Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Historical highlights


Jump ahead to year:







MBARI was founded in 1987 by engineer David Packard. Among his many accomplishments, David Packard (along with William Hewlett) started the Hewlett-Packard Company, a maker of computers and electronic equipment. After helping his daughters, Julie Packard and Nancy Burnett, develop the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1984, David Packard established MBARI as a private, not-for-profit oceanographic research center, with offices and laboratories in Pacific Grove, on the Monterey Peninsula.

In founding the institute, Packard recognized three areas of nascent technology that could dramatically advance oceanographic research: 1) remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), 2) instruments that could perform chemical analyses in the ocean, and 3) computer science and communications. All of these would become cornerstones of MBARI’s early research agenda. Packard insisted that scientists and engineers work together in close collaboration. The three-way marriage of science, engineering, and a dedicated marine operations staff remains one of MBARI’s distinguishing features.


During MBARI's first year, the institute purchased a 33.5-meter (110-foot) oil-field supply boat and converted it into an oceanographic research vessel, the R/V Point Lobos. MBARI also commissioned International Submarine Engineering (ISE) to build the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Ventana. On August 25, 1988, the R/V Point Lobos and the ROV Ventana made their first scientific dive.

Since that time, the R/V Point Lobos and ROV Ventana have been MBARI's workhorse vehicles, putting out to sea about four days a week, rain or shine. In fact, ROV Ventana has logged more underwater dive time than any other research ROV in the world, having performed over 3,600 dives as of December 2011. The ROV has also been continually upgraded by MBARI engineers and ROV pilots, enabling it to carry heavier loads, shoot high-definition video, and perform complicated scientific experiments more than a mile below the sea surface.

  In 1989, MBARI constructed a dock and marine operations facility at Moss Landing, a small fishing community 20 miles north of Monterey. During this same year, MBARI installed its first oceanographic monitoring buoy in Monterey Bay. Like its ROVs, MBARI's monitoring buoys have been continually improved over the years as engineers have added new instruments that continuously and automatically measure the physical, chemical, and biological properties of seawater. MBARI's maintenance of these buoys and instruments (which must be replaced every six months for cleaning and repair) has paid off, as scientists have used the resulting long-term data in dozens of studies, including those shedding light on climate cycles and global warming.

1989 also saw the initiation of an ongoing cooperative project with the Monterey Bay Aquarium that allows aquarium visitors to watch live deep-sea video from MBARI ROVs and to interact with MBARI scientists during their research dives using a live radio link with MBARI ships.


By 1990, MBARI's staff had grown to about 55, with employees at both the Pacific Grove and Moss Landing facilities. In 1991, with an eye toward future expansion, the institute purchased land adjacent to its marine operations facility in Moss Landing. The institute also began conceptual designs for a new, ultra-modern research vessel, the R/V Western Flyer.


In the early 1990s MBARI initiated several important geological studies of Monterey Bay. MBARI geologists and engineers installed an underwater, diamond-toothed drill on ROV Ventana to take core samples of the hard rocks that underlie Central California.


Using special chemical sensors developed at MBARI, scientists studied the geology, chemistry, and biology of "chemosynthetic" animals that live on fluids seeping out of the seafloor. During this same time MBARI biologists used ROV surveys to demonstrate the ecological importance of gelatinous organisms in marine ecosystems.


MBARI researchers also worked with researchers from other organizations on global oceanographic issues. The 1993 and 1995 IronEx expeditions in the Southern Ocean, for example, demonstrated the link between phytoplankton productivity and the supply of iron in equatorial ocean waters.


In 1993 and 1994, MBARI researchers started two long-term biological monitoring projects using ROV Ventana to study the numbers and types of animals living in the water column and on the seafloor. These involved flying the ROV along a straight line (a "transect") for a fixed period of time or a fixed distance, while taking high-resolution video images. After these dives, MBARI marine biologists watched the video of each transect, identifying and counting every animal they could see, and entering the information in a massive database. By repeating these transects several times a year for many years in a row, MBARI scientists have amassed a unique and extensive collection of video and data on deep-sea animals.


