Scripps Oceanography’s Port Point Loma continues the tradition of being at the forefront of research at sea

For decades, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in La Jolla has been involved in dozens of landmark oceanographic research expeditions. The knowledge gained from these voyages from the institution’s research fleet base at Point Loma has led to military victories and medical breakthroughs and has taken humanity into areas once unfathomable.

These successes are due to a combination of factors specific to the region.

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

“It’s a combination of a lot of 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 maritime facility so close to the depths of the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the best locations for a marine research facility in the United States. It rivals any other place in the world.

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

The Scripps Institution runs expeditions year-round from the 6-acre Nimitz Marine Facility at Point Loma, which was officially donated to the University of California by the Navy in 1967.

The Nimitz facility “has been critical to Scripps’ success as a maritime institution,” Appelgate said. “Without that, we would be much less efficient and we wouldn’t have the place we have in the world of research. It’s the “magic sauce” that allows us to travel the planet in ways no one else can.

“For our scientists, it’s a really important place because we have quick and easy access to the open ocean. If you board a vessel at the facility and leave port, in less than an hour you can be in deep water testing your instruments.

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

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessel Roger Revelle, based at the Nimitz Marine Facility in Point Loma, passes an iceberg in Antarctica.

(Scripps Institute of Oceanography)

Kevin Hardy, a mechanical engineer who has worked for Scripps Oceanography for nearly 40 years and has been on more than 150 research expeditions, says the physical seabed environment just off the coast gives the area a different benefit for research.

“The area off our coasts was called the ‘border areas’…a type of topography never before seen off any coast,” Hardy said. “It’s a really unique and complex environment, so we have the opportunity to do acoustic studies and underwater operations on this really complicated seabed. It was a very important test tank. If you can make it work off San Diego, you can make it work anywhere.

Search history

The most notable expeditions for which Point Loma was the home base include the first manned dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific (the world’s deepest ocean trench) in 1960. The scientists at the helm of expedition chose Point Loma as their 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 this deep water. … Point Loma was like the Khyber Pass. It was also the Point Loma guys who changed the way these things were done.

Studies consisting of 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 at Point Loma.

The research vessel Sally Ride arrives at the Nimitz Marine Facility at Point Loma.

(Scripps Institute of Oceanography)

Intertwined with the history of oceanography at Point Loma is the Navy, a notable contributor to dozens of research projects over the years.

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

The Navy and the Scripps Institution began to collaborate closely on oceanographic research around the outbreak of World War II. The University of California War Research Division was established at Scripps Oceanography to assist the Navy with war-related research, particularly focused on acoustic detection of submarines underwater.

“We’ve had a long and tremendous partnership with the Navy to conduct oceanographic exploration research,” Appelgate said. “The Navy has always recognized the value of this.”

Compound studies to aid the war effort led to the development of famed Scripps Oceanography researcher Walter Munk’s model to predict surf conditions, aiding the amphibious invasion on D-Day. Other important studies helped advance sonar technology and giving the Allies an advantage in submarine warfare.

In the decades following the war, the Navy remained an important player in local research, contributing to developments that launched industries and advanced medicine.

“The Naval Electronics Laboratory developed some of the first remotely operated vehicles here at Point Loma,” Hardy said. “Companies started popping up when they did the applications for mine and dam inspections.”

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography's research fleet is docked at the Nimitz Marine Facility in Point Loma.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s research fleet is moored in its homeport at the Nimitz Marine Facility in Point Loma.

(Scripps Institute of Oceanography)

New technology

To continue the legacy, Appelgate said, funding was secured for the Scripps Institution to build the first zero-emissions research vessel in the United States. It should replace the Robert Gordon Sproul, used since 1981.

“The entire maritime community is moving towards a zero-carbon model, Appelgate said. “People look to innovators and people who want to be on the cutting edge using newly developed technology.”

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

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

(Scripps Institute of Oceanography)

California Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who helped secure funding for the ship’s construction, said “The Scripps Institution of Oceanography and California continue to set the global standard in developing innovative solutions to meet our most pressing environmental challenges. This one-of-a-kind hydrogen hybrid research vessel will play a vital role in supporting policy decisions to protect our state’s precious coastal environment from the impacts of climate change while demonstrating the critical role of hydrogen in the future without California Carbon.

Beyond its importance in the research world, Appelgate said the vessel will also help locally.

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

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