International playboy Sir Richard Branson just got a new toy.

Hawkes Ocean Technologies, founded by Graham and Karen Hawkes of San Anselmo, sold its first-ever DeepFlight Merlin, a three-person winged submersible, to Virgin Limited Edition, the resort division of the British billionaire's Virgin brand of companies. Terms were not disclosed, although the base price for the Merlin is $673,000.

Branson will employ the Merlin at Necker Island, his private 74-acre island resort in the British Virgin Islands, and has dubbed the submersible the Necker Nymph. It will be made available to people who charter Branson's Necker Belle, 105-foot luxury catamaran, or when staying on Necker Island.

The Merlin has the capacity to hold two people besides a pilot and can dive as deep as 100 feet.

Unlike Hawkes' previous DeepFlight submersibles, which have been sold to the likes of late adventurer Steve Fossett and venture capitalist Tom Perkins, the Merlin has an open cockpit, requiring riders to wear scuba masks and breath regulators hooked up to built-in oxygen tanks. Pilots follow standard scuba procedures in descending and ascending, and the open cockpit also provides for better peripheral views and more maneuverability.

"These could potentially be at resorts around the world," said Karen Hawkes. "And private individuals could operate them from boat ramps or yachts."

Hawkes operates out of Point Richmond. The company has distinguished itself by employing downward lift on the wings of its submersibles to fly down to depth, rather than conventional submersibles that use ballast to sink in the water.


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Contact Jim Welte via e-mail at jwelte@marinij.com