Profiles of Marine Research Facilities

Science On A Barge - The Smithsonian Marine Station

by Arthur Fisher

Location, location, location. It's critical for success in real estate and also comes in handy for doing science. Perhaps no place proves this better than the Smithsonian Institution's Marine Station (SMS) in central Florida. Crammed onto a converted military landing barge on the Indian River, a long brackish lagoon that runs along the Atlantic coast, the facility is ideally situated for its mission of studying marine diversity.

"We are in a biogeographical transition zone," explains Mary E. Rice, SMS's intense, energetic director. "We have access to both temperate and tropical life, and to the offshore Florida current," with its abundance of plankton. These attributes lure dozens of scientists from all over the world to SMS to study the flora and fauna of mangroves and mud flats in the lagoon, as well as the sandy beaches and reefs of the Atlantic proper. Aiding scientists in their observations are two Johnson-Sea-Link subs, deep-diving submersibles that are owned and operated by the neighboring Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution. [See "He Seeks the Giant Squid."]

Many of the organisms the institute studies are low-profile. Rice, for example, specializes in a group of intellectually challenging but esthetically challenged marine worms called sipunculans. But they shouldn't be overlooked. "Any valid discussion of large- scale environmental issues," Rice says, "must begin with basic scientific facts. Before we can ask how myriad species - including our own - interact, we must first know that they exist, and where, and in what abundance."

What you can see:

Into The Underwater Canyon - Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

by Judith Anne Gunther

We're half science, half engineering," says Peter Brewer, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. "Our mission is to develop better instruments, systems, and methods for scientific studies of the deep ocean. Then we use them." Founded in 1987 with a multimillion dollar grant from computer mogul David Packard (the Packard in Hewlett-Packard), MBARI is perched on the edge of the extraordinarily rich Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The bay includes lush kelp forests and a 13,000-foot-deep underwater canyon within a few hundred yards of the shore.

The tiny institute's specialty is exploration with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). Its current workhorse, Ventana, can descend one mile to take pictures and snare samples. Many of the creatures it collects would turn to mush if gathered by net, the traditional method of harvesting deep-sea animals. "We're able to bring them back alive," Brewer boasts.

By 1996, MBARI will complete Tiburon (Spanish for shark), a sophisticated $2.5 million ROV that will go down to 4,000 meters (13,200 feet), the average depth at which the floor of the Pacific Ocean intersects the continent of North America. "This," Brewer says, "will allow us to study most of the ocean floor off North America." Tiburon will be able to hold a 750-pound payload, making it capable of transporting sophisticated equipment. To control the ROV, MBARI is building a 114-foot, $12 million support ship with an ultra-stable SWATH (small waterplane-area twin hull) design for bad-weather operations. The new ship will also contain bunks, allowing up to 24 of MBARI's 100 researchers to conduct extended missions for the first time.

Still, Brewer expects the focus to remain nearby. "We have a pristine ecosystem, superb geology, and deep water right by our door," he says. "This is just a great place to do science."

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Where Ocean Meets Sun - Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority

by Mariette DiChristina

At Keahole Point, on the Big Island of Hawaii's west coast, the ragged black-lava shoreline drops off sharply, providing easy access to the frigid, pure, and nutrient-rich ocean water 2,200 feet below. Meanwhile, steady subtropical sunshine warms surface waters to about 80 F. This combination of natural resources makes Keahole a perfect site, decreed the state in 1974, for science.

Today, the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority operates an 870-acre ocean and solar-technology center at Keahole Point. Its most prominent component is the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park, the first facility in the world designed to support the commercial development of ventures using deep-ocean water. The lab has three cold-water pipelines, which draw up to 17,000 gallons per minute, and two more that pull up to 11,800 gallons of warm surface water; a new pipe will extend to even colder water at 3,000 feet.

The park's most prominent tenant is an experimental plant that relies on the temperature difference between the cold and warm water to generate electricity, or ocean thermal energy conversion. [See "Sea Power."] There are also several aquaculture businesses that produce everything from edible seaweed to Spirulina, a microalgae food supplement. Pure science is welcome as well: a U.S., European, and Japanese collaboration, for example, plans to use the Kona coast's pure water as a "neutrino telescope" to search for those cosmic particles.

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Making History - The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

by M. D.

For 16 long days he searched the North Atlantic floor fruitlessly. Then, on Sept. 1, 1985, oceanographer Robert Ballard spotted his quarry through the cameras on the unmanned submersible Argo - part of it, anyway: a giant boiler, assorted luggage, and cases of unopened wine.

It was the world's first glimpse of the Titanic in 73 years. [See "What Really Sank the Titanic," Feb.]

The Titanic find was just one in a long history of underwater achievements by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Another was the 1977 discovery, from the manned submersible Alvin, of the remarkable creatures thriving at the Pacific's hydrothermal vents, including ten-foot-long red tube worms and giant clams. [See "Creatures of the Thermal Vents."]

Located in a resort town on the southwestern corner of Cape Cod, Mass., WHOI (pronounced "hooey") was founded in 1930 as a summer research institution on the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences. During World War II, WHOI began operating year-round to support the war effort; since then the lab has never looked back.

Today, WHOI's 1,000 researchers and staff conduct more than 350 research projects at any one time. The subjects of these projects encompass geology, marine life, coastal erosion, ocean circulation - even global climate change. WHOI (not to be confused with its neighbor at Woods Hole, the Marine Biological Laboratory) also sports various specialized laboratories, such as a unique 56-foot-long flume that precisely simulates the flow of water above the floor of the ocean.

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Giant Among Giants - Scripps Institution of Oceanography

by J. A. G.

Located on a perennially sunny strip of La Jolla-area shoreline favored by surfers, Scripps Institution of Oceanography is, at 93 years old, a revered elder among the nation's oceanographic organizations. It is one of the country's largest, as well: It operates on an annual budget of approximately $82 million, with a staff of 1,200 that works on more than 300 different research projects. It operates the largest academic fleet of research vessels and platforms in the United States.

For an organization founded to explore marine life, however, Scripps possesses some surprising branches of research: seismic studies, clouds and climate analysis, an El Ni\226o Prediction Center, a Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine - even the California Space Institute, led by former astronaut Sally Ride. "We've outgrown our title," says director Edward A. Frieman. "Once you begin to study the ocean, you're naturally led into many other areas because Earth is a big, dynamic system. You can no longer simply study the ocean without considering its interactions with the land and atmosphere."

That breadth of research has helped Scripps become a leading center for understanding global climate change. Indeed, it was a Scripps researcher, marine chemist Charles D. Keeling, who first confirmed the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Another internationally recognized researcher, Walter Munk, has launched a controversial project to measure global-warming trends by broadcasting acoustic signals through the oceans. Scripps even operates an Antarctic research center that - among other things - monitors ozone holes.

Fish, however, haven't been forgotten. In late 1992, Scripps opened the $12 million Stephen Birch Aquarium-Museum. And Scripps' marine vertebrates collection, begun in 1959, contains more than 2.5 million specimens - one of the most extensive collections of its kind in the world.

What you can see:

Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan

gene carl feldman ( (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)