Oceanographic Research Vessels

The United States uses a number of organizations to study the world’s oceans. These organizations such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and other various universities have received funds that promote the endless research that goes into our oceans. The majority of money for the equipment, staff and vessels for this research comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA, and the Navy. The NSF by far puts the most money into the research of what three quarters of our earth is covered in. Approximately 70 percent of all funds for the American academic fleet come from the National Science Foundation (UNOLS). The primary topic covered will be the research vessels in this fleet that our used in the oceanographic research of today. Below is a chart that depicts the amount of funding given to various organizations by the Navy, the NSF and NOAA. (ARF)

The chart shows the amount and distribution of funding for UNOLS from 1993-1998. (ARF)

The chart below shows the amount of money that is put into the operation of the ships on a day-to-day basis. (ARF)

The first ship, and by far the most significant to the University of Washington is the Research Vessel Thomas G. Thompson. The R/V Thomas G. Thompson is one of the newest vessels in the United States oceanographic fleet and one of the most advanced scientifically and mechanically. The Thompson was built by Halter Marine and funded by the Navy. In July 8, 1991, the Thompson was delivered to the ONR (Office of Naval Research) and is operated by the University of Washington under a Charter Party Agreement.

The Thomas G. Thompson is 274 feet long. The displacement with a full load is 3,250 LT. The propulsion system on the Thompson is quite unique. It has twin 360-degree stern thrusters that are rated at 3,000 horsepower each. There is also a 1,100 horsepower jet bow thruster that allows the ship to move optimally in any direction. The ship normally cruises at 13 knots though it has the ability to reach 14.5 knots. The Thompson has the ability to carry 248,000 gallons of fuel that enables it to travel 33 day at 14 knots plus 29 days at 3 knots. There are two freshwater makers on board that have the ability to make 4000 gallons per day. The freshwater storage capacity is 13,000 gallons. The Thompson is able to hold its position within a 300-foot radius of its station with a wave height of 11 feet, a 2-knot current, and a 27-knot wind. The ship has the ability to comfortable carry 22 officers and crew, 34 scientists, and 2 marine technicians. There is 3500 feet of working deck space on the Thompson.

The Thomas G. Thompson has a significant amount of cranes and an A-frame that allows the easy transport of equipment on and off of the vessel. The A-frame on the stern supports a 12-ton stationary load and 6 tons in motion. On the starboard side, on top of the staging bay, there is a telescoping boom that supports a 12-ton stationary load and a 2-ton load in motion. Two Alaska Marine cranes on the starboard and portside provide duties for trawling. At a ten-foot radius, the cranes support 42,000 pounds and at a 65-foot radius, the cranes support 3400 pounds. On the port there is also a 27-foot reach folding crane. On the bow, there is a 43-foot crane on the starboard side. There is one 26-foot RIB workboat and one 15-foot Achilles inflatable workboat. There is also a 19-foot RIB rescue boat.

Scientific Spaces include a 380 ft2 Staging bay, a 700 ft2 Hydro lab, a 235 ft2 Wet Lab, a 1730 ft2 Main Lab, a 359 ft2 Bio/Analyt. Clean Lab, an 820 ft2 Electronic/ Comp. Lab, and 1510 ft2 of Scientific Storerooms. There is a maximum load of 200 tons of scientific equipment. There are four laboratory grade fume hoods within the ship. There are 44-inch hoods in the Biochemical Analytical Clean Lab and the Hydro lab, a 36-inch fume hood in the main lab and a 24-inch fume hood in the Wet Lab. Compressed air is available every 8 feet along laboratory bench tops at 15 psi. A climate control chamber that measures 8’x 8’ x 10’ has the ability to control temperature from Oo Celsius to 38o Celsius. A scientific freezer is available and is capable of maintaining a temperature of —18 o Celsius. There is a diving locker on the starboard side of the ship that is contains a breathing air compressor and a storage tanks upon request. A deck-bolting grid on the ship allows equipment to be bolted down at sea. There are 3/8" threaded bolts on a two-foot grid pattern.

