Woods Hole: A tour of the country’s largest oceanographic facility

WHOI summer tour guide

Carl Wirsen explains Alvin's Sphere

“The true voyage of discovery is not so much in seeking new landscapes, as in having new eyes…”
– Marcel Proust

Today, we visited the venerable WHOI (pronounced “who-eee”) and learned about HOV’s, AUV’s and ROV’s. Not unlike military, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a leading marine research, engineering and educational facility on the Cape, uses just as many acronyms.

“But, don’t worry, there won’t be a test at the end of tour,” mused volunteer guide and retired marine biologist, Carl Wirsen.

During the summer months, visitors can sign up for free walking tours (reserve online) of historic buildings that house millions of samples of exotic ecosystems, like tube worms, seabed coral and sediment cores.

In a little over 90 minutes, Wirsen rifles off four decades worth of countless missions and dozens of famous oceanographers that have all quietly advanced the world’s understanding of the murky abyss.

If you’re super lucky, you might be able to catch rare glimpses of the human-occupied submersible Alvin, or the remote controlled vehicle Jason or the autonomous underwater vehicle, Sentry.

Of the 4,400 dives, Alvin is best known for first exploring the wreckage of the Titanic in 1986. Other vessels that call this Southern Cape location home include a famously named American hero whose “small step” provided humanity with a new perspective on our planet: Neil Armstrong.

Currently, the Navy vessel is operating somewhere off the dangerous fjords of Iceland, on it’s way to St. Johns, Newfoundland. It’s both servicing moorings and collecting scientific data about our vulnerable oceans.

Ultimately, we didn’t see Alvin, but we did get to admire a decommissioned pressure hull that once sank with Alvin in the late ’60s. This cramped pod is now made of titanium and capable of descending into the deepest reaches of the ocean – namely the Mariana Trench. Persons with claustrophobia need not apply. In keeping with acronyms, inside the sphere is a humorous warning for the three-person crew: P-B4-U-GO.

If you have any sponge left in the ol ‘noggin, be sure to visit the interactive kiosks at the Woods Hole Exhibit Center following the tour.

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Sonja Stark

The only thing domestic about me is that I was born in this country. Now, lets TRAVEL!

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