FLIP – HISTORIC OCEANOGRAPHIC WATERWORLD
By: David G. Ortiz-Suslow
Since the 1960s, the Floating Instrument Platform has bobbed at the sea surface, supporting numerous discoveries. One scientist recalls his time aboard FLIP during what was likely its final mission.
From our perch, surrounded by the undulating sea, we watch a single wave approach. The wind does not roar so much as it pushes. I am recalled to childhood memories of standing on a train platform with my mom as an express line confidently coasts through the station, ruffling our coats as it speeds by and creating just such a push. Today the wind at sea hovers only at about a Beaufort 6—a strong breeze—but it makes me feel small, nonetheless.
The approaching wave is not especially big—I’ve swum with bigger waves, coming face-to-face with rolling masses of water that traveled hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers to meet me. But it’s not small either, and in this moment, I am overcome by the same sensation of being immersed in the sea and watching an oncoming wave. This time, though, as I track the propagating undulation, I am perfectly dry, dressed not in a swimsuit, but in grimy jeans, worn boots, and a spectacularly tacky, deli mustard–yellow Hawaiian shirt festooned with grape bunches.
Now the wave is here, an azure mass of water rolling toward us. As it surges and contorts around the incongruous steel structure supporting us above the water, the wave becomes unstable and breaks, throwing its celebratory whitecap directly under our feet and wetting our soles. The visible sign of breaking comes with its compulsory auditory signature, a resounding crash, eliciting uncontrollable, inarticulate, and giddy whoops of delight from my colleagues and me.
Our lapse in professionalism draws a rebuke directly from the captain, standing on the navigation bridge 6 meters above our heads, and we snap back to reality: It’s fall 2017, and we are in the middle of the Southern California Bight, participating in a major scientific field study aboard a historic, one-of-a-kind oceanographic platform.
We scurry up a series of steel ladders and return to our duties. Later, as I lie in my bunk—a few meters below the water line—I forgive myself. If seeing a wave that traveled across the ocean to meet you is a miracle of nature, then watching that wave roll by without so much as adjusting your balance is a miracle of engineering. And for that, we can afford some giddiness.
Out at Sea but High and Dry
The Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP) is a unique asset in the U.S. ocean research vessel fleet. Technically, FLIP is not a ship or a vessel; it is a platform. Well, to be precise, FLIP is a very, very large spar buoy, a type of cylindrical float that sits upright at the ocean surface and is specifically designed to respond minimally to surface wave motions.
This 109-meter buoy comprises what looks like the front of a ship that’s had its aft section replaced by a 90-meter-long, 4-meter-wide steel pipe resembling the working end of a baseball bat. In its resting state, FLIP floats lengthwise at the ocean surface. For expeditions, it is towed out to sea and, living up to its name, “flips” 90° to “stand” vertically at the surface.
Flipping is achieved by quite literally scuttling (a nautical term for purposefully sinking) the ballasted tubular end of the platform. This controlled, partial sinking—often with the full complement of personnel and equipment aboard—is executed precisely and expertly by the crew, who must be eternally commended for their perfect record in 390 attempts. Although the whole process takes 20–30 minutes, most of the motion occurs in about 90 seconds, taking the platform from an angle of less than 20° to fully vertical. During this time, crew and passengers execute a slow-motion, Fred Astaire–like dancing-on-the-ceiling routine, sans tuxedoes.
After the flip is complete, the “boat” section perches above the water surface. This section contains most of the usable space and sleeping quarters, which meet the comfort standards that satisfied a 1960s era Navy sailor—the word spartan comes to mind. All the interior scientific laboratory space, a galley, and other workspaces are connected by a network of exterior steel ladders and grates. Together with three foldable booms, they give the platform the appearance of a giant mechanical cephalopod or perhaps the treehouse of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys reimagined for the movie Waterworld.
