October 31, 2016 - From the October, 2016 issue

AltaSea: Inspiring Plans to Map Our Ocean, Foster Sustainable Aquaculture, and Advance Blue Tech

AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles is a now-in-planning, potentially globally significant, 35-acre marine campus which is being envisioned to combine scientific collaboration, sustainable aquaculture jobs, and ocean-related educational resources that are all focused on ensuring a more sustainable ocean. TPR presents excerpts from presentations to the LA Coalition in September at Los Angeles’ Cleantech Incubator by AltaSea’s Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Sandra Whitehouse and Dr. Robert Ballard—the “Indiana Jones of the Ocean”—responsible for discovering the Titanic, World War II Bismark, and new ocean ecosystems.

Dr. Sandra Whitehouse

"[AltaSea will have] two initial clusters, which were approved by the board: sustainable aquaculture and blue tech, or underwater robotics." - Dr. Sandra Whitehouse

Sandra Whitehouse: I’ve been on the job for almost a year as AltaSea’s Chief Scientific Officer, so I will set the context of how Dr. Ballard and the Nautilus fit into our larger vision.

We’re all aware that the ocean is facing really dramatic changes. We’re seeing climate change from the poles, with the melting of ice, to the tropics, with coral reef bleaching. But the ocean also gives us an amazing opportunity to address the problem of climate change by harnessing, for example, renewable energy in the form of hydrokinetics or wind.

In the ocean, we’re also experiencing this problem of fishing down the food chain—no longer catching large amounts of tuna and big fish like we used to; we’re now catching and eating mackerel and smaller fish. But again, the ocean provides this enormous opportunity to get food and protein from the ocean, especially in the form of multi-trophic aquaculture, where we can grow fish and clams and kelp all at the same time in the same place.

With respect to conservation, there are Marine Protected Areas here off the coast of California, and amazing kelp forests. We need to understand them if we’re going to protect them. There are many other places that are deserving of conservation and protection worldwide, such as mangrove swamps, which are great carbon sinks. Yet we’re facing a lot of habitat destruction.

We are seeing destruction of habitats, including mangrove swamps, for building hotels. We are seeing plastic pollution, which is pervasive in many places around the world. Raw sewage is still a major issue, as some developing countries don’t have the resources to prevent sewage from being dumped into the ocean.

At AltaSea, our vision is to create an ocean that is sustainable for future generations. We are bringing the scientists in. We are working to accelerate collaboration among the scientists. We are bringing the businesses in to create jobs, as well as job skills—training opportunities for students. Of course, inspiring the next generation through public education is also critical.

We have a 35-acre campus in San Pedro, designed by Gensler. We are not strictly a scientific-academic institution like Scripps—which is very important—that focuses on learning more about the oceans. We are not LACI, incubating cleantech. We are not an aquarium, although the public education they do at the Aquarium of the Pacific is essential.

We are partnering with of all of these institutions. We bring together science, business, and education entities within clusters, and these clusters focus on issues of critical concern to the ocean.

We are the entity that facilitates collaboration among other entities, and also looks for what kind of infrastructure is necessary for some of these entities that we can encourage them to share. Our belief is that sharing critical infrastructure—like tanks and testing facilities— will also help foster collaboration.

We work with a number of partners. The first thing I did when I came here, not wanting to reinvent the wheel, was sit down and talk to a lot of these different entities, and ask, “What are you working on? What’s important?” I wanted to define where AltaSea could fill a niche without competing with, or duplicating effort from, other entities—where we could do something really impactful.

I also ran our ideas through the filter of what people in Washington, D.C. care about—the federal agencies and national not-for-profits, as well as some of the major ocean funders. That’s how we came up with our two initial clusters, which were approved by the board: sustainable aquaculture and blue tech, or underwater robotics.

These are not the only two clusters that we plan to work on; we anticipate that there will be others in the future. But these are the two where there’s a critical mass of people who want to be working on this, and where the time is really ripe to work on these issues.

Sustainable aquaculture: We know that the wild-capture fisheries are plateauing if we’re lucky, and probably declining. There’s a huge increase in demand worldwide, as our population grows, for protein from the oceans. The only way we’re going to meet that demand is through aquaculture.

Aquaculture has to be done sustainably. There are destructive practices being used in parts of the world now that are causing habitat and ecosystem disruption. That’s why we’re very excited that our initial anchor tenant is growing mussels—because they are inherently sustainable. They don’t require external feed; they don’t require antibiotics; they actually filter feed, so they clean the water while they’re growing.

The proposed area off of San Pedro, where Catalina Sea Ranch has their site in federal waters, is adjacent to what’s called an “upwelling area,” where water’s coming up from the deep that’s very nutrient-rich. It’s a prime place to be growing mussels, clams, and oysters.

