There’s a vast ecosystem stretching far below the ocean’s surface — one where the light dims, the pressure mounts, and life takes on forms that can seem downright alien. But even there, a place that seems a world apart from human society, our plastic trash is building up.
In the deep sea, it’s a challenge to study where that plastic accumulates and how it affects animals. So scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and our partners at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) launched an ambitious collaboration.
The resulting study, which examined microplastic in the waters of Monterey Bay, was published June 6 in the journal Scientific Reports.
“We designed this study to answer a fundamental gap in our knowledge of marine plastic once it reaches the ocean,” says lead author Anela Choy, a former MBARI researcher and now a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
The research team gathered data by using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), robotic submarines designed by MBARI engineers, to collect water samples at depths from 200 to 600 meters (about 650 to 2,000 feet).
They also searched for plastic in animals with important roles in the marine food web: pelagic red crabs; and tadpole-like creatures called giant larvaceans, which surround themselves with clouds of mucus that capture food — and, as the researchers discovered, plastic.
A five-foot metal cylinder that features an array of cameras and lights, the BOSS is designed to be lowered from a ship to the seafloor and land upright on rocky terrain. There, it will help scientists survey fish populations using eight high-definition video cameras.
“The scientists I’m working with are looking at areas that previously were heavily fished out,” explains MBARI staff engineer Chad Kecy, who led the effort to design and build the BOSS. Chad and his colleagues are trying to get a better understanding of how fish populations are recovering in these areas, what species are present, how big they are and where they swim.
Chad likes the challenge of solving problems on a tight timeline. The BOSS had to be built and tested in a matter of months, because the scientists who planned to deploy it already had research trips scheduled on boats that could not wait.
“Now the scientists are busy analyzing all this video they were able to capture with the tool that we developed,” Chad says.
Mary Gleason, science director for The Nature Conservancy’s California Oceans Program and who helped develop the BOSS, says it can fill important gaps in existing data, based on its inaugural voyage: “We showed that we could get 400 video surveys done across 300 miles of coastline during one three-week cruise. So that’s pretty efficient in terms of data quantity.”
Since 2014, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has periodically honored leaders whose activities and achievements embody the qualities of thought and action that my father, David Packard, held dear. These individuals have effectively worked to make the future of our planet surer and more sustainable.
This year, we recognized visionary Microsoft co-founder and philanthropic innovator Bill Gates. Bill has done so much to improve the human condition—by harnessing technology to advance social good, and by launching bold philanthropic initiatives to make lives better around the world and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.
We paid tribute to the scope and the focus of Bill’s thinking and his commitment to using science and technology to improve the future for the people on our planet. It’s a conviction he shares with my father. Because of the extraordinary success of Microsoft, the Gates Foundation has had the resources to tackle some of the largest problems confronting the world, and Bill and Melinda’s vision and strategic approach are yielding extraordinary results.
The week of September 10, people from around the world are gathering in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. Convened by the State of California, the Summit brings together leaders—representing nations, states, cities, companies, investors and citizens—to celebrate climate action, and step up their ambitions to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement. Monterey Bay Aquarium works on multiple fronts to address the ocean impacts of climate change. Here, we present several recent scientific findings on the complex ocean-climate connection.
Science powers the Aquarium’s mission to inspire ocean conservation. It’s the basis of our public education programs, our work to protect vulnerable marine species, and our efforts to address climate change and ocean acidification.
We advocate for policies—from the local to global levels—to reduce carbon emissions, end our reliance on fossil fuels, promote clean energy and mitigate the unavoidable impacts underway. And we believe those policies must be based on the best available scientific evidence.
This spring, a diverse team of ocean scientists headed to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, seeking to explore the vast and mysterious home of one of the world’s top ocean predators: the white shark.
Guided by the sharks and their need for a steady supply of food, the researchers sailed into the heart of what was once deemed an oceanic “desert.” They discovered that the open Pacific, particularly an expanse dubbed the White Shark Café, teems with abundant and unusual life forms—organisms that may help explain the fascinating behaviors of white sharks on the high seas.
