From Alvin to Robots: Deep Changes in Ocean Science

Alvin on the deck of the Titanic with light shining on bulkhead porthole. Image taken by cameras on the ROV Jason Jr. (Photo courtesy of WHOI)

Later this year, an iconic instrument of science returns to the sea: Alvin, the submersible that captured the first images of the Titanic wreck and discovered countless new species in exotic places like hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean floor.

Ocean technology has come a long way since Alvin made its first dive in 1964. Increasingly, scientists rely on robots, rather than manned submarines such as Alvin, to explore the ocean.

But when humans no longer put themselves at risk in the ocean depths, do we lose the thrill of exploration?

The thrill, and the danger, of ocean exploration

It was 1991, Bob Vrijenhoek and another ocean researcher, Richard Lutz, were leading an expedition off the coast of Oregon.

It was the last dive of the trip, and the stakes were high. In order to justify the steep expense of an Alvin expedition – some $30,000 a day — they needed more samples.

Graphic by C.K. Hickey; photo by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Cindy Van Dover, herself an ocean scientist who today leads Duke University’s Marine Laboratory, was Alvin’s pilot that day. “We were looking for what we call seeps on the sea floor, places where we have these really dense populations of invertebrates.”

But in the search for clams, Alvin had been steadily skimming up mud from the ocean surface, 500 pounds of it.

The scientists decided to head to a different spot. But when Van Dover pulled the thrusters to leave the floor, nothing happened.

“We are not moving.”

No one knew what was wrong. Alvin’s portholes face outward, not down, so there was no way of seeing all the mud on the bottom of the vessel.

The WHOI-operated research vessel Atlantis serves as support vessel for Alvin operations. During each recovery, two certified swimmers help bring the submersible back to the ship. Photo by Amy Nevala, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
The WHOI-operated research vessel Atlantis serves as support vessel for Alvin operations. During each recovery, two certified swimmers help bring the submersible back to the ship. Photo by Amy Nevala, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Recalls Vrijenhoek, todaya senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “they had no idea whether the sub was stuck in an old fisherman’s drift net, whether it was hung up on a cable? Or maybe a giant squid?”

Van Dover radioed up to the ship.

“You know, here’s the situation,” she recalls saying, “I’m on the sea floor, I can’t get up off the bottom. I’ve tried the thrusters, I’ve dumped ballast water.”

If all else failed, Van Dover and the others knew they had one last option. Alvin’s titanium sphere, which holds the passengers and life-support systems, is attached to the rest of the sub with a single screw. With the turn of a key, Van Dover could unbolt the screw, releasing the sphere – “like a ping pong ball,” as Vrijenhoek says – to float up to the surface.

No one had ever done this before.

In consultation with the technicians on the ship above, Van Dover began dumping steel weights. Over the course of about an hour, 600 pounds of weights fell to the ocean floor.

Alvin started to lift, dragging 500 pounds of useless mud.

Graphic by C.K. Hickey; illustration by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The romance of being there

Van Dover says she always knew they’d be ok. But this is one of those old science yarns that gets repeated over and over. It seems to sum up the adventure and the risk that deep ocean science is all about.

“Of course, you’re cold and shivering and you haven’t gone to the bathroom in eight hours,” says Vrijenhoek, “but the experience is incredible. You’re sitting there with two miles of water above your head. It’s dangerous, romantic, it’s an adventure, it’s exciting. And I think the lure of it is what drew many of us into this and kept us there for years. It’s just an exciting thing to do.”

But this experience is increasingly rare. It’s a lot like what’s happened in space exploration: fewer astronauts, more machines.

Twenty years ago, Alvin was one of a small fleet of subs available to scientists. Several have been retired or sold. Two others, owned by the University of Hawaii, are being threatened by budget cuts.

Increasingly, robots, not people, are exploring ocean depths.

Graphic by C.K. Hickey; illustration by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Meet the robots

At a warehouse in Alameda, California, Meghan Donohue, a technician for Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in San Diego, shows off a brand new remote operated vehicle, or ROV. It’s a robot, a little bigger than a refrigerator.

A 12-hour dive with the new ROV costs about a tenth of Alvin’s price. That’s because scientists don’t go underwater. They stay up above the waves in a converted 30-foot shipping container that can be lifted with a forklift onto the ship.

MBARI's Ventana ROV has six zoom cameras and can reach depths of over a mile. (Image courtesy of MBARI.)

Inside the container, two office chairs face a wall of computer monitors. Joysticks control the robots movements, as well as a mechanical arm that can be used to pick up samples.

On a calm day, you might forget you’re on a boat. It feels like the windowless office of a used car lot.

Is the thrill gone?

Now, to a lot of people, this might sound like a bit of a let down. Instead of looking through a porthole, you’re looking at it through computer monitor.

But to Bruce Appelgate, a researcher at Scripps and head of its ship program, it’s obvious: ROVs are just better.

“We can return much more data, better observations, give more people opportunities than you can with a submersible. It’s really a no brainer,” he says.

Faster, Cheaper, Safer

ROV work is vastly less expensive than booking a trip on Alvin. Because ROVs are tethered to the ship, they’re less reliant on battery power, and can stay down for 12-hour stretches, or longer.

At MBARI, in Moss Landing, California, two large-scale scientific ROVs have been exploring ocean depths and making discoveries for years. One of them, the ROV Ventana, has completed more dives than any ROV in the world: 3,600 dives since its purchase in 1989.

Scientists, both at MBARI and other research centers, cite the benefit of collaboration that ROV work allows. Freed from the space limitations of a tiny submersible, an ROV research team might include half a dozen scientists — for example, a biologist, geologist and chemist, all looking at the same site through the ROVs monitors.