Our sustainable aquaculture cluster, the Southern California Marine Institute, their members are the base of our science and academic community—especially USC, which is already working on selectively breeding for mussels that will grow faster, bigger, and also can withstand temperature change, as well as ocean acidification. Catalina Sea Ranch is our anchor tenant in the business arena.

They are the first company in the United States to have a permit in federal waters, which is a really big deal. Every other permit in the country is in state waters, and state waters only goes up to three miles.  Federal waters go up to 200. It’s a big deal to have gotten that permit.

The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium already has the aquatic nursery, which is a great place for teaching kids about conservation, and they’re working to conserve abalone.

The second cluster is blue tech and underwater robotics. This field is exploding. There are many types of underwater robots from small, two-foot long underwater robots that take images of rockfish, to the Wave Glider, which is about the size of a surfboard, and goes up and down in the top 300 feet of the ocean measuring temperature and pH to Boeing’s Echo Voyager that is about 30 feet long and can go way down into deep-sea trenches as well as far under the Arctic ice.

This technology is going to be used across the board to address a lot of the challenges that we’re facing in the ocean. Aquaculture companies are going to use it. They won’t have to send a diver down; they can send a robot down to go and check on the mussels and make sure they’re not being eaten by starfish or falling off the ropes. Renewable energy companies use underwater robots to check the cable that runs from the turbines to land and make sure it hasn’t been disrupted. Conservation groups are using robots to go under the sea ice to look for marine mammals. Underwater robots are amazing tools, and will be especially valuable to explore our oceans, so much of which is little known.

Our anchor tenants in the blue tech cluster include Boeing as our business partner. As with the aquaculture cluster, SCMI is very important to us. We also want CalTech will be part of AltaSea. AltaSea wants to create opportunities for students within this cluster; to help develop the technology and conduct research, and to have hands-on job-skills training opportunities for careers as mechanical and electrical engineers. For the K-12 level students, we want to advance STEM learning with our education partners.


That is why Dr. Bob Ballard and the E/V Nautilus is the anchor tenant in the education/exploration component of our project. We are very happy to have the Nautilus at AltaSea.

Dr. Robert Ballard: I was born in Wichita, Kansas, where all oceanographers come from. My beginnings in LA were in Gardena, and then my family moved to Downey when he became head of the Minuteman missile program. Then we moved to Long Beach, and then San Diego.

I went to the University of California at UCLA and Santa Barbara, and then I volunteered to be an army infantry officer during the Vietnam War. I received my commission in army intelligence and went off to graduate school at USC, thinking I was going to finish my PhD in USC, and I was living in Belmont Shores one night, and there was a knock on the door, and I opened it and there was a naval officer standing there with an envelope, and he said, “Congratulations: You’re no longer in the army—you’re in the navy, and you have six days to report for active duty.” So I got involved in underwater warfare and left Los Angeles and California. Now I’m back, 50-some years later.

The reason I’m back is really simple. I owe a lot to California; I owe a lot to the educational system. I was a public school kid. But another equally important reason is the largest ocean on the planet is the Pacific Ocean. It covers a third of Earth. And in that ocean is most of America. Fifty percent of the United States lies beneath the sea. And the vast majority of that 50 percent is in the Pacific Ocean. We have better maps of Mars than half of the United States of America.

We were making maps, up until yesterday, in the Santa Monica Bay. We have maps of Mars, but we don’t have maps off of Los Angeles. That is utterly ridiculous.

Our mission is to change that—to come and spend, certainly as far as I’m concerned, the rest of my career working in the Pacific Ocean. And I needed a home. And I couldn’t think of a better one than Los Angeles.

Ironically, Sandra and I both went to graduate school and got our PhDs together, and she introduced us to AltaSea. That’s why I’m here, because of that young lady, who’s also done a lot of other things for me in the past.

Our ship is basically a hunter. We go where no one has gone, and we don’t know what we’re going to find. I’ve been at it for 50-odd years, and I’ve conducted 150 expeditions. I’m most famous for finding the Titanic and all those other things; those were actually military cover-up operations. If you really look back upon the most important discoveries I made, it was not the Titanic—we knew it existed, the Bismarck and all of that. It was the discovery of whole new ecosystems, life systems, hydrothermal events, what we discovered—an ecosystem of life that lived, not off the energy of the sun, but off the energy of the earth itself. We actually finally found where life began on our planet. And I think finding the origin of life on our planet is a little more significant than finding a ship.

