One thing that social media has revealed about us, perhaps unexpectedly, is that we retain a huge interest in wildlife, particularly in its strangest manifestations. Far stranger and more unsettling animals turn up on my daily feeds than I ever saw on television growing up, and most of them come from the deep sea. Lately I have seen a video of a barrel-eyed fish with a transparent forehead. Its expression is permanently morose, and the inside of its head looks like a model of the universe. Then there’s the carnivorous harp sponge that resembles a piece of minimalist sculpture; the vampire squid that bioluminesces in the dark and folds itself inside-out like a broken umbrella; the comb jellyfish that splits light like a prism. Many of these surreal creatures live in deep, dark waters surprisingly close to our cities, and many of the short videos come from the same place: the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) halfway up the Californian coast.
MBARI is headquartered on the beach at Moss Landing, a short drive north from Monterey itself, which is a small city known for its aquarium (the first place in the world to put a live vampire squid on display, in 2014), its fisherman’s wharf, its otters and kelp forests, and as the home of John Steinbeck, who set three of his novels here. I spent a day driving the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles, along the winding, rainswept and foggy cliffs of Big Sur, and up to Monterey and Moss Landing. Later I continued on to Palo Alto, which is a city that has come to symbolise the technological gold rush of the 21st-century. In downtown Palo Alto, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel might meet for a coffee in Café Venetia and discuss their plans for utopia, the cinema has been converted into a co-working space called Hanahaus, and in place of a general store is a General Catalyst. A short walk away on leafy Addison Avenue is the birthplace of Silicon Valley: a one-car garage where, in 1939, Hewlett-Packard was founded by William Hewlett and David Packard and the path to the modern computer age was laid. In 1987, Packard, by then a very wealthy man, founded MBARI a little way down the coast with the intention of exploring the depths of the ocean and understanding how he might restore its health. So, in the late Eighties, he offered the world a preview of big tech’s utopian ambitions.
Moss Landing is located just off the Pacific Coast Highway, over an otter crossing and around a shimmering bay. MBARI can be found in a complex of buildings and workshops, along the road from Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery, where they sell the San Franciscan fish stew cioppino literally by the bucket and sweet artichoke muffins for dessert. Today is the Institute’s annual open day, so upstairs there are lectures by the staff, outside there are video presentations and interactive displays and a woman dressed as a penguin, and on the pier there are boats and futuristic submersible robots to admire. MBARI has an operating budget of around $40 million a year, mostly from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and scientists there are told “failure is an option,” which is a typically Silicon Valley approach to progress. The sea contains mupltiple ways to fail. It is an incredibly hostile environment — throughout the course of the day it becomes apparent to me that the sea is angry at us and hates us. A couple kilometres below the surface, you encounter more navigational difficulties than you would even in space: the pressure is intense, the darkness absolute and visibility terrible, it’s icy cold, the saltwater is corrosive, and there’s no wifi or GPS to navigate with. MBARI’s solution to these problems is, essentially, a family of robots; they have assembled a wide variety of solar-powered Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs), battery-powered Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs), and two large ships from which to launch them.
The star of the fleet, ROV Doc Ricketts — named after esteemed Monterey marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who collaborated with his friend John Steinbeck on the book The Log from the Sea of Cortez — is perhaps the most sophisticated ROV in the world, and is controlled around the clock by a rotating team of pilots and researchers. It has robotic hands that can perform all kinds of tasks, including using a plastic kitchen spatula to lift an octopus off the sandy floor; eyes in the form of high-powered lights and video cameras, and red lasers for measuring; ears in the form of sonar; mouths in the form of submarine orifices that can suck up living creatures like a vacuum cleaner; and stomachs in the form of glass containers that can trap these creatures and bring them to the surface for further study and, sometimes, a new life in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Doc Ricketts can dive to 4,000 metres and is connected to its mother ship, the Western Flyer, on the surface by a long umbilical cord of power and data. It’s a state-of-the-art machine but also resembles an unwieldy chest of drawers as it propels itself through the darkness.
At MBARI the underlying philosophy is that the future of ocean exploration lies in co-ordinated teams of robots working together from the surfaces to the great depths. In his lecture about “Marine Robotics for Ocean Science,” the Director of Engineering Douglas Au explained that AUVs are like the MRI scan examining a body, and ROVs are like the scalpel operating on it. So, teams of autonomous robots can construct three-dimensional maps of the sea floor in topographical rainbow fades, and then hunt down important features such as underwater volcanoes in the Gulf of California. Once they launch the ROV it already knows exactly where these smoke stacks and vents are, and can head straight down there.
Not long ago the researchers at MBARI discovered a new hydrothermal system, the Alarcón Rise, off the coast of Baja California in Mexico — a lost underwater city — a rising, sulphurous Atlantis full of lifeforms we hardly understand. Icebergs might also be considered floating cities, and the team have been working with AUVs to map the submerged portions of icebergs in Antarctica. These undersides have a “halo effect” that attracts a variety of organisms, and as they move through the Southern Ocean they leave a trail of life in their wake.
While it was built on the site of an old Californian whaling station, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute is now a place to experiment, and the scientists have been creating whale falls of their own to study. If a whale beaches itself and dies nearby, they will haul its corpse back out to open waters so that it can sink down to the abyssal seafloor and become a city of its own: a rotting architecture of blubber and bones that mysterious deep-sea organisms will spend years populating, consuming, and recycling until only a skeleton remains.