An artist's rendering of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute's new vessel
An artist’s rendering of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s new vessel, the R/V David Packard, which is named after MBARI’s founder and primary donor.
(Courtesy MBARI)

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute retiring flagship vessel to make room for bigger, better boat

The institute has announced it will be retiring its flagship vessel, the R/V Western Flyer, in fall 2022. The ship’s replacement will feature state-of-the-art technology to accommodate “all the different types of science that we do today.”

For a quarter-century, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s R/V Western Flyer has served as the flagship vessel for the institute’s deep sea explorations, hoisting and deploying a large remote-operated submersible, the Doc Ricketts, into the inky-black depths of the bay.

But officials are announcing today that the custom-built catamaran is set to make its last voyage in fall 2022, after decades of nearly constant use and shifting research priorities that require new technology.

“The focus of our science is changing,” says MBARI’s director of marine operations, Michael Kelly. “The Western Flyer was really built around the remotely operated vehicle concept — it didn’t have a lot of capabilities to do other things.”

So the institute — known worldwide for its cutting-edge oceanographic research within the Monterey Bay and the entire West Coast — is about to begin building a new ship to meet those demands.

Construction on the R/V David Packard, named after MBARI’s founder and primary donor, will begin this November at the world-class shipyard, Freire, in Vigo, Spain. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation is footing the bill for the new $50 million vessel.

Once completed, the ship will make its way to the Monterey Bay in May 2023, joining the research institute’s two existing vessels, the R/V Rachel Carson and R/V Paragon.

The David Packard’s new design will allow researchers to continue working with the ROV Doc Ricketts submersible, while also deploying its newerautonomous underwater vehicles — the next level of oceanographic research technology.

“MBARI’s mission to explore and understand the ocean is more important than ever, especially in light of the growing threats of climate change, overfishing, and pollution,” said Chris Scholin, MBARI President and Chief Executive Officer. “This new state-of-the-art research vessel will expand MBARI’s reach and enhance our research, engineering development, and outreach efforts.”

Kelly says the David Packard will be a multipurpose ship that can accommodate “all the different types of science that we do today.”

For decades, MBARI has pioneered oceanographic research, primarily in the deep sea, through exploration of the Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon, which snakes out from Moss Landing beneath the ocean’s surface. Despite crushing pressures and frigid temperatures, the canyon’s watersteem with marine life all the way down to its deepest point at more than 12,700 feet (almost two and a half miles) below the surface.

Thanks to the Western Flyer and the Doc Ricketts, researchers have stumbled upondeep sea squid graveyards,mapped the submarine canyon in great detail, andtracked the eruptions of underwater volcanoes.

Unlike the Doc Ricketts, the newer autonomous underwater vehicles to be deployed by the David Packard are torpedo-shaped, instruments which don’t require cable attachments or constant attention as they “fly” around and collect samples and data from the water column. “The beauty of autonomy is that it frees people up to do more exploration and discovery,” says Kelly.

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At 164 feet long, the new research vessel is 47 feet longer than the Western Flyer. It will support a crew and research staff of up to 30 for year-round research cruises. “The new ship gives us an increased range of where we might want to go to conduct an expedition,” Kelly says.

In addition to expanding scientists’ understanding of the marine environment, the David Packard’s explorations also will also support the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s upcoming exhibit, “Into the Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean,” which will showcase strange organisms carefully brought to the surface by the research institute’s equipment. That exhibit is expected to debut in 2022.