The R/V Atlantis is perhaps the most prolific and active of all oceanographic vessels today. Operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Atlantis is the mother ship to the famous Deep Submergence Vessel Alvin. It is the one of the most sophisticated research vessels afloat with precision navigation, bottom mapping, and an advanced satellite communications system. Not only is the Atlantis the mother ship to the Alvin, it is also contains the Remotely Operated Vehicle Jason and towed vehicles Argo II and DSL 120.

The R/V Atlantis was delivered to WHOI in early 1997. The Atlantis was built by Halter Marine Inc., in Pascagoula, Mississippi (the same maker of the R/V Thomas G. Thompson). The Thompson and the R/V Roger Revelle, operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, are the Atlantis’ sister ships and there is a nearly identical ship, the R/V Ron Brown which is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Atlantis received its name from the WHOI’s first research vessel, a 142-foot steel hulled ship that sailed about 600,000 miles from about 1931 to 1966. Also, the name is shared with the retired 210-foot Atlantis II that completed over one million miles and over 8,000 days at sea. The career of the Atlantis II lasted from 1963 to 1996.

The length of the Atlantis is 84 meters or 274 feet. The cruising speed is twelve knots though it is capable of fifteen knots. The Atlantis has a fuel capacity of 296,470 gallons, which will carry the ship a total distance of 17,280 nautical miles over a period of up to sixty days. The ship has the capacity to hold 23 officers and crew, 23 scientists and 13 deep submergence pilots and technicians. The main propulsion system consists of two diesel 360-degree engines. Other propulsion includes a 1,180 horsepower jet bow thruster. Also integrated into the propulsion system are three 715 kilowatt, 600VAC generators. Navigational instrumentation includes a differential and P-code global positioning system, Loran C, gyrocompass, Doppler speed log, X/S band radars, and a Fathometer. The communication instrumentation consists of single band and VHF radios, INMARST, weather facsimile, telex, and e-mail service. The Atlantis has two hydraulic winches that have 10,000 meters of hydrographic or electro-mechanical cable and 10,000 meters of fiber-optic cable. The giant A-frame on the back is specifically used for the launching of the Alvin DSV and the deck contains a track to the hanger where the Alvin is stored.

The DSV Alvin is one of the most widely used submarines in the world. The Applied Sciences Division of Litton Industries constructed it in 1964 with funds provided by the Office of Naval research. Numerous reconstructions of the submersible have been made over the years which have kept it state-of-the-art. Alvin is capable of performing numerous complex tasks to this day due to the constant improvements. The depth abilities of the vessel are perhaps the most noted characteristics of the vessel which is measured by the collapse depth of the personnel sphere. The collapse rating is up to 5,720 meters though a duplicate sphere has been tested down to 6,850 meters (22,475 feet) without fail. The payload of up to 1,500 pounds consists of a pilot, two passengers, the manipulators, and the science baskets. The empty science basket weighs approximately 105 pounds in water leaving the remaining payload for samples gathered. The payload may be divided between the internal payload and the external payload but everything kept within the capsule must be kept within the 19-inch panel rack. The opening to the vessel is only 19 inches so all payload brought within the vessel must be able to fit through the small hatch. (WHOI)

Before the Atlantis was used as the mother ship for the Alvin, and before the Alvin received it numerous enhancements, another ship was used for the deployment of Alvin. This ship was named Lulu and was a dual pontoon boat that provided docking for the Alvin between the two pontoons. Other versions of the Lulu came along, but eventually, the dual pontoon design became too expensive to build. The Lulu mother ship had been home to Alvin for 18 years. In 1982, the Lulu was retired and a new ship had to be determined as a home for Alvin. WHOI’s Knorr and Scripps’ Melville were two of the top choices. The Melville, built in 1969, was even fitted with an A-frame at an extra cost in hopes that the ship would someday accommodate a submersible. The only problem with both of the ships was that they already sat one foot lower in the water than they should have. The next option was the Atlantis II. The Atlantis II, the oldest ship in the academic fleet, was delivered to WHOI a year before Alvin was and was in a major need of an overhaul. It was the perfect time to fit the vessel with an A-frame, and with the current budget cuts, it was the only option. The Atlantis II became the new mother ship for Alvin (Water Baby). As of 1996, the Atlantis II was retired and the Alvin currently resides on Atlantis (different from Atlantis II), which is owned by the Navy and still operated by WHOI (see above).

