Skip to main content

Observing World Oceans Day and Exploring San Francisco Bay Remotely

Observing World Oceans Day and Exploring San Francisco Bay Remotely

World Oceans Day was established by the United Nations in 2008 to highlight the role of the oceans in our everyday life and inspire action to protect its living resources for all world citizens. The theme this year is innovation for a sustainable ocean and we dove into that topic with marine scientists who use robots, high-tech instruments and remotely operated vehicles to observe and explore the ocean and San Francisco Bay.

Lucky for us and for science, these ocean observing tools can operate without human operators, instead using satellite technology and the Internet to deliver data 24/7 to networks allowing work to continue even as many scientists are sheltering and working from home. Since the Exploratorium staff is also sheltering to stay safe from the coronavirus, we’ll be taking advantage of technology to connect you with the oceans through video programs that stream live on June 8, 2020 at 1 and 7 PM Pacific Time and archived on our website for later viewing. If you’re interested in exploring more about these topics, we’ve included some links and resources below.

Life in a Drop of Seawater

Through the Observatory’s Wired Pier project, we work closely with Dr. Anna McGaraghan from Raphe Kudela’s lab at UC Santa Cruz which operates a very high-tech robotic plankton microscope that keeps track of tiny drifting plant-like cells called phytoplankton in San Francisco Bay. The robot instrument collects seawater samples every 20 minutes, take pictures of individual phytoplankton cells and uploads the photos to a database—here you can see the plankton photos collected from the Exploratorium’s Pier 17. The trick is to train the system to recognize the different plankton species, which it does through machine learning, not too different from the way that Facebook can do facial recognition of your photo collection. If you want to explore the different shapes of plankton, here’s a good place to start and if you like coloring and learning about larger ocean creatures, here’s a downloadable activity book from NOAA.


Deep Look: The Story of Plankton

A team at KQED, the San Francisco PBS affiliate, explores microscopic creatures and phenomena in its Deep Look series including a video presented by our program guest Josh Cassidy about plankton


Ocean Motion

Some of the first studies of ocean scientists focused on how vast ocean currents traverse the globe. You can explore and search for some of their early maps and lots of other treasures in David Rumsey’s collection of historic maps and charts.  A high-tech radar antennae at the Exploratorium tracks smaller surface currents in San Francisco Bay, you can see that data in the Surface Current exhibit in the Observatory Gallery or online at the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (of which the Exploratorium is a contributing member). The radar is operated by Exploratorium partner, John Largier from UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Lab.


Return of the Harbor Porpoise

This delightful science music video was produced by Lisa Strong in 2012 to celebrate the return of harbor porpoises to San Francisco Bay (they hadn’t been observed in the Bay since World War II). Now, they are regularly spotted swimming below the Golden Gate Bridge and inside the bay. You can visit the Marine Mammal Center’s website to learn more about harbor porpoises and report sightings.


Ocean Robots to the Rescue

Built right in Alameda, Saildrone robots can often be seen leaving and returning to the Bay to and from their scientific expeditions on the high seas. They’ve traveled to the ends of the earth on missions to chart the ecosystems of Antarctica and spy on the secret lives of fur seals and pollock fish in the Arctic (one robot just left on June 1 to survey pollock for NOAA during a time when scientists aren’t able to leave port on ships). The team there have developed some fun science activities that use real ocean data collected by Saildrone from its mission circumnavigating Antarctica.


Sounds of the Sea Audio Guide

Before diving into the soundscape presented during the World Oceans Day program, check out the listening guide produced by Kate O’Donnell from the Exploratorium’s environment group.  Soundscape composer  Kristina Dutton and Ocean Conservation Research Director Michael Stocker guide us through some of the sounds you’ll hear, while bioacoustics scientists Geo Czech from San Francisco State University and Dave Mellinger from NOAA and Oregon State University give context to both specific species as well as the importance of ocean acoustics research.