View From the Masthead

Looking back on 30 years of ocean science and technology developments

Photo by Kim Fulton-Bennett

In his acclaimed memoir The HP Way, David Packard noted, “As we get older we have the opportunity to look back over many years and see how certain events, seemingly unimportant at the time, had a profound effect in shaping our business or professional careers."

The HP Way
The values extolled by MBARI Founder David Packard in his 1995 acclaimed memoir still ring true to MBARI.

Packard founded MBARI in the spring of 1987 with a vision of fostering a partnership among scientists and engineers. They were to dedicate their energy to designing, building, and using novel instruments and systems to tackle pressing ocean science problems. The ethos of the HP Way was a key founding principle.  An emphasis on teamwork, excellence, innovation, respect, and philanthropy were to be among MBARI’s guiding values.    

Two years later, in his 1989 address to participants of the inaugural meeting of The Oceanography Society, Packard highlighted three technological innovations that he felt would transform oceanography: remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), new sensors, and advanced computer science/data systems. By integrating and building on those core capabilities, he surmised that ocean scientists and engineers would be poised to make incredible discoveries.  

A great deal has changed at MBARI since 1989. Back then, MBARI’s founding employees made the most of makeshift lab spaces simply designated as either “wet” or “dry”.  In those early days, efforts to refine the operation of MBARI’s first ship, R/V Point Lobos, and remotely operated vehicle, Ventana, were all-consuming. Fast forward to 2017: the upgraded version of Ventana recently accomplished its four thousandth dive, a testament to its success as a platform for exploration and discovery.  And MBARI now occupies a state-of-the-art campus in Moss Landing, California, a far cry from MBARI’s original home in Pacific Grove.

An innovative database project was also initiated in the early years of MBARI’s founding so that deep-sea ROV observations of marine animals and other features recorded on videotape could be quantified and co-registered with a host of environmental measurements. Today that effort has resulted in over six million observations and over 26,000 hours of recorded video. That unique record has been central to revealing astounding environmental and ecological changes that are taking place locally and that are reflective of similar larger-scale changes afoot elsewhere throughout the global ocean, such as declines in oxygen and increasing acidity. It has also provided the foundation for making many new discoveries, including enigmatic animals such as “bone-eating” worms and parasol sponges, documentation of a complex food web replete with bizarre animals and behaviors, and an extensive and complex array of gelatinous animals—a “jelly web”—that is now recognized as a significant component of midwater ecosystems worldwide, just to name a few.

David Packard with Tiburon
MBARI Founder David Packard was proud to christen the prototype of the remotely operated vehicle *Tiburon* in 1994.

When MBARI began, a concerted effort to establish and standardize sustained chemical and biological observations in Monterey Bay was started. From that initiative sprang new sensors, platforms, and techniques for assessing conditions of the water column in ways that were not necessarily anticipated. Many of the resultant technologies have since been applied on both local and global scales—an embodiment of the “develop local, export global” mantra that now drives much of MBARI’s research and development portfolio.  

When I joined MBARI in 1992, the R/V Western Flyer, MBARI’s present-day flagship research vessel, was an artist’s rendering on the wall, and ROV Tiburon, a custom-made vehicle around which the Western Flyer would be built, was still on the drawing board. The new ship and ROV became catalysts for MBARI’s ability to conduct studies from Mexico to Hawaii to Canada. Having ready access to the sea beyond the confines of Monterey Bay played an important role in shaping the MBARI of today. Tiburon has since been retired and replaced by the ROV Doc Ricketts, which completed its thousandth dive in 2017. The Western Flyer is approaching the end of its nominal service life and the design of a new replacement ship is under way. A seagoing capability remains a cornerstone of our vision for the future.

In 2017, Oceanography produced a special edition to celebrate MBARI’s 30th anniversary. The volume includes articles by several long-time MBARI researchers.

The notion of MBARI developing and operating sophisticated autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) came not long after the institute’s founding, but at the time such capabilities seemed a distant dream, far from realization—there was much work to be done to build the kind of institute Packard envisioned, and to prove its value to the oceanographic community at large. Never could we have imagined the impact that AUVs would have on the global ocean science and technology community, let alone here at MBARI. The types of measurements now being made using fleets of AUVs, from high-resolution seafloor maps to targeted sample collections to persistent global-scale biogeochemical observations, are truly astounding. As Packard once foresaw, by integrating and building on such core capabilities ocean scientists and engineers are poised now more than ever to make incredible advances.

So if you look closely at the stories highlighted in this year’s annual report through the lens of MBARI’s 30-year history, you will notice traces of the institute’s past and see “how certain events, seemingly unimportant at the time, had a profound effect” on shaping the MBARI of today. Packard’s directives to concentrate on technology development and foster a culture of science/engineering peer relationships set in motion a sustained surge of innovations and discoveries that prove the value of his long-term vision. Those core values continue to drive MBARI to this day as founding members of the institute retire and new staff take their place, and new initiatives take root in Monterey Bay and far afield. This annual report itself is a signpost of MBARI’s evolution as we bring you the past year’s highlights in a new digital format that allows for a much more vibrant and interactive content than has been possible previously.

MBARI routinely refreshes its long-term vision, always anticipating the opportunities and challenges of the coming decades. Our current Strategic Plan and Technology Roadmap capture this forward-looking approach. These planning documents are rooted in the recognition that the oceans are undergoing dramatic ecosystem changes due to a combination of natural forces and human activities, changes readily apparent in the 30-year span since MBARI’s founding. They also identify scientific and technological directions that will foster exploration and discovery in the future. Given our current level of ocean ecosystem observation and understanding, it is clear that there are many mysteries to solve and discoveries yet to be made. Now more than ever, in concert with the global ocean science and technology community, we need to embrace MBARI’s founding ethos of collaboration, excellence, innovation, respect, and philanthropy. The age of ocean exploration and discovery is far from over.

With that in mind all of us at MBARI look forward to 2018. Follow us by visiting our website, as well as by subscribing to our Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram feeds. We hope to hear from you!  

President and Chief Executive Officer

Decades of exploration and discovery yield insights to life in the midwater

MBARI's ongoing investment in ROVs and access to the sea has led to advances in the understanding of the animals and communities in the ocean's midwater.

Learn more