Scripps Oceanography preserves algae treasure chest

Henry Allen Brubaker looks at phytoplankton samples gathered 100 years ago by his grandfather W.E. Allen, pictured at right.
Henry Allen Brubaker looks at phytoplankton samples gathered 100 years ago by his grandfather W.E. Allen of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Allen is pictured at right.
(Diane Bell)

Descendants of marine researcher W.E. Allen return to Scripps Pier in La Jolla, where he gathered and logged algae samples for two decades.


More than a century ago, biologist Winfred Emory Allen made daily morning trips to the end of the former wooden Scripps Pier in La Jolla to collect seawater samples.

He recorded the capture of tiny marine plant-like organisms called phytoplankton, which he counted, labeled and preserved. He did this diligently for more than 20 years beginning in 1919.

Today, those decades-old samples are preserved in the archives of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Allen’s daily collections, along with those of other researchers who recorded water temperatures and salinity levels, remain valuable resources as comparison points for studies involving rising water temperature and algae blooms.

These ocean water samples were collected from the Scripps Pier in La Jolla in 1922.
These ocean water samples were collected from Scripps Pier in La Jolla in 1922 and remain in the archives of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
(Diane Bell)

More recent water samples in the ongoing collection by various SIO researchers have been crucial components in studies of the presence of plastic particulates in the ocean and post-wildfire measurements of burned carbon deposits in the ocean, compared with pre-fire water samples.

On Dec. 15, three generations of Allen’s descendants — his grandson, two great-granddaughters and a great-great-granddaughter — visited to see his collection of samples and walk in his footsteps to the end of the newer pier, where they watched the gathering of containers of surface and seafloor water and phytoplankton — just as he used to do.

Descendants of researcher W.E. Allen re-trace his steps, l to r, Emily and Allyson Searway, Henry Brubaker, Annette Ridgway.
Three generations of descendants of late Scripps Oceanography researcher W.E. Allen retrace his steps this month. From left are Emily and Allyson Searway, Henry Brubaker and Annette Ridgway.
(Diane Bell)

Allen’s grandson, Henry Allen Brubaker, 86, hand-cranked a bucket down through a cutout in the pier to scoop up some phytoplankton.

For Allen’s relatives, it was a glimpse of their family history.

“It’s so amazing to stand where our great-grandfather stood and see what he got to do,” said Allyson Searway, Allen’s great-granddaughter. She lives in Ensenada, Mexico, and her father now stays with her family for part of each year.

For SIO, it’s a part of Allen’s legacy and research that’s still carried on today. Though there are electronic devices that can take the same measurements, researchers still hand-collect water samples at noon daily and, on Mondays and Thursdays, they scoop up and preserve phytoplankton.

These days, the sampling and data gathering are overseen by SIO researcher Melissa Carter.

During the Dec. 15 visit, an osprey perched high on a metal pole, only feet from a nesting site, near strings of lights outlining the shape of a Christmas tree — the pier’s holiday greeting to the public.

A timeline chart posted there graphs the change in mean temperature at the water’s surface from 1916 through 2020 — an overall increase of about 2.23 degrees Fahrenheit. Another chart reflects the mean temperature change on the ocean bottom — an increase of about 3.01 degrees over a century.

The samples show that temperatures are rising faster at the bottom of the ocean than at the top, Carter said, which may have serious implications for the tiny organisms that are key components of the marine life food chain.

Since the charts were posted, temperatures have been adjusted downward slightly to account for a change in the time of sample collection from early morning to about noon, Carter said, but the trends remain consistent.

Brubaker, a retired agronomist, never lived in La Jolla. However, he remembers stories told by his mother, who grew up in one of the cottages on the Scripps Oceanography campus.

Allen, born in 1873, was working on his Ph.D. in biology at UC Berkeley under zoologist/ecologist Charles Atwood Kofoid. Allen’s research involving marine plankton attracted the interest of William Ritter, director of what was then known as the Scripps Institution for Biological Research. Ritter invited him to join the oceanography staff in 1919.

Allen stayed at Scripps collecting water samples of phytoplankton for years, retiring in 1943 to teach as a professor emeritus for three more years. He was praised for his invention of a closing collection container that was nicknamed the “Allen bottle.”

Several reports bear Allen’s name: “Ten Years of Statistical Studies of Marine Phytoplankton at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography,” published in 1929; “Methods in Quantitative Research on Marine Microplankton,” released in 1930; “Seasonal Occurrence of Marine Plankton Diatoms off Southern California in 1938.”

Allen subsequently published the results of 20 years of research on marine phytoplankton.

Today, SIO’s pelagic invertebrate collection contains Allen’s work and labeled vials of ocean algae samples.

“As a result of his single-hearted devotion to the subject, the Scripps Institution has a record of the numerical abundance of phytoplankton in the local waters which is unparalleled for continuity in both space and time,” Scripps colleague Marston Sargent wrote shortly after Allen’s death in 1947.

In more recent years, 10 shore stations have been set up along the California coast from Scripps Pier north to Trinidad Bay near Eureka to collect and share ocean temperature and salinity data linked in a central database to help identify trends that can aid in studying climate change. The long-term tracking helps identify coastal ocean warming and its role in marine heat waves, according to an SIO spokeswoman.

“[Allen’s] work addressed the big issues of his generation — life in the sea, food web, ocean circulation — and contributed significantly to the identification of plankton,” said retired Scripps archivist Deborah Day.

In 2008, a Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring Alert Program was set up in which marine investigators at several pier stations from La Jolla to Humboldt County check for harmful species of algae and their release of domoic acid, a neurotoxin that can be harmful to humans and animals that eat contaminated marine life.

Allen’s work and observations were a precursor to that program.

Carter believes Allen’s series of water samples will play a key role in research that has yet to come. ◆