Conceived, designed, and built between 1960 and 1962, FLIP was originally intended to allow collection of precise acoustic measurements at sea. Frederick Fisher and Fred Spiess almost casually presented their ingeniously engineered platform in a journal publication that ran barely 11 pages. By 1969, FLIP had been modified with booms—the arms of the aforementioned cephalopod—to facilitate additional science, and it was being used for major field campaigns.
FLIP was so well engineered to remain motionless amid the waves that during a deployment in the northern Pacific in late 1969, the entire crew had to abandon the platform after 3 days of confinement inside without any power. Tom Golfinos, FLIP’s long-serving captain, and esteemed oceanographer Robert Pinkel, both of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, recounted to me that large Pacific swells overtopped the platform, reaching 15 meters above the still water line and knocking out power. As it had been designed to do, FLIP simply stood impassive as these massive waves broke around it, vindicating its designers but terrifying its occupants.
Among its travels through the remainder of the 20th century and the early 21st century, FLIP was towed from San Diego to Barbados, drifted near the Hawaiian Islands, and was lashed by stormy seas off the Oregon coast. All the while, it provided exactly what Fisher and Spiess envisioned: a stable platform from which to make precise measurements at sea.
A Critical and Charismatic Buoy
The beauty and genius of FLIP is that it isolates us from the ocean. The greatest challenge to measuring ocean properties has always been, well, being on the ocean. It is remote, dangerous, alternately cold and hot, wet, salty, and always moving. In an almost metaphysical way, this colossal steel tube allows humans to exist immersed within the ocean while protected from its tantrums.
The physical concept and engineering practice of deploying spar buoys for scientific expeditions were not novel in the early 1960s. But designing a spar buoy to hold scientific expeditions was a boundary-pushing step. The ambition and spirit that Fisher and Spiess captured in their design, which expanded over the platform’s decades of use, helped propel science, exploration, and discovery across the ocean sciences for more than half a century.
In my field of air-sea interactions alone, FLIP contributed to many discoveries. For example, it helped reveal how swells generated by distant storms travel across vast ocean basins, and it enabled scientists to make very accurate measurements of atmosphere-ocean transfers of energy and material (gas), information that remains widely used in numerical weather and climate prediction systems. More recently, scientists aboard FLIP directly measured fine-scale currents and wind patterns within centimeters to millimeters of the sea surface using techniques previously confined to controlled laboratory experiments.
In addition to being a supremely useful platform for scientific study, it was a charismatic buoy—and quite frankly, there are not many charismatic buoys. Simply put, it was interesting to think about, talk about, or just look at, and it left an impression on almost everyone who saw it, let alone on the “Flippers” who have been aboard during a flip.
Once, shortly after my time aboard FLIP, I launched into a lengthy explanation of my research when a man I was chatting with asked about my work. Seeing the glazed look come over his eyes (which speaks more to the quality of my explanation), I changed tack and just showed him a picture of FLIP to illustrate what I “do.” Immediately, his interest returned as he recognized FLIP and recounted how he had learned about it in his fifth grade science class. Indeed, FLIP was a tangible icon with which many in the science-interested public identified.
A Month Aboard a Most Unusual Platform
In October 2017, with a freshly minted Ph.D. in applied marine physics, I spent about 35 days aboard FLIP, and it definitely made a lasting impression on me as well. I was aboard as part of the science team for the U.S. Navy–funded Coupled Air-Sea Processes and Electromagnetic ducting Research (CASPER) program, which involved an interdisciplinary and international cohort of scientists from several academic universities and federal research laboratories. The scientific goal of CASPER was to better understand how the atmosphere and the ocean interact, as well as how this atmosphere-ocean coupling affects electromagnetic energy traveling in the marine environment. The CASPER science team had conducted a field campaign offshore North Carolina in 2015 and then commissioned FLIP for its West Coast campaign during fall 2017.
In some ways, being aboard FLIP was like scientific cruises aboard more horizontal research vessels. Ship life revolved around your watch, the designated period when you do the three primary shipboard activities: work, wait, and eat (sleep, the sanctified fourth activity, is done off watch). Also similar is how you are continually steeped in the aromas of fresh paint, burnt diesel, and brine.