“The Café is far from the desert it was thought to be,” says Aquarium research scientist Dr. Sal Jorgensen. “It is home to an abundance of life that satellite imaging is not detecting. In fact, for white sharks, it is more of an oasis.”
The White Shark Voyage team embarked from Honolulu for a month-long journey aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor and traveled east to waters halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.
Headed by principal scientist Dr. Barbara Block of Stanford University, the research team aboard the Falkor included marine biologists, engineers and oceanographers from Monterey Bay Aquarium, Stanford, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), University of Delaware, NOAA, Montana State University and ocean tech innovator Saildrone.
While no one knew what they’d find, everyone hoped to gather insights about what might be driving the behaviors of white sharks, and what role this offshore habitat plays in the lives of these apex ocean predators.
What can you find in a one-by-one-foot patch of ground? An entire world of information. Just ask Kim Cornfield’s fourth graders. This tiny “quadrat” marked off with sections of PVC pipe, serves as a microcosm of the local environment throughout the year. It’s a great tool for teaching young people about the land, and can even propel students toward bigger things, like devising a campus cleanup initiative—or pursuing a career in the sciences.
Kim, who’s been teaching at the International School of Monterey for seven years, learned about quadrats at a free, week-long Teacher Professional Development Program offered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s one in a range of programs the Aquarium created to serve teachers from the Monterey Bay region—and beyond. More than 140 instructors participate each year—almost 2,700 since the program’s inception.
For educators, inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards can be invigorating and inspirational. It’s also a lot of hard work. Many teachers say the Aquarium has helped them re-engage and reconnect with students in ways they hadn’t imagined. They return to their classrooms with a new sense of energy and purpose.
As we celebrate World Oceans Day, it’s too easy to forget about the deep sea. It’s the largest habitat on the planet, and is increasingly threatened by human activities. Monterey Bay Aquarium scientists, and our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, are working to understand and protect the deep ocean. It’s a big job—and we’ll need your help.
To bring the message about the deep ocean to a wider public, Executive Director Julie Packard and MBARI President and CEO Chris Scholin shared their thoughts about safeguarding the deep sea in an op-ed column published in today’s New York Times.
“The oceans are the largest home for life on our planet and the blue heart of Earth’s climate system,” they write. “We must use them wisely. Otherwise, we risk using them up.”
For nearly 20 years, researchers from Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University have fitted electronic tracking tags on adult white sharks each fall and winter along the California coast around San Francisco Bay. Each year, the tags documented a consistent migration by the sharks to a region more than 1,200 miles offshore—halfway to Hawaii—that’s been considered an oceanic desert. They dubbed it the White Shark Café, guessing that opportunities to feed and to mate might be the draw.
Now a team of scientists will spend a month at the Café in a month-long expedition to learn why the sharks make an epic annual migration to such a distant and seemingly uninviting location. The multi-disciplinary team is bringing an impressive complement of sophisticated oceanographic equipment, from undersea robots and submersibles to windsurfing drones that will search signs of sharks and their possible prey.
By documenting the biology, chemistry and physical conditions in the region—a swath of the Pacific Ocean the size of Colorado—the researchers hope to understand what makes the Café an annual offshore hot spot for one of the ocean’s most charismatic predators. Continue reading Voyage to the White Shark Café
Stretching more than two vertical miles from the seafloor to the ocean’s surface, the water column is Earth’s biggest habitat by volume. For researchers trying to untangle its complex, multi-tentacled food web—the way energy flows from one ocean denizen to the next—it’s a vast and challenging realm in which to accomplish this task.
Recent work by scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) has revealed whole new layers of predator-prey interactions in the water column, particularly in the often overlooked roles played by jellies and other soft-bodied animals—many of which, researchers discovered, feed on their own kind.
This research is promising, says Anela Choy, the biological oceanographer who led the study, but much more remains to be discovered about deep-sea food webs.
“I wish I knew just how much there was that we didn’t know,” she says. “That’s what keeps us all going.”
New appreciation for jellies
Many feeding interactions in the deep sea are difficult to observe because they take place in total darkness, thousands of feet below the surface, in cold, crushing conditions that test even the capacities of MBARI’s advanced robots. Before the advent of robotic exploration technology, much of what scientists gleaned about food webs was gathered from animals hauled to the surface in nets—or discovered in a predator’s guts.
