BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Creative smugglers may be using small submarines operated by remote control to hide their contraband when drug agents approach their vessel, officials said Friday.
One unmanned, 21-foot submarine was found off Boca Raton earlier this week and a Coast Guard spokesman declined to say whether authorities were aware of any similar vessels being used by drug smugglers.
The submarine appears to have been built for hiding contraband while being towed in deep waters behind another vessel, experts said.
It was designed so the boat operator could submerge the submarine by remote control if police or drug agents approached, then retrieve it later, they said.
'In my 27 years in the business, I've never seen anything like it,' said Kevin Peterson, general manager of H.A. Perry Foundation Inc., a submarine company in Riveria Beach.
'The only other thing it could be used for is electronics, and it doesn't look sophisticated enough,' he said.
The idea that the vessel is a drug-running vehicle is a possibility, Boca Raton police Sgt. Alan Dares said. 'Drug dealers are very creative.'
Initially dismissed as a device used to keep barges afloat, interest in the mysterious capsule resurfaced early Thursday when salvager David Kellerman dragged it to Boca Raton beach, unbolted the hatch and shined a flashlight inside.
'We didn't know if we were going to find a body. Everybody said it might be Jimmy Hoffa,' said Kellerman, whose younger brother, Ivan, found the sub while surfing Wednesday.
The hatch could only be opened from the outside and the interior of the capsule contained only 4,000 pounds of lead bars serving as ballast. There were no portholes and it apparently was not designed to carry passengers, experts said.
Authorities generally were hesitant to talk about the submarine.
'I can't say whether we've seen anything like this before,' Coast Guard Petty Officer James Carr said. 'It's confidential.'
But one official who asked not to be identified said, 'There is no other use for it' than drug smuggling.
Police said Kellerman can keep the sub, worth an estimated $20,000, if no one claims it.
Surfers originally thought they had found a German submarine that wrecked off Boca Raton after World War II.
Jim Allwein, a retired 30-year Navy veteran, said he worked for the Naval Weapon Center in Fort Lauderdale in the 1960s when a local diver reported a submarine off the coast.
'We checked it out and our crew of divers said it was definitely a German World War II sub that hit the reef and sank,' he said. 'Washington said, 'Hands off.' The impression we got was that there were bodies aboard and it was to be left alone as a tomb.'