However, in many other ways, time aboard FLIP is not like any other research cruise. FLIP bobs; it does not translate (i.e., move under its own propulsion). This difference in motion mitigates sea sickness yet leaves passengers with the uncomfortable sense that they’ve been marooned at sea. Also, all the livable space is vertically stacked, with hallways being replaced by ladders, which made simply going to bed a challenging multistep process.
After donning class IV laser safety goggles—because of the fascinating nighttime experiments your colleagues are running outside—and noise-blocking earmuffs, you climb down three exterior ladders, make your way through the generator room (hence the earmuffs), and maneuver onto a ladder extending down into the darkness of the spar, or tube, section of FLIP. Through a bulkhead hatch at the bottom of this ladder is yet another ladder to scale down—but don’t forget to first secure the hatch, quietly, without waking up sleeping scientists. Then, finally, you can climb into your own bunk and try to fall asleep to the sound of waves, hoping that you don’t have to use the head (bathroom) some 12 meters above you in the middle of the night.
Its peculiarities and inconveniences aside, FLIP was essential for achieving the objectives of CASPER because we needed a stable vantage from which to make measurements, which FLIP offered, especially compared with typical oceangoing ships. The data we collected from FLIP in 2017 have already given us new, fundamental insights into these physical processes.
For example, we are developing new tools to understand how electromagnetic signals propagate differently in various marine atmospheric conditions, techniques that are important for improved maritime communication and shipboard detection of low-flying objects for national security interests. We are also discovering how ocean internal waves leave distinct imprints on the atmosphere through complex and previously unknown mechanisms, and are getting a firmer grasp of the influence of ocean surface waves on atmospheric processes and atmosphere-ocean exchanges that regulate weather and climate. The CASPER team is also using our measurements to inform and validate sophisticated numerical models to help understand these processes and to generalize and translate our findings to other ocean conditions.
The Sun Sets on FLIP
My time aboard FLIP was short, but being part of the platform’s legacy has been a truly humbling experience. Barring a major intervention, the fall 2017 cruise was FLIP’s last. In September 2020, the U.S. Navy ended its support of the platform, and its era of operational use came to an end. Although the pandemic was not the cause of this eventuality, it meant FLIP’s transition to emeritus status came without an opportunity for a public good-bye or any well-deserved fanfare.
Similar to the now defunct Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, FLIP was a creation from a bygone era. Its drift into the sunset comes as research priorities and interests in the Earth sciences are shifting. FLIP was all steel and analog components, but the future will be built with lightweight alloys, carbon fiber, and autonomous systems. There is, of course, the understandable reality that exploring new horizons requires new technologies and that resources to support these explorations are finite.
In short, everything has an expiration date—not even a Hollywood credit helped Arecibo in the end. However, like its Boricua cousin of the planetary sciences, FLIP’s legacy goes beyond the innumerable discoveries it enabled, embodying human ingenuity, curiosity about the natural world, and the drive to witness its unperturbed beauty.
FLIP’s history and significance in oceanography are being actively discussed in the scientific community. My reflection here is only one perspective on a career that spanned decades and involved countless individuals. Given that my experience with FLIP came from its last chapter, I feel it is important to recognize the giant upon whose shoulders I and other researchers have stood. That giant comprised not so much the platform itself, but the engineers and shipwrights who designed, built, and maintained it; the venerable and irreplaceable Capt. Tom Golfinos, whose knowledge, memories, and stories weave an oral history of the past half century of developments in oceanographic science; and numerous full-time crew over the years, including David Brenha and John Rodrigues, who made the 2017 cruise possible. In spirit, if not by name, I would recognize the pioneering scientists who pushed the boundaries of oceanic exploration, inspiring the generations of scientists who followed them. These people and others made my time aboard FLIP possible—my time to bob above the ocean, watch the waves, and whoop as they passed—all without so much as a jostle or a wobble in my feet.