In 1995, MBARI completed a spacious new administration building (Building A) in Moss Landing. This structure was built to high engineering, environmental, and energy use standards. By the end of the year, all of MBARI's approximately 100 employees were based in the new Moss Landing facilities.


In 1996, MBARI took possession of the newly completed research vessel Western Flyer. At this time, MBARI engineers were also field testing their own, custom-built ROV, Tiburon, which was designed to explore the ocean down to a depth of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). MBARI founder David Packard lived just long enough to christen the R/V Western Flyer and to inspect the prototype of ROV Tiburon. He died in March 1996, but at his request, MBARI continued to receive generous support and funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation--support which continues to this day.

In 1996, after five years of work, MBARI researchers also announced the creation of genetic "probes" that allowed scientists to identify potentially toxic marine algae without time-consuming laboratory tests.


During 1997, MBARI's staff reached 150. Also during this year, MBARI geologists participated in the Monterey Bay Ocean Bottom International Science Experiment (MOISE), making the first-ever ROV-deployment of earthquake detection instruments for long-term data recording.


During 1998, MBARI contracted with a private firm to collect multi-beam sonar data over large areas of the deep seafloor off the coast of California, Oregon, and Hawaii. MBARI used these data to create bathymetric maps that have become an essential resource, not just for MBARI researchers, but for the broader oceanographic community.

In July 1998 the R/V Western Flyer was taken out of service for a year so that its hulls and superstructure could be strengthened and rebuilt. By this time, the ship and ROV Tiburon had proven their abilities in several deep dives. During some of these dives, scientists used ROV Tiburon to perform experiments with liquid carbon dioxide at depths of over 3,000 meters, where they watched the liquid behave in strange and totally unexpected ways.


R/V Western Flyer returned from the shipyard in September 1999, and was certified for open-ocean operation. At about the same time, MBARI engineers and ROV pilots installed a high-definition underwater video camera on ROV Ventana.

In 1999, a multi-year collaboration between MBARI and the Monterey Bay Aquarium resulted in Mysteries of the Deep, a spectacular exhibit on deep-sea life. This temporary exhibit ran until 2003. In another collaboration, MBARI researchers published an important joint paper with NOAA and NASA on the effects of El Niño on ocean productivity and its ability to absorb carbon dioxide. They also published several papers summarizing the decade of oceanographic data that MBARI had collected in Monterey Bay.

Between 1995 and 2000, MBARI embarked on a major expansion of its staff, growing from about 100 to about 200 employees. Since that time, its staff has remained at or slightly above 200 people.


In August 2000, MBARI worked with engineers and biological and physical oceanographers from over a dozen other institutions on the MOOS Upper-Water-Column Science Experiment (MUSE). This groundbreaking project used ships, aircraft, satellites, and variety of undersea robots and automated monitoring instruments to study the dynamic process of upwelling off the coast of Central California.

2000 also saw the newly reinforced Western Flyer venturing farther from home to study submarine lava flows and spreading centers off the coast of Northern California and Oregon. In 2000 the Flyer and the ROV Tiburon also made the first ROV dives on Davidson Seamount, and other dives in the Santa Barbara Channel that shed light on huge underwater landslides.

In 2000, MBARI genetic research helped solve a biological mystery regarding dying sea lions on the California Coast. In another scientific breakthrough that same year, MBARI molecular biologists discovered that some marine bacteria contain a special pigment that could allow them to obtain energy from sunlight.


During 2000 and 2001 MBARI biologists documented the effects of carbon dioxide releases on organisms in the deep sea (pumping CO2 into the deep sea has been proposed as a means of removing the gas from the Earth's atmosphere to alleviate global warming). These years also saw continuing breakthroughs in molecular biology with the first field tests of the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), a robotic molecular biology lab that can operate underwater to perform experiments and detect different types of organisms.

In spring and summer of 2001, the R/V Western Flyer made its most ambitious expedition to date, sailing to Hawaii and performing dozens of ROV dives around the Hawaiian Islands. This three-month expedition yielded new discoveries about underwater volcanic eruptions as well as spectacular video of a huge deep-sea squid.

