Exploring The Deep with Alvin DSV

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Oceanographic submersibles are some of the coolest vehicles to take a deep sea tour in. The Alvin DSV-2, in particular, is the world’s first deep-sea diving submersible and has been indispensable for research. How does this sub actually work and how has it contributed to science through its voyages? Find out more.

What lies at the deepest point of our oceans? Since many challenges have hindered exploratory research in the past, we really never had much of a clue. For instance, deep sea diving becomes risky as pressure starts to rise immensely making it difficult to go any further. But that has changed over the past years. The advent of submersibles has revolutionized our understanding of the ocean’s deepest, unexplored parts like never before.

What is a Submersible- (2)

The Alvin DSV-2 was originally owned by the American Navy. Named after Allyn Vine, the researcher who pioneered its inception, it is now operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Incredulously, 53 years have passed and today the Alvin is used extensively for research purpose and deep sea exploration.

Being able to withstand very high and crushing pressures, the Alvin can travel deep down to the ocean floor where no ordinary vessel could ever reach let alone a diver.

The Make

In simple terms, the sub is made up of a hollow spherical cabin, buoyancy foam, a set of batteries to power its motility, and a motor propellant at its rear. The extra stuff would be the manipulator arms, cameras, and incandescent lights for viewing the dark ocean habitat. At a time of emergency, the sphere could be ejected out of the main body of the sub allowing the passenger to be taken back to the surface of the ocean.

The anatomy of the Alvin Courtesy http://titanic.wikia.com/

The anatomy of the Alvin. Courtesy http://titanic.wikia.com/

The hollow spherical cabin is a titanium sphere also known as the ‘personnel sphere‘, which helps the sub to dive greater depths.  The sphere is the best structure to cope up with the pressure. Initially, the Alvin was created with a 5-inch thick steel spherical cabin to withstand high pressure that would allow it to go as deep as 35 feet. But after a series of overhauling in the past years and replacing steel with titanium, it is now capable of reaching a depth of almost 20,000 feet.

The properties of Titanium are a combination of high strength, toughness, excellent corrosive resistance coupled with low density – which means unlike steel, it is lightweight and most suitable in building high performance vehicles such as the Alvin. And because of these properties, it helps the sub withstand the immense pressure exerted by the ocean as it dives deeper towards the ocean floor.

The titanium sphere that forms the cabin with the three viewports being assembled.

The titanium sphere that forms the cabin with the three viewports being assembled.

In its compact build, it can accommodate only three passengers that usually include two scientists and a pilot. There are three view ports for the scientists inside the cabin to view the exterior. The manipulator arms are remote-operated arms of the Alvin that have built-in sensors and would help to grasp materials. The sampling is done by water samplers and sediment corers (they basically scoop off the sediments which are then taken to the lab for testing). On the inside state of the art technology computer, navigation and other important tracking devices have been incorporated.

Alvin played a major role in many scientific and geological discoveries. Project FAMOUS (French-American Mid-Ocean Undersea Study) that involved scientists confirming the theory of the sea-floor spreading along the mid-Atlantic Ridge had used Alvin its voyages.

Alvin at the site of hydrothermal vents.

Alvin at the site of hydrothermal vents. Courtesy: http://www.whoi.edu/

The sub has been instrumental in the discovery of hydrothermal vents or black smokers.


The breathtaking views of the never before seen oceanic life would trump the claustrophobic seating within the sub any day. Courtesy: http://www.whoi.edu/

Just when we expected no life in the deepest darkest part of the ocean where no sunlight is received, Alvin was able to document the teeming life that thrives at the hem of volcanic eruptions.

On the deck of RMS Titanic.

On the deck of RMS Titanic. Courtesy: http://www.whoi.edu/

And of course, Alvin was famously known to rediscover the wrecked RMS Titanic (please see the infographic at the end).



However, there are a few setbacks – the Alvin cannot enter caves or cope up with high temperatures. Since it is a manned craft, it may also put human life at risk during uncertain conditions or in an area of volatile magma eruptions. That being said, Alvin has helped us embark on a new and exciting journey in oceanography, geology and other areas of science proving just how valuable it is for research.

Alvin Trivia

Click on the image to download the infographic!

Is this first time you have heard about deep sea vehicles? Do share your thoughts in the comment box below.

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