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a 3-person research submersible capable of taking scientists and observers 14,764 feet (almost 3 miles) below the surface of the ocean

the Alvin

Owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Alvin was the dreamchild of Woods Hole engineer/geophysicist Allyn Vine, for whom it is named. It is launched from and supported by the Research Vessel Atlantis, which is also owned by the Navy and operated by Woods Hole. Since its launch in 1964, Alvin has made over 4,400 dives, carrying two scientists/observers and one pilot per dive. Research conducted by Alvin has been featured in nearly 2,000 scientific papers.

Specifications and Abilities

Built by General Mills' Electronics Group in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Alvin is 23 feet 4 inches long, has a beam of 11 feet 10 inches, is 11 feet 10 inches high, and weighs 37,400 pounds. The crew/research cockpit is a 1.9-inch-thick titanium sphere 82 inches in diameter, with three small portholes. The sphere is surrounded by a shell made of fiberglass and syntactic foam that provides flotation and houses Alvin's thrusters, hydraulic controls, electronics and batteries. It has a top speed of 2 knots.

diagram of Alvin

Alvin moves around using five hydraulic thrusters. Diving to the sea bottom is done by manipulating the Alvin's ballast, rather than by using the thrusters. It takes about two hours for Alvin to dive to its maximum depth and another two to return to the surface. That leaves four or five hours for work on the bottom. Although the average dive lasts a maximum of six hours, Alvin carries enough oxygen to support a three-person crew for three days.

Since the sun cannot penetrate to the depths Alvin is capable of reaching, the submersible carries 12 metal halide and LED lights. Two hydraulic manipulator arms that can lift up to 200 lbs each and reach up to 75 in are mounted on the forward end of the sub. One arm is more dexterous than the other and can perform more delicate tasks. The other arm can perform tasks that require brute force or heavy lifting. Each arm has a 6-degree range of motion. A sample basket mounted on the front of the submersible can carry up to 1,000 pounds of equipment including sediment corers, temperature probes, water samplers, biological suction samplers ("slurp samplers") and insulated storage chambers. Film and video cameras are mounted on the outside of the sub.

Alvin is deployed using a large A-frame crane on the stern of the R/V Atlantis, its permanent "tender ship." With the help of nine to ten crew members, all of whom have unique roles in maintaining and preparing the sub for a dive, the crane lifts Alvin off the deck and gently sets it down in the water. After the dive, the crane lifts Alvin aboard.

A typical Alvin mission costs about $40,000 a day.

Highlights from Alvin's Career

February 29, 1956 Allyn Vine attended a symposium in Washington, where participants drafted a resolution that the U.S. develop a national program for manned undersea vehicles.

June 5, 1964 The Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin was commissioned on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution dock.
August 4, 1964 Bud Froehlich, Allyn Vine, and pilot Bill Rammie made the first free dive, taking Alvin down to a depth of 35 feet.

1965 A Cape Cod craftsman created Alvin's first tender from a pair of surplus Navy pontoons. The tender was christened Lulu in honor of Vine's mother.
July 20, 1965 Alvin completed a 6,000-foot dive in the Bahamas for the Navy to obtain certification.

1966 An Air Force B-52 and a tanker collided over Spain, dropping an H-bomb in the Mediterranean off Palomares, Spain, in January. The Alvin team was selected to attempt recovery in conjunction with the Navy's CURV towed vehicle. In February 1966, Alvin and its support vans were loaded into two Air Force cargo aircraft at Otis Air Force Base and flown to Rota, Spain. During the next two months, Alvin, operating from a Navy LSD, searched the ocean floor off Spain for the lost H-bomb. The bomb was located for the first time on March 15, but was subsequently lost during an attempt to attach lift lines. The bomb slid down-slope to deeper water, and the search continued. The bomb was relocated on April 2 and recovered by CURV April 7.

July 6, 1967 Alvin was attacked by a swordfish on the bottom at about 2,000 feet. The fish became trapped in Alvin's skin and was brought back to the surface.

October 16, 1968 Alvin’s cradle support cables failed and Alvin slid into the water and sank to the bottom in 5,000 feet of water. The submersible was finally recovered on Labor Day, 1969.

1977 Alvin traveled through the Panama Canal for the first time.
Alvin allowed scientists to discover tubeworms living at the edges of hydrothermal vents in the deep sea.

July 1986 Alvin, along with the remote robotic vehicle Jason Jr., explored the wreck of the Titanic.

The official website of Alvin is

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The Robinson Library >> Naval Science >> Naval Architecture >> Submarines

This page was last updated on 11/01/2017.