One of the most remarkable pieces of machinery in our modern world turns 50 today. On June 5, 1964, DSV (Deep Submergence Vehicle) Alvin was commissioned at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. Though owned by the U.S. Navy, which operated four more DSVs, Alvin has spent its entire career in the service of publicly-funded science, and it’s been a pretty spectacular career. From discovering “black smoker” vents on the seafloor in 1977 to finding lost atomic bombs, and its most famous mission to dive to the wreck of the RMS Titanic in 1986, Alvin has been in dives in almost every ocean around the world, and despite its age is still going strong.
Alvin was the brainchild (and eventually the namesake) of Allyn Vine, a WHOI scientist who envisioned a deep-sea submarine that could dive over 6,000 feet beneath the surface, opening up a tremendous opportunity for exploration via human means. Previous submersibles, like the Trieste, were either unmanned or could not interact with their environments to a significant degree. Alvin is a funny-looking, almost comical miniature sub, but it’s made of sturdy stuff. The initial titanium sphere, built to hold 2 human occupants, was built to withstand the crushing pressure at 6,000 feet deep, but initial tests suggested it might even be able to take the pressure at over 9,000 feet. Alvin’s crew sphere has since been replaced, extending its reach; it can now dive to an astonishing 14,000 feet beneath the surface. If anything were to happen to the sub underwater, its hull is meant to break apart and eject the sphere like an escape pod, which would float to the surface–though it’s uncertain whether a human being could survive the ascent.
After passing its test dives with flying colors in 1965, Alvin was off to a great start, the next year locating a lost nuclear warhead that fell out of a B-52 off the coast of Spain. After some more research dives with WHOI, however, it looked like Alvin’s career would be cut tragically short. In October 1968 the sub’s cable broke as it was being handled by its specially designed tender vehicle and it sank in 5,000 feet of water. The pilot barely escaped, and the suddenness of the accident caused him to leave his lunch behind in the capsule. Alvin was recovered a year later and found to be in surprisingly good shape. Most amazingly, the pilot’s sandwich was still in the capsule, and had suffered no decay. It was even still edible (though it would have been salty). This accidental discovery was actually quite interesting, as it suggested the rate of organic decay in the deep ocean is slower than scientists originally thought. Alvin itself was repaired and back in service two years later.
Dr. Robert Ballard is most famous for his discovery of historic shipwrecks, but he is trained as a marine geologist and has used Alvin in various voyages relating to that science. I had the pleasure of meeting him in 1987.
One of Alvin’s highly qualified pilots was WHOI researcher Robert Ballard. Before he was famous for his investigation of shipwrecks, Ballard, exploring in Alvin, discovered the “black smoker” jets off the Galapagos Islands in Chile in 1977. “Black smokers” are volcanic vents of super-heated, mineral-infused water. This discovery was a fascinating one in both oceanography and geology.
Ballard, of course, went on to use Alvin again in 1986 for exploring the wreck of the Titanic, which lies 12,000 feet under the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. The photo of the eerie doll’s head, spotted in the debris field of the Titanic, was taken from Alvin. On that same trip Alvin visited the wreckage of the US Navy submarine Scorpion, which broke apart and sank in a mysterious accident in May 1968. In the years since the 80s Alvin frequently turns up–or rather down–in mysterious places under the ocean, most recently this spring (2014) examining the seafloor around the horrific Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.
It’s extremely unusual for a submarine, especially one designed for scientific research, to last as long as Alvin has. But at 50 years old and counting, this little sub shows no signs of quitting anytime soon. Obviously built to last, let’s hope Alvin continues shining its light in the darkest parts of the ocean for years to come, as there are undoubtedly many more secrets of the deep ocean that remain to be discovered.