I’ve had to operate out of the box, as I’ve always done—to develop a capability that can actually go out where we’ve never been. But the problem is, when I’m down there and I find something, who do I get into the game?

I want to build a second Inner Space Center in Los Angeles at AltaSea. This is your vision; I’d like to modify it a little. I’d like to turn it into what I built in Belfast, Ireland. If you’ve ever been to Belfast, to Titanic Belfast, that is exactly what I want to clone here. It’s built, operational, and functional. It is an Inner Space Center, but not only a functioning Inner Space Center for exploration, but an amazing way of engaging kids in the process of exploration. I want that.

What else do I want to do—if that isn’t enough? Obviously, I want to have the Nautilus right up against the dock when it’s not at sea. You have to understand, when Sandra came to me and said, “What about home-basing the ship at AltaSea?” and I said, “Well, that’s not my plan. My plan is to go all over the planet.” She said, “Well, what would it take?” And I said, “Well, I’ll have to clone what I call a fly-away system,” which is simply taking all the technology and putting it in containers and shipping it and going on ships of opportunity. What’s nice about that is when this is at sea, the Nautilus is there; when this is there, the Nautilius is at sea. I want to turn this technology, not only into a functioning, operating exploratory system, but also something that kids can become engaged in. Think an Exploratorium kind of way of engagement. That is something that clearly we can easily do at AltaSea.

More importantly, this is our true mission: Our true mission is to have role models that represent every face in America. We call our team the Corps of Exploration, because Lewis and Clark was the Corps of Discovery. But unlike Lewis and Clark, I’ve mandated that 55 percent of the Corps will be women in positions of leadership and authority.

Why did I pick 55 percent? That’s the population in colleges: 55 percent. Women are outperforming men at every level of education. Why waste those minds? It’s important to make sure they know they can play in the game, and so we absolutely have mandated it.

And we also want every shade. We want to rename the country the United Shades of America. Every child needs to see their face in the Corps to know they can play. You don’t need to do any more than that. They see a face that’s 20 years out that looks like theirs, they know there’s no ceiling and they know they can do it. That’s, to us, the biggest, important thing is to send that message.

We’ve now taken over 900 faces on the Nautilus, and every year we take now up to 200-250. They are the ones that the kids see in action, because we do everything in the open, online, accessible to anybody.  We also do an amazing amount of broadcasting. Just this year—we’re not done with our field season; it’s slipping over into the calendar year—we did 368 live, interactive broadcasts from the deck of the ship to 20 states in America, four countries, and 120 schools and public venues. This could be much, much more than that. This is our present network, which is growing, of museums, aquariums, and science centers that take our live broadcasting, including the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Our digital outreach is going through the ceiling. Each year, there’s a massive increase taking place. We’re running the numbers on this year, and I’m confident we’ll be well past 400 million. This is going to put you guys on the map.

Another thing I want to point out: As I mentioned before, I’ve done a few of these expeditions, and I’ve amassed an intellectual property that’s pretty staggering—over $150 million of intellectual property that covers a broad spectrum of kinds of it. We are equal-opportunity explorers; we explore everything. There are thematic parts that we go through in a typical field season. Again, as you know, the Titanic—and not only finding it, but going inside the doggone thing; that wasn’t terribly easy. Battle of Midway.  Ancient history—we’ve done more deep-water expeditions than any other organization on the planet, and undersea discovery of human history. There’s more history in the deep sea than in all of the museums in the world combined. It’s estimated that there are 3 million shipwrecks in the ocean. I like to tell the next generation that their generation is going to explore more of Earth than all previous generations combined. The true explorers are middle schoolers. I’m going to be a footnote in about 100 years. They’re going to be talking about some kid from LA who went out and blew me away, because the technology is there, and we’ve amassed a tremendous amount of artifacts from these ancient shipwrecks that have never been on public display.

There are social issues are coming online. These are the minerals that we’re finding out there: iron pyrite and more. This is what’s starting to get ready to go after it. Imagine that in your backyard. It’s an ecosystem destroyer. It’s very similar to mining coal seams—just put it underwater. Big issues there. Mining is going to happen. There’s no doubt. Russia has already applied for permits; France has applied for permits in international waters; Canada and Australia have already gotten permission from countries to begin mining this. It’s going to happen. The question is: What’s the impact? Is there a good way to do it? There is a good way to do it, but there are a lot of bad ways to do it.

China has a complete lock on rare earths. They’re using them politically. We don’t know many of the details about them, but how we will deal with these resources will have a major impact on the ocean ecosystem. All of this is going to come down within the next decade and how we deal with it. I think we have a lot to offer to AltaSea in our expertise space, and the Nautilus will provide a good capstone asset.



© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.