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The pier nears a decade in Cal Poly hands

Once a wooden structure with oil in its veins, the now Cal Poly marine science research and education pier elicits individuals from architecture, engineering and biological science backgrounds all laboring toward the “ideal” marine field station for the central coast.

“We are no longer an industrial facility. We are an education research facility,” Tom Moylan, Operations Manager for the Cal Poly pier facility said.

The Pacific Coast Railway Company built a wooden commercial shipping pier where the Cal Poly pier is now located nearly a century ago. Later bought by the oil company Unocal (now owned by Chevron), the wooden pier was then destroyed by a winter storm in 1983. Unocal rebuilt the steel and concrete pier that now stands today as a host for research initiatives and educational prerogatives.

When Unocal had exhausted the oil reserves in Avila, Cal Poly Biological Sciences professor Mark Moline proposed the idea that the pier “would make a great marine facility”.

“When I first got here the marine biology class was still essentially being taught out of preserved samples and jars,” Moline said.

“I think that was kind of absurd given where we live on the central coast here.”

On a rainy November 29th in 2001 Unocal officially donated the pier to the Cal Poly’s College of Science and Mathematics.

“It was an interesting day… there was a rainbow that came right over the harbor right at the end of the presentations. It was very auspicious and kind of neat to see that,” Moylan said.

From that day exactly nine years ago, the pier has become a fundamental piece of Cal Poly’s marine science program as well as the university as a whole, so much so that the presidential candidates will be making a visit to the pier this week on a tour of the facilities.

The seawater facilities and aquarium room built in 2007. -Photo by Katie Grady

A vital addition to the pier, built in 2007, is a flowing seawater system that pumps seawater continually. This allows faculty and researchers to engage in long term experiments where they can maintain animals under set conditions over a long period of time.

Some early research done at the pier beginning prior to the installation of the seawater system was looking at sea urchin development and the effects of UV exposure when they are floating in the plankton.

Cal Poly graduate student, Anniken Lydon who worked on this project during her undergraduate studies explained that they would collect sea urchins and would typically house them in the aquarium on campus.

“Before we were going to go do an exposure experiment we would carry all the urchins out there with us in a big cooler,” Lydon said. “Currently they are able to do those experiments a lot easier then having to do what we did when I was an undergrad here.”

An ongoing study at the pier involves the use of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which are unmanned miniature submarines that collect data from the ocean via sensors.

“Its a perfect platform for that kind of thing so we’ve been continually launching vehicles from there,” Moline said.

Engineering students then get involved by creating automatic feedback loops in the intelligence software of the vehicle. These loops allow the AUV to see variances in the environment and respond to those without needing to program it.

“It’s just out there sensing the environment and responding to it,” Moline said.

Between the College of Engineering and the College of Science and Mathematics, Cal Poly possesses five of these underwater vehicles.

“It’s quite a few, probably more than most places.” Moline said.

Paul Choboter, assistant professor in Cal Poly’s Mathematics Department works on computer simulations of the coastal ocean currents from data received through these vehicles.

“I’m asking questions like what’s pushing the water around, why does the water go where it does and how long does it stay there,” Choboter said.

The simulations relay where data needs to be collected next and feed back to the robot explained Choboter.

“It’s a really unique thing to have your own pier,” Choboter said.

“Some Research 1 schools have oceanographic piers, but to have a primarily undergraduate institution have a research pier is a really special thing.”

The pier sees about 1500 students a year, including students from other universities according Moylan.

In addition the pier hosts a small fleet of boats as tools in accessing the marine environment as well as offering a scientific diving program training students to become divers.

“Between the aquarium room, the pier, the boating program and the diving program we’re aways doing something different,” Pier Technician and Diving Safety Officer Jason Felton said.