In 2001, MBARI expanded its laboratory facilities in Moss Landing, adding more offices, laboratories, and a 10-meter-deep seawater tank for testing equipment, sensors, and underwater vehicles. The institute also acquired its third research vessel, the R/V Zephyr, from the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association. Among other duties, this vessel was used to launch MBARI's newly built autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), Dorado. Late in 2001, the Dorado AUV was used to explore underneath the Arctic ice cap as part of the Atlantic Layer Tracking Experiment (ALTEX).


In 2002, MBARI, along with the University of Washington, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, received a $7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to set up a deep-sea test observatory in Monterey Bay. This network, called the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS), consists of a 52-km (32-mile) undersea power and data cable connected to an underwater "junction box" about 900 meters below the sea surface. The goal of the project is to allow ocean scientists and engineers from around the world to test their instruments in a controlled deep-sea setting that is relatively close to shore. The observatory will also provide unique geological, chemical, and biological data for future studies.

Based on their experience with monitoring buoys and the earlier MUSE experiment, MBARI engineers began developing components for ocean observatories as part of the MOOS project. In 2002, the MOOS team deployed their first deep-water test mooring at the Shepard Meander. This experimental mooring used a surface buoy to collect solar and wind power, which was sent down through a special mooring cable to instruments 3,500 meters down on the deep seafloor. The mooring cable also transmitted data from the seafloor instruments back up to the surface buoy, which relayed the data to shore via satellite.

In 2002, MBARI engineers and operations staff teamed with seismologists at UC Berkeley to install an ultra-sensitive earthquake monitoring system (the Monterey Ocean-Bottom Broadband Seismometer) on the deep seafloor, about 30 kilometers offshore of Moss Landing. The MOBB seismometer has given scientists a new perspective on earthquakes because it is the only instrument of its type located on the seaward side of the San Andreas fault system.

In another major multi-institution effort during 2002, MBARI scientists were actively involved in the SOFEX cruise to study the effects of iron on phytoplankton blooms in the Southern Ocean. Also in 2002, MBARI hosted a unique media event, in which the British Broadcasting Company broadcast an ROV Tiburon dive live in real time to over seven million people in England, Scotland, and Wales.

MBARI geologists have often helped marine biologists make new discoveries about deep-sea organisms. For example, it was on geological dives in 2002 that MBARI researchers first found a unique community of animals inhabiting the skeleton of a gray whale, including two new species of worms that use bacteria to dissolve whale bone.


The Western Flyer and ROV Tiburon once again extended their range in 2003, performing six weeks of geological and biological studies in and around the Gulf of California. Closer to home, 2003 MBARI continued its tradition of collaborative research projects, hosting the Autonomous Ocean Sampling Network (AOSN) experiment, which combined data from cutting-edge computer models with high-tech observational tools such as satellites, airplanes, ships, drifters, buoys, autonomous underwater vehicles, and an entire fleet of undersea gliders.

In 2003, MBARI's Dorado AUV was also put into service conducting monthly surveys of Monterey Bay, work that had previously been done by human oceanographers using a dedicated research vessel. During this year, MBARI scientists combined their Monterey Bay monitoring data with data from across the Pacific Ocean to identify long-term cycles in ocean weather, primary productivity, and commercial fisheries. 2003 and 2004 also saw MBARI marine biologists publish papers on several unusual new species of jellies.


In 2003 and 2004, after four years of development, MBARI engineers completed the first successful field experiments using a revolutionary new instrument, an underwater laser Raman spectrometer, which can determine the chemical composition and molecular structure of solids, liquids, or gases in the deep sea. Some of the first applications of this device were to help marine chemists understand how carbon dioxide and methane combine with water to form hydrates in the high pressure, near-freezing water of the deep sea. In related studies, MBARI marine chemists, biologists, and engineers combined resources in 2004 to begin studying the effects of ocean acidification on deep-sea animals.

MBARI's ocean observatory efforts continued in 2004, when the MOOS test mooring was redesigned and replaced after its experimental mooring cable was broken by a vicious winter storm. Later in 2004, the first instruments were placed on the seafloor and began recording scientific data at the Shepard Meander, 3,500 meters below the sea surface.

