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Alvin comes home

By Edward Stratton

The Daily Astorian

Alvin's along for the ride on Atlantis, although it won't be going underwater this time.

The Alvin, one of the most technologically advanced underwater robots in the world, is kicking back for the current voyage aboard the Atlantis.

But the 50-year-old submersible robot, owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, is more capable than ever after a three-year, $41 million upgrade.

“We’re all getting used to having our Alvin back,” said Mitzi Crane, the chief mate on the Atlantis, which is owned by the Navy and operated by Woods Hole. “Part of it is that dance you have to learn with them, from coordinating the timing of everything, the waves and the swell and picking him up at the right moment on deck. It’s a bigger Alvin; it’s more robust.”

The first stage of Alvin’s upgrade included a new titanium ball in which researchers sit. It is built to go 6,500 meters – or more than 21,000 feet – under the sea. That depth translates into more than 9,500 pounds of pressure per square inch the ball must hold back from crushing the occupants inside. The sphere includes five thick glass view ports. The Alvin has also received upgrades in its lighting, imaging and buoyancy.

Alvin’s only certified by its owner, the U.S. Navy, to go more than 14,700 feet into the ocean, as Stage 2 includes upgrading the entire robot, which now weighs about 50,000 pounds, to dive 6,500 meters.

The commute to 2,500 meters and back, said Crane, can take an hour and a half.

Since its inception in 1964 as one of the world’s first deep-sea submersibles, Alvin has made more than 4,400 dives and can reach more than half of the world’s sea floor. Among its more notable exploits were the discovery of a lost U.S. hydrogen bomb off in the Mediterranean in 1966, exploring the first known hydrothermal vent sites in the 1970s and surveying the wreck of RMS Titanic in 1986.

Alvin is named for Allyn Vine, a Woods Hole engineer and geophysicist who helped pioneer deep submergence research and technology.


Although it’s sitting out this trip, Alvin took part in the recent voyage by Andrew Fisher of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Geoff Wheat of the University of Mississippi. The two were studying hydrothermal activity in and around the Endeavor Ridge, a volcanically active area at the north of the Juan de Fuca plate, just west of Vancouver Island and the Olympic (Wash.) Peninsula.

Lance Wills, an able-bodied seaman for the last eight years with Woods Hole, said deckhands on the Atlantis are some of the only ones who get to go in the water, helping deliver and operate Alvin.

The previous expedition, he said, sent them 2,700 meters – or more than 8,800 feet – below sea level to retrieve data collected by CORKs (Circulation Obviation Retrofit Kits) placed underwater, part of a 10-year project to explore the microbes, hydrology and geochemical makeup of the sea floor.

Eventually, the rest of Alvin will be upgraded and new batteries put in, allowing it to dive more than 21,000 feet and reach 98 percent of the world’s sea floor.

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