The four boats used at the pier include a:

  • 21 foot aluminum work skiff  (A stable rugged aluminum work boat holding 7-8 students at a time)
  • 19′ zodiac inflatable with a tiller steer  (Can accommodate up to 15 people. Its main advantage is the ability to easily launch objects over the side such AUVs without damaging instruments as well as being good to dive from.)
  • 16′ Bayrunner  (Can hold 2-3 people at a time and is quick and easy to launch)
  • 13′ Boston whaler  (Stored in Morro Bay and used for research in that area as well)

19' Zodiac inflatable at the pier. Graduate student Ben Davini and pier technician Jason Felton return from obtaining samples. -Photo by Katie Grady

Aside from renovations in the main building this past year the base of the pier took on a new look. These changes have to pass through the California Coastal Commission.

“Because we have started doing other projects out there, we were obligated to make part of our facility public so we started renovating the base of the pier,” Moline said.

This includes an informational kiosk, a parking lot and new fencing.

Information kiosk at the base of the pier. -Photo by Katie Grady

The pier has seen some drastic changes since 2002, but the plans don’t stop there. Every year groups of architecture and capstone engineering students work together to come up with sustainable design plans for a new building at the pier.

“(These groups are looking at) not just how you build out on a pier, but how you design for the marine environment,” Moylan said.

The  course curriculum involves looking at different facilities along the coast and what type of materials work in the marine environment.

Input regarding the design plans from faculty and staff involved with the pier equated to about 10,000 square feet of space, a “maximal design” Moylan said. This would include:

  • two full size classrooms
  • an auditorium for the public
  • a full workshop
  • a dive shop
  • a dive locker
  • a deck area
  • a library and dedicated research labs

Design model for a new building at the pier. -Photo by Katie Grady

“The building concept is to essentially scrape everything off the platform with the exception of the seawater system and build a two story building… that’s going to cost about $15 to $18 million so we’re in the process of raising that now,” Moline said.

Aside from a $4 million dollar endowment from Unocal paying for general operating expenses such as leasing the seafloor from the Port San Luis Harbor District, electrical sewer water bills and light maintenance,  user fees are the only other form of direct funding for the pier.

These come from outside companies that utilize the pier as a testing facility. They have the ability to be out over the water on a stable platform with electrical power and internet connection Moylan said.

These companies are often using cutting edge technology and make themselves available to students sparking internships and research opportunities. One such company is WET Labs located in Oregon. They develop and manufacture ocean instrumentation for sampling biological, chemical and geological elements of ocean and freshwater systems. On the pier they wire back instruments via cables and watch the instrument in real time.

Reson Inc. located in Goleta is also involved with the pier in more than one way. By using Sonar they are trying to detect pinhole leaks in an oil pipeline by putting piping on the seafloor that then simulate leaks using freshwater leaking into saltwater. The size of the leak and how far away it is could be determined by this technology Moylan said.

The other area Reson Inc. tested was an anti terrorism device, again using Sonar, designed to be attached to an oil rig. This device could detect divers or swimmers coming toward the oil rig such as potential terrorists attaching a bomb to the rig Moylan explained.

In addition to companies utilizing the pier, the location is what makes it an even more valuable facility.

“This area has always been a hot spot for marine science… The pier’s just added a whole other dimension for us,” Moylan said.

Whale sighting in Avila Bay. The Cal Poly pier is in the background. -Photo by Katie Grady

The pier is the only marine research center located between Monterey and Santa Barbara.

“It’s great to have this pier located geographically where we are…. there’s a need to have research activity along our piece of coastline. It’s a great niche to fill,” Choboter said.

Biologically, there is a mixing zone between the colder waters of northern California and the warmer waters of southern California. In addition upwelling leads to high productivity Moylan said.

“We’re 3,000 feet out over the water out in a bay so you get a near ocean experience without actually getting wet, not necessarily, or not seasick anyway,” Moylan said.

That near ocean experience includes proximity to sea life. There are frequent whale sightings at certain times of the year and according to Moline the females usually have a calf with them too.

“We’ve had gray whales come up and rub against the pilings,” Moline said. “Students that are out there just have a great time… It’s pretty neat stuff.”

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Posted November 26, 2010 by calpolymarine

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