April 12, 2022

MBARI and Monterey Bay Aquarium bring the deep sea to land with new exhibition

With MBARI’s help, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has brought the deep sea to land in a new exhibition, Into the Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean. Image: © Monterey Bay Aquarium

The deep sea is the largest living space on Earth. This realm of inky darkness, frigid temperatures, and crushing pressure remains shrouded in mystery. Scientists have explored just a fraction of the deep sea. MBARI research has revealed the ocean’s depths are home to an astonishing diversity of life. We now recognize the deep sea is the foundation for a healthy, functioning ocean and stable climate.

For most people, the deep sea remains a distant and inaccessible place. A new exhibition at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, MBARI’s education and conservation partner, seeks to change that. Into the Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean (En lo Profundo: Explorando Nuestro Océano Desconocido) brings the deep sea to land.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s newest exhibition immerses visitors in the largest living space on Earth: the deep sea. Image: © Monterey Bay Aquarium

Into the Deep invites Aquarium visitors to descend into the depths. Under development for more than five years, the 10,000-square-foot exhibition features 21 live exhibits representing dozens of new species for the Aquarium. The exhibition puts visitors face to face with denizens of the deep, including bloody-belly comb jellies, bubblegum corals, Japanese spider crabs, giant isopods, and even some newly discovered animals so new to science that they remain unnamed. Interactive exhibits and immersive video experiences offer visitors a deeper dive into life in the largest living space on Earth.

The exhibition also highlights MBARI’s work to understand the deep sea, from our research documenting the diversity of deep-sea life to our technology innovation for monitoring ocean health. MBARI vessels and vehicles and the expertise of our marine operations team were instrumental in bringing rarely-seen deep-sea animals to public display, many for the first time anywhere in the world.

“MBARI was thrilled to help our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium offer a glimpse into the deep sea and the inner workings of MBARI like nothing before,” said MBARI President and CEO Chris Scholin. “The ocean plays a critical role in the health of our planet. Now more than ever, we must grow the community of scientists and engineers to fully understand our amazing blue planet and preserve it for future generations. We hope Into the Deep will inspire a new generation of ocean explorers to join us in our vital work to understand a changing ocean.”

Importantly, Into the Deep highlights our connection to the deep sea and provides ways visitors can safeguard its fragile future. Though it seems distant from human influence, the deep sea faces the same threats as the rest of the ocean—fishing pressure, habitat destruction, plastic pollution, and climate change—but is less resilient to those kinds of disturbances. The new exhibition takes the Aquarium’s mission of inspiring ocean conservation to new depths, just as new threats are emerging that may alter the deep sea before we have had a chance to study it.

MBARI has a long history of collaboration with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. 

After he funded the creation of the Aquarium, David Packard recognized the need for a separate research institution focused on developing innovative technologies for exploring and understanding the ocean. He founded MBARI in 1987 to establish a new type of oceanographic institution—one where scientists and engineers worked side-by-side—because he believed the ocean was the most important frontier we have left.

Though we operate independently of one another, MBARI and the Aquarium collaborate on a continuous basis to support our shared ocean research and conservation goals. MBARI is the Aquarium’s research and technology partner, and the Aquarium is MBARI’s education and conservation partner. Together, we work to educate the public about the ocean and share the knowledge and technology innovations gained from MBARI’s work with the global science and conservation community.

“MBARI and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have a long shared history. We’re privileged to have a world-class aquarium as our partner for education and outreach,” said MBARI Senior Education and Research Specialist George Matsumoto, who leads the Aquarium-MBARI collaboration. “I hope that by seeing these animals up close, visitors will be inspired to learn more about the deep sea. The ocean still holds so many secrets, and I hope this exhibition inspires a new generation who can help us solve the mysteries of the deep.”

The Into the Deep exhibition is the ultimate expression of our close relationship and showcases each organizations’ complementary expertise.

MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) collected many of the animals on display in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s new exhibition. Image: © Monterey Bay Aquarium

MBARI research vessels and marine operations crew supported the collection of animals from the depths of Monterey Bay using underwater robots called remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs. MBARI’s engineering team made custom modifications to our vehicles to make it easier for the Aquarium to observe deep-sea animals, study them in their natural habitat, collect them, and bring them back safely to shore.

