La Jolla’s Scripps Oceanography retires seagoing research platform after 61 years
FLIP aided better understanding of the ocean, including how sound travels in it, and could move from a horizontal position to vertical while at sea.
When Bruce Appelgate was in fourth grade, he read a book featuring world explorers. Among them was the FLoating Instrument Platform, or FLIP.
Little did Appelgate know that one day, not only would he be on FLIP, he would be head of ship operations at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla as part of his career.
“[FLIP] captured my attention,” said Appelgate, who is now associate director of Scripps Oceanography. “So many people I talk to learned about FLIP in grade school [and it] inspired them in later life. The legacy of FLIP is that it inspired so many people at Scripps to continue to think big and take risks.”
FLIP also helped facilitate understanding of the ocean, including how sound travels in it, during the post-World War II era of heightened ocean study.
On Aug. 3, however, FLIP was retired after 61 years. It was towed to a dismantling and recycling facility, six years after its last research voyage and three years after officials determined that the costs to renovate it could not be justified, according to Scripps.
“R/P FLIP has existed for more than half the length of the institution’s entire history,” Scripps Oceanography director Margaret Leinen said in a statement. “It was an engineering marvel constructed during an important phase of new technology for ocean exploration following World War II. The many discoveries from FLIP help set the stage for ongoing cutting-edge science to understand our ocean.”
Appelgate said “the reason FLIP was built, and what made it unique, is when it deployed on the ocean, it is motionless. The ocean waves don’t affect its movement. If you are on a ship, you are bobbing and ebbing and flowing, but ... [FLIP] allowed for studies that required stable platforms. It was like being on an island.”
Usually to get to depths with such stability, “you would need to use a submarine, which is very expensive and not always available for science,” he said.
FLIP also was unique in that it could, as its name implies, flip from a horizontal position to vertical while at sea. FLIP maneuvered to its vertical position by filling its ballast tanks with water, causing all but the top 55 feet of its 355-foot length to be submerged in the ocean.
Being on FLIP during one of those rotations “can be disorienting,” Appelgate said. “The first time I did it, it felt like someone teleported me to a different ship. It was funny.”
Because “it’s black in the ocean and everything uses sound,” developing an understanding of how sound travels in the sea was an early goal for scientists aboard FLIP, Appelgate said.
Scientists often worked with the Navy because “they wanted to listen for pings in the water to make their own subs quieter,” Appelgate said. “People didn’t know how sound worked in the ocean, so FLIP was used for that. SIO went on to invent technology that is now widely used and commercially marketed as sensors that use sound to measure currents in the ocean.”
“The reason FLIP was built, and what made it unique, is when it deployed on the ocean, it is motionless. The ocean waves don’t affect its movement. ... [FLIP] allowed for studies that required stable platforms. It was like being on an island.”
— Bruce Appelgate, associate director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Appelgate noted that after World War II, scientists who had served at sea had questions about the ocean based on what they saw. Research done on FLIP helped answer some of those questions and led to development of new technologies.
FLIP later would go on to facilitate studies of how the upper ocean interacts with the lower atmosphere.
“The research was far-ranging,” Appelgate said. “It could go anywhere you wanted to take it. It didn’t have propulsion of its own, so the Navy would often move it because it needed to practice towing and we gave them something to tow. It did some projects around the Hawaiian Islands and offshore of California, it went through the Panama Canal and through the eastern [Pacific] Ocean. It would sit for months or drift around for a week or so.”
FLIP was considered a key mission enabler for research programs in meteorology, oceanography and ocean acoustics, said Tom Drake of the Office of Naval Research’s Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department.
“Whether investigating air/sea interaction, ocean mixing, boundary layer dynamics or acoustic thermometry, FLIP’s unique properties and capabilities enabled the collection of exquisite data sets that served as the gold standard for numerous process studies and extensive model development, ultimately increasing our understanding of the maritime environment,” Drake said. “While FLIP is retiring, it will continue to pay dividends and make new contributions for ONR and the greater scientific community.”
Appelgate said SIO wants FLIP “to be memorialized somehow.” So in the years ahead, one of the newer booms (crane-like arms of the platform from which research instruments were suspended) that was installed about 10 years ago will be affixed to Scripps Pier so it can aid additional research.
“We do a lot of sampling from the pier and use sensors around the pier, but one of the problems we have is, when looking at currents, the movement of the water can interact with the pilings of the pier,” Appelgate said. “We’ve always wanted to extend our sensors away from the pier pilings. So the idea is, when we’re using it, it will extend 40 to 50 feet and will be used for hanging instruments into the water, away from the pilings. That way, scientists will get to keep using it.” ◆
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