That same year, MBARI also worked with the University of California, Santa Cruz, to install a new oceanographic monitoring buoy (the CIMT buoy, also known as M0) inside Monterey Bay, within a few miles of shore. Just inland from the coast, MBARI engineers designed and installed the first of a network of monitoring buoys in Elkhorn Slough, as part of the Land-Ocean Biological Observatory (LOBO) project.

2004 also saw MBARI engineers continuing to develop cutting-edge tools for deep-sea research, including a unique fish trap that brought deep-sea fish back to the surface alive (and under pressure) and an autonomous underwater vehicle that can map surface and subsurface features of the seafloor.


In 2005 ground-breaking studies published by MBARI marine biologists showed the possible global importance of tiny gelatinous animals called larvaceans, and described a new species of gelatinous animals called siphonophores, which attract prey with wiggling, glowing lures. MBARI geologists published studies of seafloor chemosynthetic biological communities (formerly known as cold seeps), underwater landslides, and the movement of sediment in submarine canyons.

Farther from home, during 2005, molecular biologists from MBARI participated in several expeditions to deep-sea hydrothermal vents, where they studied the genetic diversity of vent animals and discovered several new species.

During 2005 MBARI engineers began taking an increasing role in the development of regional and national ocean observatories, becoming heavily involved in the "back end" hardware, software, and data structures needed for processing the vast streams of data from such observatories.


In 2006 MBARI engineers completed all the components of the surface-to-seafloor observatory at the Shepard Meander. MBARI also provided logistical support for a second, multi-institutional AOSN field project that was even larger than the 2003 experiment. This same year, MBARI scientists and engineers also rolled out a second-generation model of the Environmental Sample Processor. They also received funding to build four copies of this instrument for other researchers to use, to expand the instrument's capabilities, and to collaborate in developing similar devices that could be used in the search for life on other planets.

MBARI also collaborated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 2006 to explore two spectacular undersea features--the ancient coral gardens of Davidson Seamount and the wreck of the airship USS Macon, which sank off the coast of Big Sur in 1934. Based on the results from these dives, Davidson Seamount was added the Sanctuary in 2009 and the USS Macon was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 2010.


By 2007, MBARI’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Ventana had completed over 3,000 dives. MBARI researchers used the long-term video records from ROV Ventana to show that Humboldt squid, a significant midwater predator, had moved northward and taken residence in Monterey Bay. MBARI researchers and colleagues also published a paper showing that Antarctic icebergs have a major impact on the ecology and chemistry of the ocean around them.

On the technology side, 2007 saw the first field trials of several new research tools—a benthic rover, a deep-sea version of the Environmental Sample Processor, and an automated water sampling system for MBARI’s autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). In March 2007, a 52-kilometer-long seafloor cable was laid from Moss Landing to Smooth Ridge—the future site of the MARS ocean observatory—900 meters below the ocean surface.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium installed a permanent exhibit on MBARI research in 2007. Using computer animation and spectacular video, the “Mission to the Deep” exhibit gives visitors the thrill of photographing deep-sea animals, mapping underwater mountains, and monitoring the rich sea life around a sunken whale carcass.


In January 2008 MBARI partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University to form the Center for Ocean Solutions. The goal of this organization is to bring together international experts in marine science and policy to find innovative ways to protect and restore the world’s oceans.

Continuing their work in the forefront of ocean-acidification research, MBARI chemists showed that as the oceans become more acidic, sounds will travel farther underwater. They also pointed out the hazards of poorly documented chemical-weapons dump sites on the deep seafloor off California.

In the fall of 2008, MBARI took possession of a new ROV, the Doc Ricketts, which was installed on the research vessel Western Flyer to replace ROV Tiburon.

In late 2008, MBARI ROV pilots installed the main science node of the MARS ocean observatory. In December, they successfully hooked up the first MARS experiment – the Free-Ocean Carbon Dioxide Enrichment (FOCE) Experiment, designed to test the effects of ocean acidification on seafloor animals.


2009 saw changes in MBARI’s management, as president and CEO Marcia McNutt left MBARI to become director of the U.S. Geological Survey. MBARI researcher Chris Scholin was selected as MBARI’s new president and CEO.

MBARI’s new ROV, the Doc Ricketts, made its first science dives in 2009, and was used on a two-month research expedition offshore of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. As part of this expedition, MBARI’s underwater mapping AUV provided stunningly detailed seafloor images that were used for navigation during ROV dives.

Closer to home, the MARS observatory hosted a number of experiments during 2009, with as many as seven out of its eight science ports being used simultaneously. Live data and video from experiments on MARS were streamed on the MBARI web site. MBARI also began to share it’s videos on the internet via the YouTube web site. One video, showing Macropinna microstoma, a fish with a transparent head, has been viewed more than 3.5 million times.


In May 2010, MBARI researchers responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by sending a water-monitoring AUV to the Gulf of Mexico. Using a variety of sensors, the AUV that mapped part of a subsurface oil plume 1,000 meters below the surface in the gulf. In another joint effort with government agencies, MBARI researchers used the mapping AUV to create detailed images of a sunken oil tanker that was torpedoed off the Central California coast during World War II.

In Fall 2010, researchers from a number of institutions collaborated in the first CANON experiment in Monterey Bay, using dozens of moored, drifting, and mobile instruments to track algal blooms and upwelling in the outer bay. This experiment included the use of an entirely new type of autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that was developed at MBARI. This long-range AUV is smaller and lighter than many existing AUVs, but can travel rapidly for hundreds of kilometers, hover in the water for weeks at a time, and carry a wide variety of instruments.

Marine biologist Bruce Robison published a groundbreaking paper in 2010 that described the types of animals that live at different depths from 1,000 to 3,500 meters deep in Monterey Canyon. Jelly expert Steve Haddock set up the Jellywatch web site to track jelly observations using input from “citizen scientists” around the globe. MBARI deep-sea videos continued to amaze the public, and were viewed by tens of thousands of people on MBARI’s YouTube channel.


During 2010 and 2011, the deep Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) was used to sample microbes in seafloor methane seeps off Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. A free-floating version of the ESP documented the evolution of algal blooms over time as it drifted with the algae in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Spyglass Biosecurity began to produce an market the first commercial versions of the ESP.

Complementing its extensive web site and YouTube Channel, MBARI began communicating with the public through the social media services Facebook and Twitter. By the end of the year, MBARI had over 1,600 followers on Facebook. In another outreach effort, MBARI researchers collaborated with a local dance troop to produce the unique ocean conservation dance program “Ocean,” which was eventually featured in a TedX talk and shown at the Smithsonian Institution, among other places.

Using complex underwater experiments and real-time control, MBARI researchers used the deep-water FOCE experiment to study the effects of decreasing oxygen and increasing carbon dioxide concentrations on deep-sea animals. They also contributed instruments and expertise to monitoring ocean acidification as part of joint experiments on coral reefs, in tide pools, and in kelp beds. In other collaborative efforts, MBARI researchers helped design new ocean observing systems with researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Hawaii, New Zealand, China, and the European Union.

MBARI researchers collaborated with staff from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to study the biological effects of a shipping container than fell off a ship in a storm and sank to the seafloor about 20 kilometers outside of Monterey Bay. MBARI biologists also made several new discoveries regarding the reproduction in deep-sea octopuses and squids and discovered an entirely new group of microscopic algae (the rappemonads). Researcher Ken Smith edited an entire issue of Deep-Sea Research describing the oceanographic and biological effects of free-floating Antarctic icebergs.

During summer and fall of 2011, MBARI’s seafloor mapping AUV documented a huge lava flow from a three-month-old volcanic eruption off the Oregon coast, charted mysterious three-kilometer-wide scour marks on the seafloor off Northern California and provided a new perspective on one of the largest offshore faults in Central California.

In December 2011, MBARI retired its workhorse research vessel, Point Lobos, after 23 years of service, and purchased a new coastal and regional vessel, the R/V Rachel Carson. The Rachel Carson was eventually outfitted to serve as a host vessel for ROV Ventana and for MBARI’s Dorado-class AUVs.

Last updated: Aug. 07, 2012