WOODS HOLE, MASS. — Gulls wheel overhead as people dockside brace themselves against a stiff April wind. They jostle and point seaward as a long-awaited vessel appears from behind a headland.
This assembly of marine researchers, their families, and other well-wishers marks the arrival of the newest - and final - addition to the nation's university-based deep-sea oceanographic fleet, the R/V Atlantis.
The $50-million, 274-foot vessel is the keystone in a United States Navy-sponsored modernization program that began in the mid-1980s. It also symbolizes the revolution the field is undergoing as scientists use new technologies and the ships that carry them to explore Earth's last frontier.
From bizarre life forms near volcanic upwellings on the sea floor to studies of fisheries and the oceans' effect on climate, these explorations have "an enormous and direct impact to the people on this planet," says Dan Fornari, chief scientist for deep submergence at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Although the fleet is maintained and run by universities, the Navy still has access to them, and plans to use them for such activities as ocean surveys.
On the outside, Atlantis looks much like its three sister ships, one of which will join the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in July.
Yet because it is designed as the mother ship for the manned deep-sea submersible Alvin, Atlantis is unique, Dr. Fornari says. It "gives scientists the ability to use a suite of deep-submerging tools [from one ship] with incredible synergy.... It's a much more cost-effective way to carry out science."
Modernizing the fleet
The academic fleet's modernization took shape in 1987 under Navy Secretary John Lehman, according to Steven Ramberg, head of the Office of Naval Research's (ONR) ocean, atmosphere, and space department.
"It's a national interest to make sure the oceanographic community has world-ranging access to the oceans to do good research, whether it's for the National Science Foundation or for the Navy," he says.
"We had seven old ships, and we said: Let's upgrade to a smaller number of ships, but make them bigger and better."
In all, Dr. Ramberg says, the Navy has spent nearly $200 million during the past 10 years building three new oceanographic ships, including Atlantis, and giving two older ships a major refit.
That suited university scientists; the kinds of questions they wanted to answer, such as the ocean's role in the global carbon cycle, were getting bigger, more complicated, and required ships capable of staying at sea longer.
As physicists and chemists joined marine biologists and geologists, multidisciplinary science "moved from lip service to reality," says Russell McDuff, associate director of the University of Washington's school of oceanography in Seattle.
Yet the vessels are not limited to pure research. James Murray, another oceanographer at the University of Washington, notes that one of Atlantis's sister ships is in the Western Pacific "looking at a tanker wreck. Insurance companies want to know why it broke up."
From military-precise satellite navigation systems to bundles of fiber-optic lines connecting laptops in cabins to the ship's computer network, and, via satellite, to the Internet, the ships are outfitted with the latest technology. No ship's wheel on Atlantis, for example; steering is handled via a six-inch joy stick atop a console on the bridge.
Yet just as the last vessel joins the academic community's deep-sea fleet, some researchers say the fleet may be too big.
Costs run high
Estimates of the cost for keeping one of these ships at sea run from $10,000 to $30,000 a day. This makes it too expensive for one or two research teams to propose a voyage. And the long, multidisciplinary voyages the vessels are designed to accommodate yield so much information that it can take scientists two or three years to sift through it all.
These factors, combined with tighter federal science budgets and a coming hiatus in nationally coordinated oceanographic research projects, are prompting "a big worry in the community about who's going to be using these ships," Dr. Murray says.
For its part, the Navy has bought a year-and-a-half's worth of time on the fleet for survey work, ONR's Ramberg says. But the concerns remain.
Meanwhile, oceanographers are laying plans for a new generation of vessels designed for coastal studies. The interest in coastal research is driven in part by a post-cold-war shift in the Navy's strategy, which now places greater emphasis on near-shore support for US military operations. It also is driven by a recognition of the coastal regions' biological productivity and vulnerability to pollution.
But even when these ships slide down the ways, so much of the oceans remain unexplored and so many questions remained unanswered that the need for the deep-sea fleet will remain, scientists say.
"In oceanography, you need a variety of ships just as in astronomy you need a variety of telescopes," Dr. McDuff says. "We need to preserve these facilities."