The USA Needs the JSL

The JSL being lowered from the A-Frame of the Seward Johnson II. Photo by Kevin Zelnio.

A shining legacy of deep sea research is under threat in the state of Florida. Citing economic problems and the high cost of maintaining equipment and crew, the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution (HBOI) has announced it’s intention to sell or retire the submersibles and its mother ship the R/V Seward Johnson II.

Concerned citizens from the state of Florida have created a petition and are asking for people to “invest in science, education and technology.” Please the read their letter in its entirety below and make sure to note the vast achievements listed in the letter by the Sea Links! And GO HERE TO SIGN THE PETITION. Add a comment to make your voice heard.

The Johnson-Sea-Link I & II submersibles are owned and operated by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Fort Pierce, Florida. They are launched from the HBOI research vessel R/V Seward Johnson, a 204-ft ,purpose built ,state of the art platform redesigned in 1994 which displaces 1282 tons and has a 6,000 nautical mile range. An experienced captain and crew constantly maintain the R/V Seward Johnson as part of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) Fleet of research vessels. A team of highly skilled sub pilots operate, maintain and upgrade the submersibles according to strict safety protocols. The Johnson-Sea-Link submersibles were built in 1971. Almost four decades, 9,000 dives and continuous upgrades and improvements later, the Johnson-Sea-Link I submersibles and II, along with their support ship the R/V Seward Johnson, remain invaluable platforms for exploring the oceans.

The ship and subs are frequently spotted on Discovery, PBS and BBC documentaries. The skill of the crew on R/V Seward Johnson is vital to the successful launch and recovery of the JSLs, getting the submersible in the water from deck in under 4 minutes in seas up to 8 ft. The submersibles are favored by cinematographers for their maneuverability, panoramic view and ability to accept specialized cameras and tools. Similarly, they are favored by scientists due to their versatility, interchangeable tool packages, room for four persons, video and still cameras, as well as the most robust payload capabilities of any research submersible. The pride and professionalism of the R/V Seward Johnson crew and submariners is irreplaceable, as are the resource they provide.

Notable achievements of these submersibles and research vessel:

  • Obtaining the first video survey of the Civil War ironclad the USS MONITOR
  • Locating the wreckage of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 for NASA
  • Discovery of unknown coral reefs off the coast of Florida
  • Over the past twenty-five years, HBOI has conducted collection expeditions around the world. Benthic habitats have been sampled from the Caribbean, eastern Atlantic, tropical western Atlantic, Eastern Pacific and Southern Pacific.
  • About 100 natural products extracted from those marine invertebrates have cancer fighting properties and some of them are currently in evaluation by pharmaceutical companies.
  • Discovery of the Oculina (ivory tree coral) reefs off the coast of Florida in 1975. Oculina reefs only occur in Florida; nowhere else in the world.
  • Health assessments of the Oculina reefs off the coast of Florida and Lophelia reefs off the east coast of the U.S. were conducted in the JSL for many years. These health assessments led to the implementation of Oculina Habitat of Particular Concern in 1984, and the extension of protection to deep water reefs off the eastern U. S. in 2008.
  • Fish spawning aggregations at the Oculina reefs and other deep water habitats have been monitored with the JSL. This is of importance to assess the health of deep reef habitats and the human impact on them.
  • Collection of bioluminescent marine organisms,and other deep-sea animals with the JSL has increased our understanding of the optics and morphology of different marine species.
  • Deployment of the exploratory deep-ocean video monitoring system, Eye-in-the-Sea
  • According to Google scholar, about 1000 published scientific studies relied on the use of the JSL. These range from habitat exploration, mapping, description of marine vertebrates, invertebrates and bacteria, and new technologies to increase the submersible capabilities.

Unfortunately, the current administration of HBOI has announced its decision to sell the R/V Seward Johnson and retire the JSL submersibles in spite of a lack of technologies with similar or better capabilities at HBOI, FAU or any other institution on the East coast of the U.S. While some argue that this expensive technology is outdated and tied to its mother ship, this view is not shared by the scientific community. The Alvin submersible operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts is 10 years older, and still performs between 150 and 200 dives a year. No one considers the Alvin 40-year old technology, or criticizes its dependence on the research vessel Atlantis for its deployment. It is still considered a valuable workhorse. While NOAA has just awarded HBOI a 22.5 million dollars grant to be a Cooperative Institute, in part due to their ability to perform oceanographic study with such tools as the R/V Seward Johnson and JSL submersibles, it is unclear whether these assets will be supported by that grant money. Unless a new source of funding is found to support these technologies, the current administration will continue their plans to abandon these technologies. Maintaining and operating these technologies is expensive, and the HBOI administration lacks the funds to continue to support these assets. Thus, it is critical for the State of Florida to invest in these amazing technologies to further our ocean exploration and our scientific progress.

