FLIP makes a 50th anniversary flip to the delight of Scripps Institute of Oceanography scientists in La Jolla and the U.S. Navy


By Greg Alder

On June 30, scientists, Scripps employees, members of the media, and other lucky folk were invited to take a boat ride 10 miles out to sea off the San Diego coast to watch a strange watercraft perform a strange maneuver, a maneuver it has been the only one in the world to do for 50 years.

FLIP is a floating instrument platform, and it looks like the front half of a ship attached to a gray cylinder more than 300 feet long. It looks like a giant metal watersnake.

Owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the name is more than a clever acronym, as FLIP is able to rotate itself into a stable vertical position that allows scientists and engineers to do special types of high-quality research not possible on ships.

Spectators watched as operators aboard FLIP began deliberately filling the snake-like object’s tail with water to sink it. As with a swinging pendulum, the motion started slowly, gaining momentum until loud whistles of released pressure rang out and FLIP popped into a completely vertical position — only the head remaining above the ocean surface. Onlookers cheered.

Jesus Ruiz-Plancarte, associate development engineer at University of California, Irvine, was watching from the boat. He wore a patch on his neck to prevent seasickness, but he said that he needed no such medication while aboard FLIP in 2010, when he spent 22 days taking measurements to study turbulence at the intersection between the air and sea surface.

Gerald D’Spain, research geophysicist at Scripps, was also on the boat to watch FLIP do a 50th anniversary flip. He has done about 15 turns at research aboard FLIP over the years, mostly studying acoustics under the water, to which he says FLIP’s stability is uniquely conducive.

“Light doesn’t travel very far in the ocean; sound goes much farther. So if you want to know what’s happening down there you should not look, you should listen,” said D’Spain.

His research team on one trip was trying to correlate the sounds that certain whales make with their breaching of the sea surface. The whales often breached very far away, which meant that observers needed to use binoculars with a magnification of 25. From the deck of a rolling ship, such high-powered binoculars would have been difficult to get a steady look through, but not so with FLIP.

Since 1962, it has been the only research platform of its kind, and these days it is being used more and more to study facets of climate change, such as how the ocean absorbs gases like carbon dioxide from the air.