opened in 1969. The replica, dubbed the Yellow Submarine in a nod to the Beatles song, hung next to the giant ocean tank for more than 30 years.
“When the aquarium opened, it was the most contemporary thing available in terms of oceanic exploration,” said Tony Lacasse, spokesman for the aquarium. “At the time, cubmarines were being used for tourism, exploration, and military operations.”
The PC3B on which the Yellow Submarine is based was one of several Perry cubmarine models in circulation, according to John Marr, executive director of the Perry Institute for Marine Science, which carries on inventor John H. Perry Jr.’s work.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution routinely used such a submersible in the 1960s to explore the shallow waters off Cape Cod, Lacasse said. But the most interesting mission a PC3B embarked upon was a military operation – the recovery of a hydrogen bomb from the Mediterranean Sea near the small fishing village of Palomares, Spain, in January 1966.
A cubmarine even appeared in the movies. James Bond piloted an aluminum and fiberglass Perry cub in an underwater chase scene in the 1977 thriller “The Spy Who Loved Me.”
“Ocean exploration, like space exploration, has moved to vehicles that don’t require people, primarily because when you have to develop life support for a vehicle, it makes it infinitely more complex and expensive,” said Lacasse.
Like the Perry cub, the aquarium’s Yellow Submarine fell victim to changing times. In July, it was replaced by a model of a humpback whale. The new exhibit better complements its surroundings in the aquarium’s Northern Waters Gallery, said William Spitzer, vice president of programs, exhibits, and planning for the aquarium.
“That left us with a bit of dilemma,” said Spitzer. “We had to find a good steward for the Yellow Sub. The Burlington Science Center was the perfect fit.”
Papadonis, who has served as a marine educator at the aquarium for many years, was thrilled to have an opportunity to find a new use for the old Perry model. He delights in designing traveling exhibits for Burlington’s elementary students. Past favorites included a piranha display and prairie dogs that traveled in a glass-enclosed replica of their habitat.
One look at the Yellow Submarine and Papadonis could envision the dusty fiberglass shell as an interactive exhibit. All it needed was a good scrubbing, a few coats of paint, and a ladder so pupils could climb through the hatch and sit inside, peering through the portholes. For months, volunteers have been working to make his vision a reality. Papadonis expects the exhibit to roll into kindergarten to fifth-grade classrooms this winter.