MBARI’s extensive archive of video observations of deep-sea animals, annotated with environmental data like temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels, helped guide the Aquarium’s animal care team to identify the optimal living conditions for deep-sea animals. Behind the scenes, the Aquarium has constructed an elaborate life support system to replicate the deep-sea conditions these animals need to thrive. The water treatment system is the most complicated and sophisticated the Aquarium has ever designed. While all of the animals on exhibit can survive at surface pressure, the life support systems replicate the varied conditions required by deep-sea animals that live in frigid, acidic, low-oxygen waters.

The Aquarium’s advancements in animal care have provided new opportunities for MBARI researchers to learn more about deep-sea animals.

Putting these rarely seen deep-sea animals on display, and creating a complicated life support system behind the scenes, is mutually beneficial for scientists and the public. Learning how to collect, maintain, and culture enigmatic deep-sea species presents an important opportunity to advance our understanding of marine life, the role the ocean and its inhabitants play in the cycling of carbon and maintenance of our climate, and even the potential for new biomedical discoveries. 

“Many of these animals have only ever been seen by a dozen people before, usually in the control room of one of MBARI’s research vessels. Even then, MBARI scientists only get short glimpses of live animals—we’re usually observing these from video,” said Matsumoto. “Having the opportunity to linger and watch these animals swim, feed, interact with one another, it’s priceless for scientists. Researchers around the world have messaged me that they’re planning a trip to Monterey for the chance to see these animals in person.”

Long-term observation of deep-sea animals at the Aquarium provides valuable insight into their natural history and complements MBARI’s observations of these animals in the wild. The advances in animal husbandry, especially the Aquarium’s ability to rear multiple generations of some comb jellies and siphonophores, have already been invaluable for the MBARI team. By studying the comb jellies, or ctenophores, cultured by the Aquarium, MBARI researchers were able to learn more about how these animals produce their brilliant bioluminescence—one of nature’s wonders and of value to the biomedical research community.

Newly discovered species like the “red X” comb jelly will be on exhibit at the Aquarium. The opportunity to observe these animals for an extended period will aid the efforts of MBARI researchers to describe these animals. Image: © Monterey Bay Aquarium

Into the Deep features some of the newly discovered deep-sea animals the MBARI team has encountered in Monterey Bay. The observations of the appearance, behaviors, and natural history of these animals gathered by the Aquarium team will help MBARI researchers describe these previously unknown species in the scientific literature.

The innovations in research technology at MBARI and animal care at the Aquarium will enable new opportunities for documenting life in the deep sea. Historically, trawl nets have been the tool most often used by scientists to study the deep sea. MBARI research has demonstrated that these give an incomplete picture of life in the ocean. MBARI engineers have developed new tools—including new autonomous robotic platforms and new laser imaging technologies—to advance our research and fill in the sizable gaps that remain in our understanding of deep-sea biodiversity. Now, the Aquarium’s advancements in animal husbandry can push those efforts forward even further.

The Aquarium anticipates the multi-year exhibition will change over time, as animal care techniques continue to evolve, providing opportunities for more new species on display and critical research behind the scenes.

“When I first described the bloody-belly comb jelly more than 20 years ago, I never imagined one day I’d get to see one alive in a public aquarium display,” said Matsumoto. “Into the Deep is a testament to the talent of the Aquarium’s animal care team. I’m excited to see what other fascinating deep-sea creatures will be on display in the years ahead and what more we’ll learn about these animals from Earth’s final frontier.” 

Into the Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean was made possible thanks to a generous $15 million from The Grainger Family Descendants Fund. Visit montereybayaquarium.org for more information and to purchase tickets.

Article by Raúl Nava


Meet some of the unique denizens of the deep now on exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium:

For additional information or images relating to this article, please send an email to pressroom@mbari.org.

MBARI Team

Ben Erwin

MiniROV Electrical Engineer

DJ Osborne

ROV Pilot/Technician, ROV Ventana

Drew Bewley

ROV Pilot/Technician, ROV Doc Ricketts
James Barry

James Barry

Senior Scientist & Benthic Ecologist

Raúl Nava

Science Communication and Media Relations Specialist