One problem with that approach, Anela says, is that squishy animals like jellyfish and other gelata, while among the most prevalent life forms in this ecosystem, almost never make it to the surface intact.
“They’re really hard to capture—that’s the traditional way of studying diet, is to capture those animals and look in their stomachs,” she says. “With a net, they often immediately break apart. “If they are the predator of interest, we cannot ascertain their gut contents this way because they are very damaged.”
Obstacles to overcome
There are other obstacles to understanding food webs. The traditional way of studying diet is to capture an animal and look into its stomach to see what prey have been eaten. Anela notes that gelata digest very quickly and thus are often missed with diet work.
The high-definition cameras on MBARI’s diving robots have recorded thousands of deep-sea animal observations since 1989. All of the video has been rigorously archived to reflect its subject, location, time, depth and even water temperature and other physical parameters. From this footage, Anela and her colleagues gleaned a wealth of information: 743 documented instances of undersea creatures eating, being eaten, or having just fed.
(Anela singled out two video technicians at MBARI, Susan von Thun and Kyra Schlining, who “watched every single hour of videotape from every midwater dive” to build an unprecedented underwater feeding dataset.)
Hundreds of feeding observations
From the video, the team tallied 242 unique kinds of predator-prey relationships. Many involved jellyfish and other soft-bodied animals, which don’t seem to particularly mind having a robot watch them eat, and which are often transparent, meaning the researchers could easily peer inside their bodies to view their most recent meal.
In their published study, they documented the complexity of predator-prey relationships they uncovered from this treasure trove of data.
A key illustration from the study draws lines showing predator-prey interactions between 20 different functional groups seen feeding on each other in the footage, from fish to crustaceans to jellies to cephalopods like squid. Fittingly, the resulting tangle of colorful who-eats-whom lines resembles a jellyfish.
“Jellyfish get kind of a bad rap,” Anela says, noting that some biologists cast them as nuisances—trophic dead ends that don’t feed back into the food web.
“This shows something totally different,” she says.” It shows they’re central parts of deep sea ecosystems, with really diverse diets and serving as both predators and prey.”
One species of jellyfish was observed eating 22 different kinds of prey.
(In the figure, many of predator-prey nodes loop back on themselves. “That,” says Anela, “is cannibalism—species within those broad animal groups feeding on one another.”)
There’s more to come
“Our method gives you a totally different view of the interactions going on in the food web,” Steve Haddock says.
It’s a bit like going from a map with only train tracks to one that includes highways, he says: “You feel like things are connected in only a certain way, but suddenly you see these other connections. This study really complements and expands our view of what’s going on in the ocean.”
Still, Steve says there’s much left to learn.
“Even though this method has revealed a large diversity of interactions, there’s still a whole other universe of interactions we haven’t discovered,” he says.
The next layer of discovery may not come from video observations. Steve sees great promise in techniques like analyzing predators’ gut DNA for hints about their recent meals. Another avenue that is already widely utilized is compound-specific stable isotope analysis, which looks for chemical signatures that might accumulate in a creature’s tissue from eating certain prey.
“There will continue to be a lot more revelations about food web connections,” Steve says.
Anela agrees: “You hear that the deep sea is like outer space—it’s so poorly known and so poorly explored, every time we go down there we learn new things. All of that is true. But really, understanding that food webs tie everything in the ocean together is the reason I study them.”
Our ever-growing understanding of those connections, she says, will be critical to stewarding the ocean in the future.
In the early days of ocean acidification research, experiments were simple, says benthic ecologist Jim Barry. Some involved plopping fish into containers of high-carbon seawater. This sort of lab test allowed researchers to observe animals’ physiological responses to our ocean’s changing chemistry.
These days, many studies attempt to address the more difficult question of how acidification and ocean warming might affect interconnected marine species. “What you can’t learn from tests of fish in a jar,” Barry says, “is how climate change affects the way energy moves through a food web.”
That line of inquiry may start in the pages of scientific journals, but it leads somewhere more intimate: our dinner plates.