MBARI and Aquarium staff aboard the Rachel Carson while out at sea

A team of Aquarium and MBARI staff and volunteers aboard the R/V Rachel Carson collecting deep sea corals for the Aquarium's 2021 exhibit.

Innovating and Inspiring to Protect the Ocean

In the 31 years since David Packard founded the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), the Aquarium has looked to MBARI as our lead technology partner. Together, we have developed innovative research — exploring some of the planet's most remote places — to illuminate the connection between the nearshore coast and offshore deep sea.

Throughout history, the dark realms far below the ocean's surface have captivated people's imaginations. In recent decades, MBARI researchers have made exciting advances in our understanding of life in the deep. Yet much of the deep sea remains obscured by mystery.

In 2021, with your help, the Aquarium will open its most comprehensive and immersive deep-sea experience to date. Together with our MBARI colleagues, we're bringing this vision to life by studying deep-sea animals and their habitats. We'll venture into the Monterey submarine canyon and use cutting-edge technology to provide a glimpse of places never before seen by human eyes.

The dramatic impacts of human activity on our global ocean, including climate change, are accelerating. And while much of the deep ocean remains unknown, this much is increasingly clear: it is not an alien seascape untouched by humanity. It is a vital place on our blue planet, vulnerable to human impacts — and supporting remarkable living creatures we're only beginning to understand.

Plastic doesn't break down; it only breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. Pollution by microplastic — bits smaller than 5 millimeters across — is a growing problem in the marine environment worldwide. In a pioneering study, Aquarium and MBARI researchers documented microplastic pollution in the Monterey Bay water column and traced its movement through marine food webs.

The research team deployed remotely operated vehicles to collect water samples from the surface down to 1,000 meters. Those surveys revealed that while microplastic is everywhere, plastic concentrations peak in deeper waters, at a level nearly four times the concentration at the surface. Surprisingly, the amount of plastic was even higher in the deepest areas of Monterey Bay than at the surface of the East Pacific subtropical gyre, also known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch."

The team also studied how two species near the base of the food web — pelagic red crabs and larvaceans — ingest plastic. Levels of plastic inside their bodies matched the levels in the surrounding water. That suggests as they eat tiny particles of food, they're also consuming microplastic and transporting it to other animals, both at the surface and in the deep.

Taken together, the findings reveal that microplastic is both ubiquitous throughout the Monterey Bay water column and pervasive in the marine food web.

At the same time, in our new Ocean Memory Laboratory, our science team aims to develop a historical baseline documenting microplastic pollution in Monterey Bay. We're developing an open-access library of degraded ocean plastic samples, for use by researchers anywhere, which will facilitate future studies of ocean plastic pollution. As government agencies begin to take action, these data can inform science-based tools and policies to reduce ocean plastic pollution.

View MBARI's 2018 Annual Report

ROV being moved back aboard the Rachel Carson while out at sea
The Aquarium and MBARI studied how microplastic moves throughout the water column of Monterey Bay.

In spring 2018, our work with MBARI afforded an epic opportunity to explore a remote seascape in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A diverse team of international researchers — including Aquarium and MBARI scientists — boarded the Schmidt Ocean Institute R/V Falkor and headed to the White Shark Café, an area of the open sea halfway between California and Hawaii.

Decades of data from tracking tags told our researchers that white sharks migrate each year from the West Coast to this vast area in the Pacific. Initial findings from the expedition, led by marine biologist Barbara Block of Stanford University, reveal the White Shark Café is an abundant oasis for white sharks — a far cry from the oceanic desert it was once thought to be.

MBARI's remotely operated vehicles helped identify more than 100 species in the Café. These organisms, such as squid, shrimp and lightfish, participate in the largest vertical migration on Earth, chasing food between the midwater and the surface. By analyzing tagging data from white sharks, our researchers discovered the sharks are moving up and down the water column in synchrony with this mass migration.

Since we made history in 2004 as the first aquarium to successfully exhibit a white shark, our research has evolved to consider the greater importance of apex predators in marine ecosystems. We are now asking new and better questions about the poorly understood ocean habitats that support a dazzling array of marine life.

Annual Review 2018 (PDF)

  • Credits
  • © Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation