In the late 1930’s Allyn Vine, an engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), had an idea. Vine’s idea would lead the charge in deep sea exploration and push the boundaries of what we knew about the ocean. This idea would help man solve some of the world’s oldest mysteries. He wanted to create a vessel that could withstand the pressure found at the bottom of the sea as well as capture critical data for research. Here is where his idea gets creative; he wanted this vessel to have the ability to carry passengers onboard. It took 30 years for Vine’s dream to become a reality. In 1964, Alvin, became the first deep-sea submersible capable of carrying passengers.
(Picture from the dedication of Alvin)
Weighing in at 35,200 lbs. and measuring 23.4 feet long and 12 ft high, Alvin can carry three people, usually a pilot and two observers. Its first untethered dive measured 35 ft. Now, after numerous upgrades and reconstructions, Alvin can plunge to a maximum depth of 14,764 ft.
Just as the space shuttle is built to withstand the near total vacuum of outer space, Alvin is built to withstand the crushing pressure of the deep ocean. The titanium-hulled sub can remain submerged for 10 hours under normal conditions. Even more incredible, its life support system allows the sub and its occupants to remain underwater for 72 hours. It’s capable of maneuvering around rugged bottom areas. It can also hover in midwater to perform scientific tasks or take still and video photography.
Alvin has been instrumental in locating human artifacts as well. In 1966, the sub was used to help locate and retrieve a hydrogen bomb that had been lost after an American B-52 and a tanker collided over the Mediterranean Sea. In July of 1986, Alvin made 12 dives to the RMS Titanic to test a prototype robotic vehicle called Jason Jr. and to photographically document the wreck.
In between 2011 and 2012, Alvin, underwent some massive changes. Upgrades were made that included a very detailed overhaul that increased the comfort of the sphere where passengers sit. I wonder if they created room for a mini fridge? I mean if I’m going to be under water for hours at a time, I’m going to need a cold Mountain Dew. Other upgrades included new viewports, improved lighting and imaging systems and more. These enhancements allowed Alvin to achieve longer dive times and gave the vessel the chance to be battery powered for longer stretches of time.
Throughout its long career, Alvin has made over 4,600 dives. Alvin has taken more than 13,000 scientists, engineers, and observers to the seafloor. Though nearly half a century old, the venerable Alvin remains a state-of-the-art vehicle. How? Continued retrofitting and maintenance performed at Woods Hole’s National Deep Submergence Facility.
Alvin Submarine Documentary
There is a fascinating mini documentary on Alvin that is absolutely worth your time. Watch the first part of this three-part series here:
Vine’s dedication and hard work for more than 30 years has made it possible for humans to reach depths in the ocean never thought possible. We are discovering new species, finding artifacts and solving some of the world’s oldest mysteries one dive at a time!