Much of the movie Ice Station Zebra (1968) takes place aboard or nearby a fictional US nuclear submarine named USS Tigerfish and bearing the hull number 509. Exterior shots of the ship resemble USS Nautilus (SSN-571), but the interiors seem to be largely fictionalized.

Was Tigerfish supposed to be a fictional example of a real ship type, and if so, what? The undersea exterior sequences appear by all indications to be a miniature; was the miniature a model of a real submarine, e.g. Nautilus?


1 Answer 1


Was Tigerfish supposed to be a fictional example of a real ship type and if so, what?

Skate class nuclear submarine

The undersea exterior sequences appear by all indications to be a miniature; was the miniature a model of a real submarine e.g. Nautilus?

Miniature was of the Skate class nuclear submarine, a class of boat that followed the Nautilus (and Seawolf) and although of similar configuration, was smaller.

......... TL;DR:

Based on when the movie was in production, the Skate would actually have been seen as an older design, as it was based on older diesel electric non-nuclear boats (Tang class) that dated back to World War Two, and were actually smaller than the two previous nuclear submarines, Nautilus and Seawolf with similar configurations. By this time the teardrop design had been adopted which led to much faster design speeds and improved capabilities, as seen in the Skipjack and Permit class. However, when it came to filming, the subs available to film on were conventionally powered boats, and the Skate class was close enough for filming purposes.

US Navy SSN class evolution: Nautilus (1954), Skate (1957), Skipjack (1959), Permit (Thresher) (1961)

silhouettes of US SSN classes

The pennant number however, belongs to a conventionally powered class of Second World War submarines of the Tench class (491–521).


USS Ronquil

USS Ronquil (SS-396) was a diesel electric sub of the Balao class. Her scenes were filmed both in port and under way.

filming aboard USS Ronquil

USS Blackfin (SS-322)

USS Blackfin (SS-322), also a Balao class diesel electric sub, was filmed under way near Pearl Harbor.

filming on USS Blackfin

Line drawing of the Skate-class nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), (note the N for nuclear, the above mentioned boats only have SS indicating conventionally powered) serving from 1957 to 1989.

line drawing of Skate class SSN

filming error

(Note that some models of the filming miniature were labelled USS Porpoise, in the book, the sub was called Dolphin, and in production notes was named 'Tigerfish III')

Principal photography began in mid-June, 1967 and finished 19 weeks later. The $8 million budget topped out at $10 million. The non-nuclear U.S.S. Ronquil stood in for the book’s sub with U.S.S. Blackfin doubling in other shots. The vessel’s interiors dominated MGM’s soundstages with a 16ft superstructure as the centerpiece with hydraulics creating the tilting and rocking effects. Art director Addison Hehr’s commitment to authenticity saw his team buying real submarine effects from junk yards to fit out the interiors. The conning tower was almost as tall as a five-storey building and the submarine, built in sections, measured 600ft. The Polar landscape was created by draining the MGM tank, at the time the largest in Hollywood, of three million gallons of water and then mounted with snow and rocks and the burnt-out weather station.

While aerial shots of Greenland ice floes and fjords doubled for Siberia, to capture the wild ocean Sturges and cameraman John Stephens took a helicopter ride 30 miles out from the coast of Oahu where a 45-knot wind created “monumental” seas. A 10ft miniature in a tank permitted shots underwater and cameras attached to the Ronquil’s deck and conning tower achieved the unique sub’s-eye-view. The unconvincing Arctic landscape was shot on a sound stage.


(note the above article erroneously calls Ronquil Tronquil)

In mid-1966, Ronquil rejoined the Seventh Fleet, returning to San Diego in February 1967 for further work off the coast of California. This was interrupted in August 1967, when Ronquil played the part of the fictional USS Tigerfish (SSN-509) in the motion picture Ice Station Zebra.


getty image of filming on USS Ronquil

The USS Ronquil stands in for the US nuclear attack submarine USS Tigerfish (SSN-509) in the Filmways/MGM production 'Ice Station Zebra', on location at San Diego Naval Base in California, circa 1968. Director John Sturges (left of the two men) sits on the camera crane. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)


During filming of the 1968 movie Ice Station Zebra with Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, and Patrick McGoohan, which took place between June and October 1967, scenes depicting the movie′s fictional submarine USS Tigerfish submerging and surfacing were shot off Hawaii aboard Blackfin.


The underwater scenes used a model of a Skate-class nuclear submarine.



section of descriptive text from submarinesailor.com

This answer is from Quora, answered by a former Submarine sonar Chief Petty Officer that also served on exactly that type of Nuclear powered submarine:


Rock Hudson interviewed on set of Ice Station Zebra

movie Skate SSN:

Movie Skate model

Note the propulsion arrangement of the filming miniature Tigerfish matches the real Skate class:

enter image description here


Note, although Nautilus was the first nuclear powered submarine, experience with this and Seawolf that followed, meant that the US Navy went looking for something more economical to build and run. The smaller 4 boat Skate class was the result.

Also, Maclean would have been aware that the real Skate (SSN-578) visited a drifting Ice Station Alpha (scientific base installed on arctic pack ice) in 1958.



Skate (SSN-578) herself was notable as the first submarine to surface at the North Pole, on 17 March 1959.



The Man Who Makes The Difference | John Stephens | Ice Station Zebra (1968 )


Addition to show how the various post-war conversion (1946-1963) GUPPY program changed the shape of Second World War US Navy submarines that were able to fill-in for the first generation nuclear boats, and how the next generation teardrop design differed greatly:

evolution of WW2 boats into Cold War warriors

External changes:

Note how the conning tower/sail has changed into an enclosed streamlined fin, and the bow has been reshaped, and all deck armaments removed.

Also note how much smaller the Skate SSN class was by comparison.

A similar upgrade program similarly changed the shape of surviving boats in the Royal Navy


fleet, guppy, blackfin loading torpedoes

L to R: Old WW2 Fleet-type shape, both right have new shaped step-fin and bow, the third (USS Blackfin) shows plexi-glass bubble cover affording some protection for the Officer of the Deck and lookouts from high waves.

USS Blackfin, used for some USS Tigerfish scenes, underwent GUPPY upgrades twice, first resulting in bow reshape and a stepped fin, the second resulting full North Atlantic sail (step removed) that would be seen in the movie.

  • 11
    This answer really needs a bit more detail. Commented Jun 24 at 11:32
  • 7
    Tell us the truth: you've had this answer in your back pocket for ... years ... waiting for this ... exact ... question. Or you're actually Anthony X in secret.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jun 24 at 14:20
  • Now do The Atomic Submarine.
    – Tom
    Commented Jun 24 at 18:11
  • 1
    To this answer I can only say wow. I find it odd that a photo (ostensibly) of Ronquil shows a "superstructure" (conning tower) very different from that as it appears in the movie... was it altered in a refit? Also, I've been following a YouTube channel for the USS Cod... if the Tigerfish (or the real-world submarine type it is supposed to represent) are anything like the same size, they'd be far more cozy than as depicted in the movie.
    – Anthony X
    Commented Jun 24 at 22:16
  • 1
    Again, wow. Don't know what more I can do beyond accept & upvote for the fantastic "deep dive" (pardon the pun).
    – Anthony X
    Commented Jun 25 at 0:37

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