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Storied Research Subs Visit Northwest Coast

A storied research sub that explored and filmed the wreck of the Titanic is making an appearance in the Northwest. The deep-diving submarine "Alvin" is in Astoria this week while its support ship changes crews.

It's actually one of two well-known submersibles passing through the port town.

In addition to exploring the Titanic, the stubby three-person submarine Alvin has also found a lost H-bomb in the Mediterranean Sea and discovered dramatic hydrothermal vents. Alvin departs Astoria at the end of this week to begin sea trials to test out a $41 million upgrade.

Submarine operations manager Patrick Hickey says as part of the overhaul, technicians enlarged the spherical titanium crew compartment and added extra viewing portholes.

"The old sphere, you could easily equate it to spending all day in a phone booth with two of your closest friends," explains Hickey. "Well, the phone booth has [grown] into a very small car now. So, you have more room but you're still in a crowded space."

During this week's port call, the mother ship is dropping off a different sub named Jason, this one unmanned. It spent the past several months helping scientists do earthquake studies off the Oregon and Washington coasts.

Both subs are operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Hickey says there regrettably will not be time during the hectic crew change in Astoria for a public open house to show off the research craft.

If Alvin's sea trials go according to plan, the next research dives in the overhauled sub will happen in December off the coast of Mexico. Hickey says scientists want an up-close-and-personal look at a "sub-sea spreading center," basically a very long active volcano.

Interesting features there include hydrothermal vents, newly created sea floor and rich deep sea biology.

On the Web:

Alvin upgrade - Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Jason overview - Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Ocean science giant Alvin set for upgrade (December 16, 2010) - BBC News

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.