Visiting the Alvin Submarine

By Mark Agostinelli, Class of 2017

[Originally published in Sturgis Stormwatch, 12/12/15 Reprinted here with permission of the author.]

Alvin SubOn Wednesday, August 27, members of the Sturgis InvenTeam traveled to Woods Hole to speak with one of its lead researchers, Dr. Paul Fucile, and to explore the famous Alvin Submarine. Alvin is a three-person research submersible that takes scientists deep into the ocean. The sub is named after Allyn Vine, a WHOI engineer and geophysicist who helped pave the way for deep submergence research and technology.

As the group marveled at the deep-diving vessel, Dr. Fucile explained its background. Since its initial launch in 1964, Alvin has taken more than 14,000 scientists, engineers and observers on over 4,700 dives to visit the floor of the deep sea.  Alvin can dive 4,500 meters, giving it access to some 63% of the entire ocean floor!

Part of the reason why it is  so state-of-the-art, Dr. Fucile explained, is that Alvin is the only deep-diving research submarine that can seat two science observers in addition to the pilot. Visiting the deep ocean in person means the scientists can see details of the seafloor and its processes with their own eyes. They can also use Alvin’s equipment to sample rocks, sediment, fluids, and sea life. Two hydraulic, robotic arms manipulate equipment and collect these samples.

It takes about two hours for Alvin to dive to its maximum depth and another two to return to the surface. That leaves four to six hours for work on the bottom – time that scientists fill with photography, observations, sampling, and experiments. Dives usually last less than 10 hours, but the sub carries enough oxygen to let a 3-person crew breathe for three days. Operating costs, are about $45,000 per day. The personnel sphere gets cool (50 degrees Fahrenheit) as Alvin roams the ocean bottom. To make matters even chillier, fire safety regulations prohibit wearing synthetic materials like fleece, so divers have to dress in layer upon layer of cotton and wool.

When one Sturgis team member asked what the most notable advantages and disadvantages of Alvin are , Dr. Fucile pondered for a moment before explaining that its main advantage is to allow people to directly see the seafloor terrain and sea life. The main disadvantage with the Alvin submarine, Dr. Fucile explained,  is the lack of a toilet. The Sturgis InvenTeam was extremely grateful to Dr. Fucile for generously providing his time and advanced knowledge on this tour of the Alvin submarine!

For more information about the Sturgis InvenTeam, see: 

Sturgis InvenTeam Designs Marine Mammal Rescue Transporter



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