When the world’s largest ocean science and technology show came to San Diego last week, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego staffed a pair of modest booths in the exhibit hall.
But the imprint of the institution on the show and its future was actually much larger. The San Diego officials who lobbied to bring an edition of Oceanology International to the area credited the institution’s reputation as an international leader in marine technology as one of the clinchers responsible for bringing the event to San Diego for the first time. The show, which has drawn thousands of participants to its London location for decades, will now have a San Diego edition every other year.
Michael Jones, president of the Maritime Alliance, which led the effort to bring Oceanology International to San Diego, said the symbolism of San Diego joining a city like London so rich in maritime history is unmistakable.
“Oceanology International is the largest ocean and science show in the world so to bring that to San Diego is a coup for the region,” said Jones. “Our goal is to grow this and maybe eclipse the mothership.”
Jones said that the reputation of Scripps, the presence of the U.S. Navy, and the concentration of marine technology companies in San Diego – many of which have been nurtured by Scripps research – persuaded the show’s operators to bring the event to San Diego on a regular basis.
The centerpiece of Oceanology International is the exhibit floor filled with displays of robotic marine instruments used not just by scientists but by oil companies, militaries, shipping firms, and more. Much of the technology showcased is either used extensively for research by Scripps Institution of Oceanography and other academic centers or was based on concepts first developed at places like Scripps.
Del Mar Oceanographic, for instance, is the purveyor of the commercial version of the Wirewalker, a platform that travels vertically in the ocean powered entirely by wave energy. It can be outfitted with a range of instruments to monitor various ocean conditions. The Wirewalker began its existence in the laboratory of Scripps physical oceanographer Rob Pinkel, who now leads the company.
Exhibitor Michael Baker International, located in San Diego, showcased gliders based on the ZRay platform which was funded by the Office of Naval Research and developed by Scripps researcher Gerald D’Spain. The wing-shaped ZRays are outfitted with hydrophone arrays and other instruments for passive acoustic monitoring that has a wide range of applications.
The final day of the three-day Oceanology International North America show at the San Diego Convention Center was a nod to Scripps history in the form of a tribute to the institution’s legendary geophysicist Walter Munk. The theme of the Feb. 16 conference, titled “Catch the Next Wave,” was celebration of the past to awaken the future. The idea, said speaker Don Walsh, was for the next generation of scientists and engineers to respect the past while not being afraid to reinvent the wheel.
“Sometimes you look in the rearview mirror and you find treasure back there,” said Walsh, a retired Navy captain and present-day entrepreneur who in 1960 became famous as the pilot of the bathyscaphe Trieste, which descended 11 kilometers (seven miles) to the deepest part of the ocean for the first time in history.
Munk, whose own career tracks closely with the last 75 years of the institution’s history, was honored by representatives of academia and private industry in anticipation of his 100th birthday, which he will celebrate in October. (Symposia and other events are also planned for later this year in Munk's honor.)
In the final talk of the event, Munk related the history of acoustic tomography research – the process of determining average water temperature across vast expanses of ocean by measuring the travel time of acoustic signals over thousands of miles. He suggested that this could someday be an oceanographic equivalent to Scripps’ famous Keeling Curve record of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. As with CO2, scientists could use it to regularly track trends in ocean temperature and monitor climate change more effectively.
The fact that there is still so much more to explore in the oceans remains to Munk a constant source of wonder.
“The fact that we could have existed for a century and a half ignoring 90 percent of the kinetic energy [in the ocean] still leaves me astounded,” he said.
- Robert Monroe