Since FAU is a state university, the submersibles and research vessel are property of the State of Florida and the taxpayers should have a say in choosing whether these amazing technologies which are helping us discover and protect our underwater assets should be maintained. These are expensive technologies to maintain, but their benefits far outweigh their costs. If you believe that the state of Florida should invest in science, education and technology, please sign this petition to indicate to our legislators that you believe the HBOI ship and submersibles should be saved from sale or retirement and supported by the state of Florida.

I'm getting ready for my first dive in the front of JSL. July 2004.

My own experience in the JSL was a significant highlight. The JSL has two chambers. The front is a giant acrylic sphere. It offers one of the best views in the sea! It holds the pilot and a lead scientist. In the rear chamber sits another from the sub crew and another scientist. Unfortunately there are only small viewports there! I’ve been in both chambers. Being up front is an amazing experience though. Imagine seeing fields of meter long tubeworms in a panoramic view. On that dive in particular, I collected my first bush of tubeworms and what started to be a lifelong fascination with quantitative whole-community subsampling.

I am just one scientist who has used this versatile tool. How many countless other budding scientists have been inspired by their experiences with the Johnson Sea Link and its crew over the nearly 40 year history of the submersible? If you have an experience with the sub, the Seward Johnson II o the crews of either that you would like to share please write up a short piece and send it to us to put up here at Deep Sea News! After you GO HERE TO SIGN THIS PETITION FIRST!

11 Replies to “The USA Needs the JSL”

  1. Done and more! The JSL’s are to me the iconic submersible. Trieste and Alvin are iconic as well, but most of the non-oceanographers I have asked, if you say research sub they picture the JSLs, I do too. I remember several National Geographic articles witht them that really formed tha image for me. I must admit being just a bit envious of your dive time in them.

  2. Thank you so much for your support, we are working hard on the home front to secure the future of the JSL’s and R/V Seward Johnson. Please visit as well, for History, photos and more. And PLEASE sign the petition.

  3. This is a PERFECT story for the TODAY show, don’tcha think? I wonder if they can help. Anybody know anybody who knows anybody?

  4. Nice pix of the Bushmasters. It was always a fun challenge to get it over the bush and bang & budge, wiggle and wrassle until you could close the bottom and pull up a bush. I always loved seeing the scientists turn into little Christmas-day kids when we brought a big pone back on deck. Thanks for your support & please continue to write. A question for all science types; Does ALVIN provide all the ocean access needed by researchers? We hear that none wants to use the J-S-Ls. I think people aren’t writing proposals to use them because of lack of funding support. Is that even halfway right?
    Dan Boggess, former J-S-L Pilot

  5. No single submersible can provide all the ocean access necessary, I believe, even if it worked 250 days a year. We have four coasts in this country, excluding Hawaii and the outlying territories in the Caribbean and South Pacific. They all need attention, and hold the answers to important questions.

    I am based in the Gulf of Mexico, which is in trouble, as I understand it, because several ships have gone offline recently. ROVs go down on oil platforms everyday, but none for science. It’s heartbreaking to lose another vessel and sub.

    The idea that no one wants to use the JSLs is false. I have one grant proposal that received a comment in reviews saying “only the JSL could do this work”. I was not funded, but received some positive comments. A call for proposals specific to the JSL would receive dozens of submissions from researchers, I am quite sure.

  6. Well … the deal is done and that’s that. The reality is that the JSL was “obsolete” when it was brought into the UNOLS fleet and it survived because it was still possible to do creditable work from it despite the fact that it’s major feature (diver lockout) was not needed and unavailable … it was sort of like the guy who buys a pickup truck to drive around the city but never uses the truck bed.

    The JSL and Seward Johnson were not brought into the UNOLS inventory without significant opposition. They’re addition was made at significant cost to both other ongoing programs that had to make room at the NSF rice bowl for a large and expensive facility and at the expense of the future development of more modern and efficient approaches like Deep Rover, WASP, MANTIS, DEEP FLIGHT, etc.

    The sub’s control system was archaic and demanded an incredible level of pilot skill, especially with coupled with the JSL’s lack of thrust and rather high mass. The best thing about the JSL was the engineering shop that built it’s sampling systems, I truly wish that they could have been routinely turned loose on some more modern and efficient manned diving systems, the equipment that they built which we used on Deep Rover was amazing.

    But I’ll miss her just the same.

Comments are closed.