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S.D. Research Centers Probe Sea for Key to Life's Riddles

San Diego and the Ocean: A Special Bond: Whether they use the ocean for work, play or study, San Diegans find that it is a special part of their lives. A four-part series examines what the ocean means to the area--how it affects the climate, industry and scientific work. Today's stories look at how local research institutions use the ocean. There is a related story on Page 10.

August 20, 1986|GORDON SMITH

SAN DIEGO — A man on a half-day fishing excursion off Windansea Beach feels a tug at the end of his line and minutes later hauls up a glistening 15-pound white sea bass.

A California gray whale surfaces off Point Loma, sending spray high into the air as it exhales through its blowhole. The animal swims easily at the surface for a few minutes, then takes a final gigantic breath and dives into the murky depths below.

A nuclear-powered submarine slips unseen out of San Diego Harbor bound for the Arctic. On board is a local scientist who will be closely monitoring the sub's ability to communicate with satellites through the Arctic ice.

The owner of an opulent beachfront house in Del Mar stares with dismay at the pebble-strewn beach in front of her home, wondering where the sand went and if it will return.

Such things are part of everyday life along the coast of San Diego County. But they have something else in common, too--all are linked to ongoing research at one of San Diego's four major oceanographic research institutions.

The institutions--Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Naval Ocean Systems Center, the Southwest Fisheries Center and Hubbs Marine Research Institute--are all well-known in scientific circles. But none could be counted among San Diego's landmarks.

No tourists mention them in the same breath as Balboa Park or the San Diego Zoo. No politicians talk of them as being crucial to the city's future, the way they do about the burgeoning hotel and electronics industries.

Yet the research at these institutions provides nearly 4,500 jobs and pumps millions of dollars into San Diego's economy. It affects local fishermen and TV viewers, government agencies and surfers.

The experiments involve everything from harbor sand to Arctic ice, marine mammals to ocean currents. Overall, San Diego is one of the top two centers for ocean research in the nation, the other being Woods Hole, Mass.

Why this is so has to do partly with the area's mild climate and its easy access to a variety of ocean environments. Yet there is also truth to the claim by William Nierenberg, who retired recently after 11 years as director of Scripps, that San Diego is a good place for oceanographic research "because Scripps is here."

The nation's oldest and largest oceanographic research center, Scripps began in the summer of 1903 as a one-man biological laboratory that operated out of the Hotel del Coronado's boathouse. With the help of local businessmen, the lab moved to La Jolla Cove, and in 1912 it became affiliated with the University of California and was renamed the Scripps Institution for Biological Research. Since then it has grown into a sprawling 200-acre facility with six oceangoing research ships, 1,200 employees and a current annual budget of about $60 million, half of it from the federal government and the rest from a variety of state and city funds and private donations.

Scripps has the highest public profile among the oceanographic research institutions here, due primarily to its prominent La Jolla location, its aquarium and public education program, and the accomplishments of its staff. Seventeen of its 82 faculty members belong to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and the first oceanographer in space--Paul Scully-Power aboard the space shuttle Challenger in October, 1984--had a part-time teaching position at the institution.

As Nierenberg pointed out, Scripps over the years has served as a kind of magnet for oceanographers and the small, specialized manufacturing companies that cater to them. "You've got to give a great deal of credit to the early citizens (who supported Scripps) for recognizing that the oceans were important," he noted.

"At the time, San Diego was absolutely nothing. Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York were all important places. . . . But it was a group of citizens here who, before anybody else in the whole country, recognized that the oceans should be dealt with scientifically."

Nierenberg said San Diego's proximity to underwater canyons, which have played a role in countless experiments, also make it a fairly good location for oceanographic research. But he complained about the lack of direct air connections from San Diego to cities such as Boston and Washington and went on to say, "If we had the money and the inclination we could transplant Scripps to any one of a dozen other places and we would do as well."

Other scientists feel more strongly about San Diego, however. Douglas Inman, director of Scripps's Center for Coastal Studies, said this area "is an ideal place to study the kinds of processes we're interested in," which include beach erosion and harbor sedimentation.

"We have real waves and real currents here," explained Inman, "but on a scale where you can measure and understand them. The waves in Northern California are so damn big that you can hardly study them. Down here we get storms from the south and north, but in sizes we can handle.

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