They live in a harsh underwater world that is very dark, very deep and very cold.
Most people will go their whole lives without ever seeing them or coming to understand their beauty, their quirkiness and their braininess. Certainly not up close, let alone high-definition digital video.
But for the scientists of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the study of cephalopods such as squid and cuttlefish, or, really all marine life in its natural environment, is just what they do for a living.
While their sister institution the Monterey Bay Aquarium tends to steal much of the public limelight, the people of MBARI – the acronym the institution is better known as – are content in their knowledge that their research is at the cutting edge of marine biology.
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Located not in sophisticated, artsy Monterey, but in the bucolic beach town of Moss Landing, MBARI is found about halfway between Monterey and the city of Santa Cruz along the vast sweep of the Monterey Bay.
The institution employs some 220 scientists, staff and researchers and was the dream of the late computer and tech mogul David Packard of Hewlett-Packard fame, who saw a need to try to advance human understanding of the oceans.
The research facility was established in 1987, primarily funded by Packard’s namesake foundation and runs on a budget of about $40 million a year. The lion’s share of that is provided by the foundation with the balance coming from state and federal grants.
While the Monterey Bay’s wide, sandy beaches are a natural draw for tourists, it’s the Monterey Submarine Canyon – one of the deepest marine canyons on earth – that held the real draw for Packard in creating an oceanographic research laboratory.
The canyon, whose mouth sits right off of Moss Landing, descends to 11,800 feet at its deepest point and provides unheard of opportunities for oceanographic and marine biology research, according to Christopher Scholin, MBARI’s president and chief executive officer.
“What most people do not understand is that every other breath you take is courtesy of our oceans (via the oxygen ocean plant systems produce) – whether you’re in the interior of some continent or on the beach, half of what you are breathing is courtesy of our oceans,” Scholin said.
“So the oceans are incredibly important in sustaining human civilization. We here at MBARI are interested in understanding the changes that are happening to our oceans – both natural and man made,” Scholin adds.
MBARI, now in its 25th year of operations, does the bulk of its seaborne research aboard one of two vessels –the 135-foot Rachel Carson and the 117-foot twin-hulled Western Flyer. The remotely operated vehicles or ROVs that each boat bears makes them the specialized scientific platforms they are.
Steve Etchemendy, MBARI’s director of marine operations, said the ROVs pack an extensive array of sensing devices, high definition cameras and two hyper-sensitive mechanical arms.
The ROVs are manipulated by “pilots” and scientists ensconced in a warm and dry control room found aboard the vessels that hover on the ocean surface above the units. Each of the darkened control rooms is fitted out with custom command chairs, science stations, computer consoles and a wall of high resolution monitors. Using joysticks not unlike those from a video game or maybe a fighter jet cockpit, the pilots and the scientists “fly” the vehicles through the water.
“With their variable pitch propellers and ballast systems we can make some pretty delicate moves in the water,” Etchemendy said recently while showing a visitor the ROV “Doc Ricketts” in the loading bay aboard Western Flyer.
Etchemendy said he and his staff are tasked with making sure everything works when researchers and staff are out on the ocean, with the vessels and the ROVs being the tip of MBARI’s scientific spear.
MBARI is also considered a world leader in the development of autonomous underwater vehicles or AUVs. The torpedo-shaped devices are programmed at the lab and then are launched to begin water chemistry testing, seafloor mapping and photography on their own.
Key to MBARI’s research approach is being able to study marine animals “in situ” or in their natural environment which in many cases meaning being able to train a high-resolution camera at an animal at crushing depths.
Through this approach the institute has been able to show the world animals well known to science but rarely if ever seen by the public, including flapjack octopuses or the dramatic but surprisingly fragile and docile vampire squid.
During one ROV dive in May 2007, MBARI scientists came across a female octopus, Graneledone boreopacifica, attached to a ledge at a depth of 4,600 feet who was protecting a clutch of about 160 eggs.
MBARI scientists ended up visiting the mother octopus 18 times – identifying her by the scars on one of her arms – over the next 4½ years, according to Kim Fulton-Bennett, a spokesman for the institute.
What they didn’t know was that this particular species would prove to have, they believe, the longest known brooding period of any other animal in the world.
Fulton-Bennett noted that this trait represents a unique natural balancing act that gives baby octopuses time to develop within their eggs while also providing their mother with the toughness to survive for years with very little if any food.
The final time they noticed the octopus was in September 2011. When they returned a month later she was gone, and her eggs had finally hatched.
News of the animal and her amazing tenacity made a big splash recently in scientific circles when MBARI scientists published their observations and research in the online journal Public Library of Science.
About two years ago MBARI joined with its sister institution in Monterey to develop a first-of-its-kind exhibition on its cephalopod research.
When it came to developing the exhibit, dubbed “Tentacles” and which opened this spring, MBARI scientists and aquarium husbandry experts worked to create a showplace where their high-definition ROV dive videos could be shown but also a place where some of the live deep sea cephalopods themselves could be displayed for the first time.
Stephanie Bush, an MBARI post-doctoral researcher and a project team leader, said all of the animals filmed or collected for the exhibit were occasionally seen in fishing trawling nets but rarely up close. Unfortunately, she said, a cephalopod’s fate after being caught in a fishing net was not very good as it was hauled to the surface.
By using the ROVs, the animals could be safely and humanely collected for the exhibition.
Bush said the aquarium has built about a dozen specially lit and refrigerated tanks as familiar homes for the creatures. But just figuring out how and what to feed them has been a huge challenge.
First the team reviewed scientific studies that examined the gut contents of dissected animals, Bush said.
In the case of what to feed the vampire squid, MBARI researchers discovered that the blood red-colored animals use a sticky string-like filament to collect tiny particles of “marine snow” that sink down from the surface.
Since the researchers did not have a reliable supply of marine snow they were forced to improvise and came up with a gelatinous slurry made by blending chilled seawater, fish eggs, krill and bits of moon jelly and presenting it to the animal by using a kitchen baster. It proved to be successful recipe, Bush noted.
But most because most all cephalopods are short-lived when removed from their natural environment, the ongoing challenge for Bush and her colleagues is to find a way to culture them in their tanks at the aquarium.
“That’s the tricky part,” Bush said. “I’ve got some octopuses here that have laid eggs, but we don’t have any way of knowing whether they’ve been fertilized or are viable. So, we’ll just have to continue watch them and hope.”