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Scripps Oceanography’s Point Loma port continues tradition of being on the cutting edge of seagoing research

The Nimitz Marine Facility (center left) is seen on the San Diego Bay side of Point Loma.
(Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Quick access to deep water and a unique underwater topography make the Nimitz Marine Facility home to many key scientific expeditions by Scripps and a collaborative Navy.

For decades, UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla has been involved in dozens of momentous research expeditions in the field of oceanography. The knowledge gained from those journeys from the institution’s research fleet base in Point Loma has led to military victories and medical breakthroughs and has taken mankind to realms once unfathomable.

Those successes are owed to an amalgam of factors unique to the area.

Bruce Appelgate, associate director of Scripps Oceanography, says the Point Loma area offers several advantages to researchers.

“It’s a combination of many things,” Appelgate said. “The infrastructure that the city [of San Diego] maintains here, the proximity to the Navy — a huge partner for us — and the location of the marine facility so close to the deep Pacific Ocean. This is one of the finest places for a research marine facility in the United States. It rivals anywhere else in the world.”

Appelgate said the climate in San Diego allows for year-round maintenance of research vessels. He also credits the deepwater harbor in San Diego Bay, where Scripps Oceanography docks its four ships — the Bob and Betty Beyster, Robert Gordon Sproul, Roger Revelle and Sally Ride.

The Scripps Institution stages year-round expeditions out of the 6-acre Nimitz Marine Facility in Point Loma, which was formally given to the University of California by the Navy in 1967.

The Nimitz facility “has been vital to the success of Scripps as a seagoing institution,” Appelgate said. “Without it we would be much less effective and we would not have the place in the research world that we have. It’s the ‘magic sauce’ that lets us go all over the planet in a way that nobody else can.

“For our scientists, it’s a really important location because we have quick and easy access to the open ocean. If you get on a ship at the facility and leave port, within an hour you can be in deep water to test your instruments.”

The Roger Revelle currently is on a year-long voyage that is expected to navigate toward Chile, Tahiti, South Africa and India before returning to San Diego.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessel Roger Revelle cruises past an iceberg in the Antarctic.
The Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessel Roger Revelle, based at Point Loma’s Nimitz Marine Facility, cruises past an iceberg in the Antarctic.
(Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Kevin Hardy, a mechanical engineer who worked for Scripps Oceanography for nearly 40 years and participated in more than 150 research expeditions, says the physical environment of the seafloor just off the coast gives the area another advantage for research.

“The area off our coast was referred to as the ‘borderlands’ ... a type of topography never seen before off any coast,” Hardy said. “It’s a really unique and complex environment, so we have the opportunity to do acoustic studies and submarine operations on these really complicated seafloor terrains. It’s been a really important test tank. If you can make it work off San Diego, you can make it work anywhere.”

Research history

The more notable expeditions for which Point Loma was home port include the first manned dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific (the world’s deepest oceanic trench) in 1960. Scientists leading the expedition chose Point Loma as its starting point for its proximity to the deep ocean.

“At that time, the word ‘unfathomable’ really applied to large parts of the ocean,” Hardy said. “One of the reasons the project came here was that deep water. ... Point Loma was like the Khyber Pass. It was also the guys at Point Loma that changed the way those things were done.”

Studies composed from deep-sea dives launched from Point Loma also helped model hyperbaric medicine, in which patients are placed in a pressure chamber, Hardy said.

The research vessel Sally Ride arrives at the Nimitz Marine Facility in Point Loma.
(Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Intertwined with the history of oceanography in Point Loma is the Navy, a notable collaborator in dozens of research projects over the years.

“There’s a collaboration between science, industry and government, certainly military,” Hardy said. “A lot of our funding came from the Office of Naval Research.”

The Navy and the Scripps Institution began closely collaborating on oceanographic research around the breakout of World War II. The University of California Division of War Research was created at Scripps Oceanography to help the Navy in war-related research, focused particularly on acoustic detection of submarines underwater.

“We’ve had a long and terrific partnership with the Navy conducting oceanographic exploration research,” Appelgate said. “The Navy’s always recognized the value of that.”

Studies composed to help the war effort led to the development of famed Scripps Oceanography researcher Walter Munk’s model for predicting surf conditions, helping in the amphibious invasion on D-Day. Other significant studies helped advance sonar technology and give the Allies an advantage in submarine warfare.

In the decades after the war, the Navy has remained a significant participant in local research, aiding in developments that launched industries and advanced medicine.

“The Naval Electronics Laboratory came up with some of the first remotely operated vehicles here in Point Loma,” Hardy said. “Companies started to spring up when they realized the applications for mine and dam inspections.”

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography research fleet is docked at the Nimitz Marine Facility in Point Loma.
The Scripps Institution of Oceanography research fleet is docked at its home port at the Nimitz Marine Facility in Point Loma.
(Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

New technology

To continue the legacy, Appelgate said, funding has been secured for the Scripps Institution to build the first zero-emission research vessel in the United States. It is set to replace the Robert Gordon Sproul, which has been in use since 1981.

“The whole maritime community is moving toward a zero-carbon model,” Appelgate said. “Folks look toward innovators and people who are willing to be at the cutting edge using newly developed technology.”

A rendering depicts a hydrogen-hybrid research vessel that the Scripps Institution of Oceanography will build.
(Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

California Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who helped secure funding for the vessel’s construction, said the “Scripps Institution of Oceanography and California continue to set the global standard for developing innovative solutions to address our most pressing environmental challenges. This one-of-a-kind hydrogen-hybrid research vessel will play a critical role in supporting policy decisions to protect our state’s precious coastal environment from climate change impacts while demonstrating hydrogen’s critical role in California’s carbon-free future.”

Beyond its importance in the research world, Appelgate said the vessel also will help at the local level.

“When we’re in port, we’re very careful to not pollute,” he said. “It’s important for the Point Loma community because we’re right next door to La Playa. And so many port communities are affected by emissions. ... All the emissions that come out of our ships actually impact the whole San Diego Bay area. So this is a way for us to do our part and keep the air clean for all of San Diego.” ◆