Scientists dream about seeing the environment they research daily, however this isn’t feasible for many. Some of us get over it due to its impossibility, however for some fields it boils down to overcoming huge barriers. Deep sea oceanography presents obvious challenges: the depths, the pressure, the water… However, manned submersibles have made viewing great depths possible. Cindy Van Dover, the director of the Duke University’s Marine Laboratory, spent three years learning to pilot Alvin, a manned deep sea vehicle, during her Ph.D. work at MIT’s marine institute Woods Hole. Or should I say a womaned deep sea vehicle? She remains the only woman to pilot the vessel that has existed since 1964, so that isn’t so great on the gender equality front. However, the science accomplished by Alvin has been — over 2,000 scholarly papers have been published utilizing research produced by the craft. Despite the massive success, Alvin is currently in pieces at Woods Hole awaiting its upgrade to be finished. But will these upgrades be good enough?
Alvin’s notoriety began in 1977 when it discovered hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor 400 km NE of the Galapagos Islands. They discovered a microenvironment housing clams, crabs, shrimp, and sea creature crawlies where freezing waters were expected. Two years later, chimney-like rocks spewing out 400°C black fluid were found and nicknamed black smokers. Following that, cooling methane vents were discovered in the typically geologically quiet Gulf of Mexico. These chemically rich, cold pockets were housing tube worms that were determined to be hundreds of years old and some of the most ancient creatures on the planet. This resulted in questions such as: “Where did life on Earth originate?” and “Where can life be housed on other planets?”.
Its famous expeditions didn’t stop there. This three person manned submersible (i.e. two passengers and a pilot) also explored the RMS Titanic wreckage in 1986. So all in all a pretty phenomenal of research equipment if that is even appropriate. In my head I picture it as shark surrounded superhero robot responsible for deep sea oceanography awesomeness.
Despite Alvin’s successes, the research tool is aging. Upgrades are being made, but like everything else in research (achem… the shuttle program) money is growing scarce. Getting Alvin fully loaded hasn’t been simple while similar research vehicles are becoming inactive because there is none of that cash money. The interior of the submersible is increasing by 18%, also in the addition are ergonomically designed seats, bright lights, and better cameras. It sounds like they are making a movie studio.
Speaking of movies (see what I did there?!), famed director James Cameron, has his own personal ocean submersible named DEEPSEA CHALLENGER. This craft is capable of reaching incredible depths of 11,000 meters while Alvin is limited to 4,500 meters. The US National Science Foundation can’t afford to improve this aspect of Alvin just yet. It is on the agenda, but may take another 3-5 years. This leaves the United States well behind in the ocean race with France, Russia, Japan, and China having vehicles that dive deeper. On the bright side, if someone can foot the bill, Cameron said researchers are welcome to use DEEPSEA CHALLENGER while he is busy filming Avatar 2 & 3.
Being a fan of all things ocean, I was interested to learn about the progress and hiccups in this field. Like many scientific fields, female leaders are lacking, but the path has been foraged by Cindy. She began learning to pilot Alvin around the year I was born, so it seems that it is about time for another woman to explore the ocean blue.
Citation: Nature 489, 194–196 (13 September 2012)