ROV being moved back aboard the Rachel Carson while out at sea


Innovating and Inspiring to Protect the Ocean

The Aquarium has looked to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) as our lead technology partner ever since David Packard founded MBARI in 1987. Together, we have pursued innovative research projects — and explored some of our planet's most remote places — to illuminate the connection between nearshore coastal waters 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.

Technology developed by MBARI engineers is helping us study the dramatic — and accelerating — impacts of human activity on the global ocean, including plastic pollution and climate change. And while much of the deep ocean remains unknown, this much is increasingly clear: It's a vital place on our blue planet and supports the remarkable living creatures we're only beginning to understand. It's not an alien seascape untouched by human activity, and it's increasingly vulnerable to human impacts.

Pelagic red crabs on rocks and water
Pelagic red crabs, found from the surface to the deep, are food for many ocean animals.
MBARI research team on the R/V Rachel Carson
MBARI and Aquarium staff during a research and collection trip aboard the R/V Rachel Carson.

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 have documented microplastic pollution in Monterey Bay from the surface to its depths, and traced its movement through the marine food web. The research team used remotely operated vehicles and specially-designed sampling tools to collect multiple water samples down to 1,000 meters below surface level.

Those surveys revealed that while microplastic is everywhere, concentrations peak in deeper waters, in quantities nearly four times the level found at the surface. Surprisingly, the amount of microplastic 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 found that pelagic red crabs and larvaceans had levels of plastic inside their bodies that 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.

In related work at our new Ocean Memory Lab, our science team aims to document historical levels of microplastic pollution in Monterey Bay. We're developing an open-access library of degraded ocean plastic particles to facilitate future studies of ocean plastic pollution around the world. These data can inform science-based tools and management policies to help reduce ocean plastic pollution.