And an ROV’s high-definition cameras allow for better observations.

Inside an ROV control room. (Photo courtesy of MBARI.)

“On the Alvin, you’re limited to just a few degrees out of a small porthole,” says Appelgate. “Compare that with an HD video broadcast that you can pan and zoom. It’s night and day.”

But what about the romance?

“I get wistful thinking about the days when I used to sniff mimeographs in third grade,” he says, laughing. “Well we don’t use that technology anymore, either.”

Of course science is more than technology. It has to be inspiring. Kids need to get excited about exploration, so that they’ll grow up and do more science.

“Just look at James Cameron.”

Cindy Van Dover wonders if robots can really have that effect. Look, she says, at filmmaker James Cameron, who made a much-publicized dive to the deepest part of the ocean back in March.

Bob Vrijenhoek and his team used MBARI's ROV "Tiburon" to discover the osedax worm, which thrive on the bones of whale carcasses on the ocean floor. Each female worm contains 30-100 microscopic male worms.

After all, she says, robots had already made that dive. Outside of the scientific community, few people noticed.

“Why was everyone so excited about Cameron being the third person to get to the bottom of the Challenger Deep? It’s that he was there.”

Another concern is funding. Without popular excitement, it’s harder for scientists to get grants for their work.

“Humans are meant to adventure and explore,” says Vrijenhoek, “and if we just do this with machines, well, that’s fine, science progresses well and happily. But once you put human beings in the picture, then the popular opinion and popular support for it changes.”

Scientists do still have Alvin. In fact, in December, the sub returns from a two-year upgrade. Built in 1964 to withstand depths of eight thousand feet, the new and improved Alvin will soon be able to sink 21 thousand feet – that’s four miles beneath the ocean surface.

In the future, robots may be making most of the dives. But a lucky few scientists will go deeper than ever before.


From Alvin to Robots: Deep Changes in Ocean Science 18 December,2015Amy Standen

  • John Hayes

    The on-air discussion of this article did not even mention the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, of Woods Hole, Massachusetts. That is a most unfair omission. Scientists and engineers at that small, private, research institution must gain their support entirely from “soft money,” but they have a long history of leadership. Alvin, designed and operated by Woods Hole staff for the benefit of all oceanographers, is but one example of their excellence.

  • Wow. $30,000 a day is quite an expense. Only academic institutions and treasure hunters can afford that.

  • Valena

    Sounds like a catch 22. We don’t know what is down there, and researchers can’t get a grant until they know what they are looking for.

  • this is not helping my career doubts! ocean science is where its at!

  • W. Bruce Strickrott

    Once again we’re presented with the ‘which technology is better’ argument, and once again this is a funding-based argument. Comparing Alvin’s technology to mimeographed paper is not a fair or accurate representation of the vehicle’s capabilities. Additionally, suggesting that there is only one ‘small porthole’ is also a skewed representation (Alvin has 5 viewports that provide overlapping, binocular vision with significant angular field of view).

    A dive in Alvin, or any other capable manned submersible, is more than just an ‘elevator for egos’. A visit to the area of interest in a manned vehicle provides a much better, real world, spatial experience that at this time cannot be recreated with an ROV. Compare viewing a jungle environment through a television screen versus actually being there. The difference is significant. In addition to the viewports, the majority of Alvin’s systems (multiple HD video cameras with pan, tilt and zoom capabilities, external and internal hi-def still cameras, data and sensor systems, sonar, navigation etc) are state of the art and no different than those used on an ROV, and a manned vehicle is significantly more maneuverable than a vehicle tethered to a support ship.

    One of our regular user’s from SCRIPPS commented that the use of Alvin and the ability to directly observe the environment through the portholes, was principal in the discovery of a new deep sea environment. This was in an area routinely visited by ROV’s (from MBARI and other organizations). The ability to actually be in the environment, and the long time experience of the pilot, exposed an area of interest that would be very difficult to observe through the lens of a camera.

    To read about this discovery visit –

    Regardless, the argument should be made as to how well these technologies augment one another. ROVs and HOVs (Human Occupied Vehicles) both provide excellent means to gather scientific data. To suggest that one is better at the exclusion of the other is a poor argument that is often only motivated by diminished funding. Often these statements are made by individuals that have limited to no significant experience using a manned vehicle. There are plenty of examples of where the two technologies, when used in concert, have provided superior results. At WHOI we operated multiple, vehicles, manned and unmanned, to the greater benefit of the scientific community.

    For those individuals with ROV experience, that have never actually visited the areas they are investigating, I highly recommend taking a trip in a manned vehicle. It will profoundly change the nature and depth of your understanding of the area that you ‘know’ so well. I’ve been honored to escort many first-time observers to areas that they have ‘visited’ many times with ROV’s. In every case, I’ve observed a profound shift in their understanding of the areas of interest. In most cases they comment on how dramatically their image, and understanding, of the area was changed by a single dive in the submersible.

    Lastly, for those that so casually describe the current manned technologies as nothing more than aging, outdated technologies, I recommend actually investigating the new capabilities of the current manned vehicles.

    The scientific community would be better served by an argument that outlines the value of a broad range of technologies. Promoting expanded, practical funding for exploration (manned and unmanned), and enhanced research for new and existing technologies that work together, is a better approach and will lead to better results and opportunities for the scientific users. This should be the ‘no-brainer’.


    W. Bruce Strickrott
    DSV Alvin Expedition Leader/Senior Submersible Pilot
    Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios' science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

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