The town of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, is located on the extreme southwest end of Cape Cod, near Falmouth. Its proximity to the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean makes it an ideal setting for the study of all things marine. From a humble genesis, the institute today commands worldwide respect as a leader in the field of oceanography¹, including the development of leading-edge technological advances in observational equipment, as well as computer software creation to speed up analyses of the data gathered.
The institute, led in part by world-renowned oceanographer, Dr. Robert Ballard, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Deep Submergence Laboratory, in collaboration with a French team, helped to uncover the secrets of the RMS Titanic, more than two miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic, in 1985.
In the beginning, pioneers
Some of the earliest European research expeditions occurred in the 1800s, when crude measurements of the ocean's depths, salinity readings and how they affected different aspects of various fisheries, as well as temperatures of different ocean quadrants, were taken. As those factors changed, not unexpectedly, the variety of marine life changed. This seemingly insignificant finding sparked interest in the goings-on of the ocean among several noted scientists of the day, including Louis Agassiz and his son, Alexander.
It was not until the late 19th century, however, that the term “oceanography" was applied to the science and study of the sea. Early pioneers in the field included Matthew Maury of the U.S. Naval Observatory, whose wind and current charts of the Atlantic helped cut sailing time on numerous routes. His Physical Geography of the Sea (1855) was the first classic work of modern oceanography. Among oceanographers today, Maury is often known by the affectionate nickname, “Pathfinder of the Seas."
Other oceanographers who have made significant contributions to the current storehouse of knowledge include Henry Bigelow, one of the founders of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and its first director. He was aboard the USS Albatross² when it approached the undeveloped shores of Buzzards Bay at tiny Woods Hole in the early 1900s. There he helped to investigate the migrations of mackerel, menhaden, and other migratory species.
Jacques Cousteau, with his trusty research vessel Calypso, became a household name, thanks to his television series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and a number of documentaries. He developed, with Emile Gagnan, the prototype for today’s scuba deep-sea diving gear called the “aqualung." In addition, he and Jean Mollard created the first two-man submersible, a huge step in observing sea life on-the-fly, while gathering otherwise unobtainable data.
The advent of Woods Hole, oceanographic study mecca
The government entity of Woods Hole first achieved notoriety as a whaling port that processed oil and bones for sale throughout the U.S. in the early 1800s. By the 1860s, however, whaling had ceased to be profitable.
The town’s economy experienced an uptick by using its whaling fleet vessels to haul guano from various South Pacific islands and Chile, while importing sulfur from Italy and potash from Germany to make fertilizer.
In 1871, Spenser Baird, the new commissioner of fish and fisheries and assistant-secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, arrived on the scene. He backed the fertilizer production industry since it made use of “renewable resources" by pressing the plentiful menhaden and pogy for the needed fish oil.
Baird also perceived that the industry was going to be short lived, but given its ideal location, he began to transform the Woods Hole wharf area into a place to conduct oceanographic research.
In 1927, a committee from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that it was time to “consider the share of the United States of America in a worldwide program of oceanographic research." The committee concluded that the oceans of the world were tantamount to being the “last frontier."
The committee recommended the establishment of a permanent, independent research laboratory on the East Coast of the U.S., to “prosecute oceanography in all its branches," and led to the founding of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1930.
A grant of $3 million from the Rockefeller Foundation jump-started the institution’s development and supported the summer work of about 10 scientists, saw the construction of a state-of-the-art research laboratory, and watched over the commissioning of a research vessel, the 142-foot ketch Atlantis, which is still a part of the institution’s logo.
WHOI grew in response to the needs of the military during World War II, garnering a permanent spot in the Congressional bi-annual budget. Following the war, the institute saw a steady growth in its overall scheme of things, including additional staff, more research vessels in its fleet, and the commensurate elevation of its scientific stature. From its inception, WHOI scientists and students have made important discoveries about the ocean that have “contributed to improving our commerce, health, national security, and quality of life."
Found: the needle in the haystack
Woods Hole has consistently been a world leader in developing sophisticated detection equipment that would enable scientists to pry secrets from the vast area covered by the Earth’s oceans. Among those secrets was the whereabouts of the great steamer Titanic. For more than 70 years, scientists, salvagers, and scavengers have followed their dreams of locating the ship that went down on April 15, 1912, with more than 1,500 passengers aboard. Those dreams often ended in financial disaster.
That most famous shipwreck in the annals of shipping, however, was found 350 miles southeast of Newfoundland, by a team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, on September 1, 1985.
The research vessel Knorr served as the expedition's mother ship, and from there the new, deep-towed sonar, strobe light, and video camera system, “Argo," was launched. Argo was first developed by the U.S. Navy to photograph the ocean floor from a height of 25 feet off the bottom. Prior to the expedition, Ballard persuaded the military to let the institute test their system in the search for the Titanic.
Additional equipment used in the search included the “ANGUS," short for Acoustically Navigated Geological Underwater Survey, another tow-behind vehicle developed to take 35mm photographs under high water pressure.
Woods Hole, the institution
Although Woods Hole is abuzz with activity, visitors are welcomed as part of scheduled group tours. Although there are three ocean-going vessels owned by the institute (the Oceanus joins the two previously mentioned), rarely are all three are in port at the same time.
Visitors will learn about the institution’s research, and the gadgets and gear developed by WHOI. Videos introduce the institution, highlight the 1985 discovery and exploration of the Titanic, and depict a day in its elegant life. Visitors can enter a full-size model of the inner sanctum of “Alvin," a deep-sea submersible, and imagine life at the ocean floor by viewing dazzling footage of hydrothermal vent sites.
Other videos explain how those vents form and give up-close views of the unusual life forms that live around the vents. An interactive exhibit features whale and dolphin research and explores the roles sound and hearing play in the lives of marine mammals.
¹ Oceanography is the study of the Earth's oceans and seas. Oceanographers study a surprisingly wide range of topics, from plate tectonics to ocean currents to marine organisms. These diverse areas of study reflect such disciplines as marine biology, chemistry, geology, meteorology, and physics, which oceanographers blend to understand Earth's interdependencies.
² The Albatross was “said to be" the first ship built by the U.S. “exclusively for marine research" (she did have some armaments aboard that were to be used in defense only). Europeans, especially the Scandinavian sector, were known to have built research-only vessels in that era, but records are sketchy as to which vessel was launched first.