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Retirement of Research Vessel Atlantis II Marks the End of An Era

July 8, 1996

After a 33-year career and countless contributions to ocean sciences, the 210-foot Research Vessel Atlantis II is being retired from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) research fleet and from the national academic research fleet. The ship, support vessel for the deep-diving three-person submersible Alvin since 1984, will depart Woods Hole, MA, July 23 for the last time.

No other research vessel has covered as much of the ocean as the Atlantis II . During its career the ship sailed more than 1 million miles (1,006,912) on 468 cruises and spent 8,115 days at sea in every ocean of the world conducting marine research and engineering projects. Atlantis II visited 112 ports in 78 nations and hosted thousands of visitors from many nations, from school students and local residents to scientists and government officials at all levels, including Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1967 and Japan’s former Crown Prince and now Emperor Akihito in 1987 during a visit to Tokyo.

Atlantis II was built by the Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Baltimore, MD, under a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation and launched September 8, 1962. The ship was christened by biologist Dr. Mary Sears of WHOI. Principal speaker at the launch ceremony was National Science Foundation Director Dr. Alan Waterman. Atlantis II arrived in Woods Hole February 1, 1963 from Baltimore and was officially turned over to WHOI that day. Three weeks later it went into service for science with a cruise to Bermuda and back. At the time it was considered the first ship in the modern fleet of oceanographic research vessels built to serve the United States academic research community. Its design and planning process served as the model for a generation of research vessels to follow.

The ship’s contributions to the nation were to begin almost immediately. Atlantis II’s second voyage, intended to be a routine biology cruise in the Gulf of Maine, departed Woods Hole April 5, 1963 but was interrupted with the news that the U.S. nuclear submarine Thresher had sunk 220 miles east of Cape Cod in 8,000 feet of water. The Atlantis II was asked to proceed to the scene to assist in the search. The ship collected the first photographic evidence of the sub’s remains, receiving a commendation from the U.S. Navy for its work.

There are many “firsts” and notable events in the ship’s career. It was one of the first research vessels to routinely take women scientists to sea, and one of the first to employ female officers and crew. In October 1975 the ship departed Woods Hole for what was to become the longest voyage, by miles, of any Institution vessel, a 573-day trip over almost 80,000 miles around the world with a return to Woods Hole in May 1977. The ship also set the Institution record for days at sea on Voyage #125, a 44-leg cruise which began December 29, 1989 and ended June 10, 1992. Atlantis II spent a record 894 days away from Woods Hole and 575 days at sea and covered 73,907 miles on that voyage. In 1986 the vessel visited the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean, discovered in 1985 by another Institution vessel, R/V Knorr, with the new towed imaging system Argo developed by the Institution’s Deep Submergence Laboratory. Twelve Alvin dives were made to the wreck to test the Institution’s prototype remotely operated vehicle Jason Jr. and other deep-sea imaging systems amidst intense worldwide publicity.

During its first twenty years of operation, Atlantis II Alvin, which needed a more capable support vessel. Much of the ship’s work since 1984 has focused on exploration of the Mid-Ocean Ridge in the Atlantic and Pacific for biological, geological and geochemical studies with Alvin, although Atlantis II also continued to perform general oceanographic research.

Fondly called the AII by Institution staff, the ship is named for the Institution’s first research vessel, a 142-foot steel-hulled ketch named Atlantis which sailed from 1931 until it was retired in 1964 after a remarkable 33-year career. Atlantis was sold to the Government of Argentina in 1966, rechristened El Austral, and is still in limited service to oceanography. In recognition of the contributions of that vessel to science, NASA named its space shuttle ATLANTIS after the Institution’s first ship. Space Shuttle ATLANTIS is scheduled to be launched July 31 and may take mementos from its Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution namesake on the mission.

Atlantis II will depart Woods Hole for the last time on July 23 for a Louisiana shipyard, where the stern A-frame for submersible launch/recovery will be taken off the ship. With National Science Foundation approval, the ship has been sold to a private U.S. firm which intends to use it for fisheries research in the Pacific and Gulf of Alaska. Current National Science Foundation Director Dr. Neal Lane and other invited guests will participate in the farewell ceremonies at Woods Hole July 23.

The Atlantis tradition, begun at the Institution’s founding in 1930, will continue for many years to come. The 274-foot Atlantis, a U.S. Navy-funded vessel being completed at Halter Marine in Moss Point, Mississippi, was launched February 1, 1996. The Atlantis (with no number per Navy tradition) will be the first research vessel in the U.S. fleet capable of supporting both manned and unmanned deep submergence vehicles including Alvin and the Institution’s remotely operated vehicle Jason. The submersible launch/recovery A-frame from Atlantis II will be prepared for installation on Atlantis later this year before the ship is delivered to Woods Hole in May 1997. Like its predecessors, Research Vessel Atlantis will be operated by WHOI for the U.S. ocean research community and will begin service in the summer of 1997. Note: Photos and videotape footage available

For additional information, contact:
Shelley Lauzon, Senior News Officer
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, 02543
FAX: 508-457-2180