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U.S. Navy Gives Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Deep Diving Submarine

July 31, 1998

The U.S. Navy has transferred custody of its deepest-diving submersible, Sea Cliff, to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), operator of the National Deep Submergence Facility for the ocean research community. Capable of diving to 20,000 feet, Sea Cliff is considered a sister vehicle to the Institution-operated Alvin, which carries three people to depths up to nearly 15,000 feet. Sea Cliff is enroute to Cape Cod and is scheduled to arrive here in early August.

The transfer of custody of the submersible to WHOI marks a milestone in U.S. deep sea exploration. Until recently, the United States operated three deep-diving human occupied vehicles: Sea Cliff, Turtle, and Alvin. Both Sea Cliff and Turtle were built in 1968 with consultation from WHOI personnel and have been operated by the U.S. Navy for military projects, including search and recovery, underwater inspection and photography. Both have been based in San Diego, CA. Alvin, the first of the three to be built and the most active, has been devoted to civilian research since it was delivered to WHOI in 1964.

U.S. Navy cutbacks and a refocusing of its priorities have led the Navy to meet its mission in other ways, and it will no longer maintain and operate manned deep submergence vehicles. Sea Cliff, which has the deepest capabilities of the three vehicles, and Turtle, which has a 10,000-foot capability, have both been decommissioned and retired from service. Alvin is now the only operational deep sea human occupied submersible in the United States.

“We are delighted to have Sea Cliff join the National Deep Submergence Facility at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution,” WHOI Director Robert B. Gagosian said. “It affords new and expanding opportunities in our capabilities to explore the ocean.”

Three tractor trailer trucks, one containing a shrink-wrapped Sea Cliff and the other two related spare parts and equipment, left U.S. Navy facilities in San Diego July 21. They are driving across the U.S., with the first expected to arrive on Cape Cod the first week of August. All three will be temporarily placed in storage at the Massachusetts Military Reservation. Turtle remains in storage at Navy facilities in San Diego.

Sea Cliff adds to our commitment and responsibility to operate the National Deep Submergence Facility,” notes Richard F. Pittenger, Associate Director for Marine Operations at WHOI. “It gives us an opportunity to look at upgrades for human occupied vehicles and to make the National Deep Submergence Facility the best possible facility for scientific research in the world. It is the intention of the federal agencies to support the cost of an engineering study which would analyze the costs, feasibility, and technical alterations required to merge the most capable features of Sea Cliff and Alvin.”

Alvin, currently at work in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington and Oregon, makes between 150 and 200 dives each year up to its 4,500-meter (14,764-foot) depth capability and has made more than 3,200 dives. In addition to Alvin, there are only four other human occupied submersibles in the world that can dive beyond 10,000 feet. The Russians operate two submersibles, both called MIR, and the French operate Nautile, all three of which can reach 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) depth. The Japanese operate Shinkai 6500, currently the deepest diving of the human occupied vehicles in existence and capable of diving to 6,500 meters (21,320 feet).

Sea Cliff was designed for military applications, and its basic design would have to be altered for scientific research uses,” notes Barrie B. Walden, Manager of the Deep Submergence Group at WHOI. “The ocean research community, the users of Alvin, are aware of plans to review how we can best use Sea Cliff‘s capabilities in the National Deep Submergence Facility. They have indicated their strong desire to continue human occupied vehicle exploration, and we will now move forward to maintain our long tradition of service to the scientific research community in a financially viable way.”

Visual images available to news media upon request from the WHOI News Office at 508-289-3340

For additional information, contact:

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