Alvin is 7.1 meters (23.3 feet) in length, 3.7 meters (12 feet high) and weighs 17 metric tons (35,200 pounds). Its general safe operating depth is 4500 meters, which is resisted by a 1.9-inch thick titanium hull. Speeds of two knots can be reached though 0.5 knots is the cruising speed. The maximum cruising range is 5 km (3 miles) submerged at 14 meters per minute. Normal dive duration is 6-10 hours though three people can be supported for 72 hours (WHOI). Instruments designed for use with Alvin include temperature and heat-flow measurement probes, sediment coring devices, a magnetometer, and titanium water samplers that are designed to withstand extremely high heat (i.e. hydrothermal vents). Alvin has currently taken over 2,000,000 pictures and completed over 2,000 dives. Alvin is operated under a joint agreement with the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Office of Naval Research (TRF).

One of the most creative and interesting vessels in the oceanographic is the R/P FLIP. The FLIP (FLoating Instrument Platform) fulfills the scientific need for a steady platform in rolling seas. FLIP has been used for a number of studies including wave height, acoustic signals, water temperature and density, and for the collection of meteorological data. It is a 355-foot vessel that is towed in a horizontal position to the research site. When in place, the bottom three hundred feet of the vessel is flooded with 1500 tons of seawater leaving only 55 feet above the surface (see pictures of both positions on the next page). During this process, scientists and crewmembers literally walk up the walls to stay upright. The 300 feet that stays in the stable water column provides so much stability that the vessels is almost unaffected by vertical wave motion. A 30-foot wave only causes FLIP to move 3 feet vertically in the water column. FLIP carries a crew of five as well as eleven scientists. To date, over 300 operations using FLIP have been executed which have lasted up to 35 days. The Marine Physical Laboratory of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography created FLIP with funding from the Office of Naval Research (TRF).

The Gunderson Brothers Engineering Company in Portland, Oregon launched FLIP in June 1962. It has the ability to drift freely or be moored and also has the ability to operate in deep or shallow water. All of the instrumentation is hinged so scientist and operator can function on FLIP in the vertical or horizontal position. Three anchors are used for mooring and can more in water with depths of 2,000 fathoms or deeper. Although it was designed to operate in waves up to thirty feet, it has withstood 80-foot swells. In 1987, FLIP was moored in 2400-fathom water. With a 30-knot wind, FLIP only moved in a 200-meter diameter. In 1995, FLIP received a $2,000,000 modernization. The structural build is currently excellent and instrumentation will allow FLIP to be an oceanographic powerhouse in the future. This is the only vessel of its kind in the world, having the ability to flip from a horizontal position to a vertical position while at sea. This type of platform is extremely valuable for oceanographers all over the world (UCSD).

FLIP is 108 meters long and ways 700 long tons. In tow, it has the ability to travel at speeds from 7-10 knots. It operates worldwide but the normal operating are is the west coast of the United States. The main power source comes from two 150 KW Generators with one 40 KW generator for backup. Navigation equipment includes a Gyro, GPS, and RADAR. Communication equipment includes HF, VHF, INMARSAT, and cellular. There are a number of booms and winches that are used for deploying scientific equipment, which can be seen in the picture above (UCSD).

The United States has granted several educational institutions with money to expand our knowledge of our world’s oceans. Vessels such as FLIP and Alvin have used a significant amount of money to provide our oceanographers with the optimum tools they need to achieve a large information about the mass that cover three quarters of the surface of the earth we live on. The vessels that are used are the number one link to depths of the unimaginable. Without the technology and the funds to support this technology, the vast majority of our world would remain an imagination.