New Boat Opens Door to Mysterious North Coast

BODEGA BAY, Calif. — UC Davis scientists were today slated to launch a unique research vessel: a fast, agile and unsinkable boat built to carry them into previously inaccessible Northern California waters to study one of the world's richest but least understood marine ecosystems.

Named the Mussel Point, the new boat is the product of five years of innovative ship design and construction by shipwrights at SAFE Boats International of Port Orchard, Wash., in close collaboration with scientists at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory.

Mussel Point boat
"The Mussel Point extends the scientist’s arm out into the sea at this point on the coast in a way that was never before possible," says Susan Williams, director of Bodega Marine Laboratory. Some of the Mussel Point’s important design features are lis

The Mussel Point's speed, stability and instrumentation will take researchers where they could not go before: into the rough, foggy, unpredictable and immensely fertile waters between San Francisco Bay and Mendocino. Their research cruises will shed light on pressing scientific and social issues including climate change, marine conservation, and commercial and recreational fishing and crabbing.

"This vessel will give us access to the California coastal upwelling system, one of the most productive oceanic regions on Earth," said marine scientist Susan Williams, director of Bodega Marine Laboratory. "There are only four ocean ecosystems like this in the world. The Mussel Point extends the scientist's arm out into the sea at this point on the coast in a way that was never before possible."

At a ceremonial dedication set to be held today, UC Davis was to introduce the research vessel to the extended coastal community around Bodega Harbor. Local residents, boaters, fishermen, media, scientists from UC Davis collaborative programs and even crews from the nearby U.S. Coast Guard station were to tour the distinctive silver, orange and black boat, which was named in the research tradition for an important local geographic feature.

Sonoma County Sheriff Bill Cogbill described how the Mussel Point will serve an alternative public mission when it is not engaged in research activities: Deputies will use the boat to enforce county laws and support public safety along the Sonoma County coast.

When the boat is not fully occupied by work for UC Davis or the sheriff's department, scientists from other research institutions may charter it for their studies.

Mussel Point users will share the costs of operating and maintaining the research vessel. The purchase price was $300,000; UC Davis paid two-thirds and Sonoma County paid one-third. The actual cost of design and construction was much more — an estimated $800,000 — but the boat builder absorbed the difference, said Dennis Thoney, assistant director of Bodega Marine Laboratory. "The public would not have this tremendous new resource on our coast without the generosity of SAFE Boats owners Bill Hanson and Scott Peterson," Thoney said.

The Mussel Point's skipper, Skyli McAfee, is Bodega Marine Laboratory director of marine operations.

Williams said the Mussel Point's arrival will launch an unprecedented era of discovery in the region's exceptionally rich and diverse marine environment.

The central characteristic of the Northern California coastal ocean is a phenomenon called upwelling, in which a particular combination of water currents and winds brings enormous volumes of nutrients from deep, cold water to the sunlit surface. Those nutrients nourish microscopic plants and animals and, through them, the entire marine web of life, said Williams.

California upwelling is the food conveyor belt for animals from birds, sea lions, seals and otters to great white sharks. It supports the commercial and sport fisheries for rock fish, salmon, halibut, Dungeness crab and abalone.

It also strongly influences Pacific weather systems as they move inland over the Coast Range, into the Central Valley and on to the Sierra Nevada and beyond.

Understanding upwelling is a subject of great interest to scientists around the world. At Bodega Marine Laboratory, the lab already uses an array of fixed, land-based and ocean-based instruments and sensors to study upwelling, said Williams and Thoney.

The new research boat will let researchers get out into the rough sea conditions that accompany upwelling events and gather more data from more locations — data such as seawater temperature and chemistry; current speeds and directions; and breeding, dispersal and population studies of fish and other animals.

Propelling key research

Williams described three research projects that will benefit immediately from the capabilities of the Mussel Point.

  • Salmon biology: Fishers and fishery managers need much more information to maintain this important economic resource and human food supply. "When young salmon smolts come out of our Northern California rivers, we don't know where they go or when they will come back," Williams said. "With this vessel we can open that black box." Salmon research has been under way at Bodega Marine Laboratory for more than 10 years, with funding from many sources, including the Sonoma County Water Agency, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish & Game.
  • Upwelling: The California Ocean Current Mapping Program is a $21 million, four-year state effort to install coastal radar along the full length of the state coastline, to track movement of the uppermost layers of water. Bodega Marine Laboratory is collaborating with San Francisco State University, Humboldt State University and others to map the currents between Mendocino and San Francisco Bay. the principal UC Davis scientists on this project are Williams and professors John Largier, Loo Botsford and Steven Morgan.
  • Larval ecology: UC Davis is engaged in a $710,000, three-year National Science Foundation project to characterize the movements of animal larvae in the coastal ocean. "Most marine invertebrates — animals without backbones, such as crabs, urchins, clams and barnacles — are microscopic larvae when they are very young," Williams said. "The Mussel Point will help us learn where the adults breed, where the juveniles go, and when and where the larvae settle down to become adults." That information will help restore rock fishes and aid in the design of protected areas, such as the nearby Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Banks national marine sanctuaries. Morgan is again co-principal investigator, this time with Joseph Neigel of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The Mussel Point's home berth is at Spud Point Marina, on the northern shore of Bodega Bay. The boat can be seen from the seawall but is not open to visitors. However, it will be docked at an open house 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 21, at the U.S. Coast Guard Station on Bodega Bay.


Stability, agility, electronics help set boat apart

Some of the Mussel Point's important design features include:

  • Safety: The 42-foot-long, aluminum, double hull is fitted with a solid foam collar, which gives it extraordinary stability in rough seas. That, combined with watertight crew and engine crew compartments, make the vessel self-righting in the unlikely event that the boat should capsize.
  • Speed and agility: Powered by two 500-horsepower turbo diesel engines, the Mussel Point cruises easily at 35 miles per hour, allowing researchers to make rapid trips offshore and return before strong afternoon winds set in. Its unique water-jet drives provide the braking abilities that propellers do not, supplying necessary maneuverability around instrument buoys or rocks.
  • Scientific rigging: The Mussel Point is equipped with a hydraulic winch fitted with 1,800 feet of cable, for deploying and recovering underwater instruments, and a hydraulic lowering transom for easy recovery of research divers and their gear.
  • Electonic systems: Besides its full complement of navigation electronics, the Mussel Point has an acoustic Doppler current profiler in the hull, which gives real-time graphic data on subsurface currents. An underway sensor system includes a thermosalinograph, which detects changes in water temperature and salt content, telling researchers when they have sailed across an oceanic front.

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