Breaking the glass ceiling on the ocean floor

Cindy Lee Van Dover was the first woman to pilot the Alvin submarine, and that was only the beginning.

Cindy Lee Van Dover
Age: 62. Affiliations: Professor of Biological Oceanography at Duke University Marine Laboratory. Specialty: Biological oceanography, Alvin pilot.Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

Cindy Lee Van Dover holds membership in a most exclusive boys’ club: Of 42 gearheads, engineers, and former Navy commanders who have piloted the submersible Alvin—the stubby, three-crew midget research sub that explored the Titanic—she is the only woman. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Van Dover says, “was to become an Alvin pilot.”

To earn pilot certification takes months of training, memorizing the language of check valves, autoclaves, ballast systems, oxygen monitors, electrical systems, and a Rube-Goldberg system of mechanical levers and knobs. You must master and execute it all 2 miles underwater, where there’s no other way up or out. Since Van Dover’s first piloted dive in 1990, she has descended into the ocean 235 times, discovering dozens of exotic invertebrates living off hydrothermal vents.

Even as a kid who spent summers flipping horseshoe crabs and inspecting snail eggs on the beach, all she wanted, she says, was “to see these animals living on the seafloor.” In 1989, she earned a Ph.D. in biological oceanography. That year she won a passenger seat in Alvin­—and vowed to become a pilot. After nine months studying manuals and schematics, she earned her certification. Most biologists wait years to get a research project written, funded, and green-lit for an Alvin mission. But a pilot can dive every more often. “It was quite a strategic move on her part, and one that took a lot of guts,” says Dan Fornari, a marine geologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and a colleague of 30 years.

Van Dover now spends her days at a desk, organizing expeditions in her eponymous lab at the Duke University Marine Laboratory. But she’ll always remember her last dive. A mile underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, the carbon-dioxide scrubber on Alvin failed. As the CO2 levels started to build up, the pilot had to drop ballast as the crew strapped on oxygen masks and quickly ascended. She never panicked. “I know that submarine so well,” she says. “I knew we’d get back up.” Despite the constant urge to go to sea, that dive will likely be her last. “It was such a memorable one,” she says. “I might just leave it at that.”

Depth Gauge

1982 Part of the first expedition to explore hydrothermal vents in the East Pacific Rise, a line running from Antarctica to the Gulf of California where tectonic plates are pulling apart

1990 First (and only) female Alvin pilot

1993 Helped explore and characterize Lucky Strike, one of the largest-known and most biologically unique hydrothermal-vent areas

1997 Publishes The Octopus's Garden, a memoir

2005 Helps devise ways to protect vents from deep-sea mining

2006 First female director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory

2015 Co-developed a first-of-its-kind tool that can vacuum up huge volumes of plankton to study

Read about how other ocean explorers are solving the planet's mysteries in the rest of our Deep Sea Six feature from the January/February 2017 issue of Popular Science.

January 6, 2017: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Alvin did not discover the Titanic, but rather helped explore it.