They pop up mysteriously, without warning, just a few hundred yards offshore, sleek, gun-metal gray and menacing.
And for those who spot them for the first time while strolling on the sand or gazing from a beachfront balcony, the sight can be alarming.
"I've heard some strange stuff, like 'What, are we at war?'" said Javier Canut, chief lifeguard at Dania Beach. "Some people have never seen anything like this."
What people are seeing are U.S. Navy submarines going through surface and underwater exercises in an Atlantic Ocean training ground south of Port Everglades that has been used by the military for at least 20 years.
For four days last week, one Navy sub was particularly conspicuous, "topside and going back and forth," said Canut, "usually with a Coast Guard or BSO [Broward Sheriff's Office] escort. It's always fascinating because you don't see a sub every day."
Lorraine Klopfenstein, 61, saw her first submarine last week when she looked out the window of her 14th floor Hollywood condominium. "It was really close; I could see it without binoculars."
"My first thought was that it might be dope smugglers," she said. "But it was there day after day, just under the surface. It was fascinating to watch."
The Navy does not like to talk about what's up beneath the waves. "There are several different training grounds that we use," said Navy Lt. Brian Wierzbicki, a spokesman for the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia. "We can't disclose the specific locations."
Citing security concerns, he also declined comment on whether any recent training exercises have been conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Naval Warfare Center, which is tucked into a corner of John U. Lloyd State Park.
But it is no secret that submarine training goes on off the coast here. Nautical charts show a restricted area about four miles east, buoys are sometimes set out, and boat captains say they see submarines popping up and down frequently. When exercises are underway, the Navy also broadcasts warnings over VHF marine radio.
"They tell us the boundaries, to stay away," said Mark Richardson, who captains the 41-foot charter boat Hattatude out of the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale. "I stay clear and it doesn't affect me. But it is definitely a wild thing to see a sub pop up. Everyone in the boating community was talking about it."
Wierzbicki said submarines from other nations also train and transit the east coast, and that could also account for some sightings.
The Navy did have to talk about its training in February 1993, when an $800 million nuclear-powered sub ran aground on a reef in 24 feet of water just south of the Dania Beach fishing pier.
Neither the 360-foot-long USS Memphis nor its nuclear reactor was damaged, the Navy said.
Stuck for about 90 minutes, the sub eventually was lifted from the reef by the tide, and under its own power limped back to Kings Bay.
Submarines have long gripped popular imagination, well before Jules Verne published his classic "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" in 1870. In the 17th century, a Dutch inventor built a submersible he propelled with oars.
But Verne's tale of life underwater in the Nautilus inspired inventors, and by the 20th century, submarines were major weapons of warfare.
During World War II, German U-boats prowled the Florida Straits and both coasts, sinking scores of ships. Residents of Palm Beach County reported being able to look out over the ocean and see plumes of smoke from cargo ships that had been torpedoed.
Most military submarines built now are nuclear powered and can stay submerged for weeks and even months.
Wierzbicki said he understands the fascination with spotting a submarine on the surface. "It is not common," he said. "They are meant to be underwater. They are designed not to be seen."
A submarine is scheduled to be among the ships calling on Port Everglades during the 23rd annual Fleet Week, which begins April 25.
And in Kings Bay, the Navy this month will mark the 112th anniversary of the Navy's submarine force with a formal ball, according to Wierzbicki.
"We have been an operational force for a long time," he said. "Our submarines operate all over the world. There are submarines out there every day."
But we only see them once in a while.
Copyright © 2012, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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