UC is set to replace San Diego pier for ocean research ships

SAN DIEGO — Above the water line, the Point Loma wharf at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is impressive: large, high-tech ships dock there before cruising off to research sea life and climate conditions around the world. The skyline of downtown San Diego skyscrapers looms across the bay.

Underwater, however, is a much less glamorous view of the concrete pier and wharf, with rotten and broken pilings, exposed rebar and dangling wooden supports. It is a glimpse, scientists say, of the worrisome decay that could threaten their efforts to better understand tsunamis, seismic faults and the effect of pollution on fish.

That's why UC San Diego, which runs Scripps, is about to embark on a $25-million project to replace the Nimitz Marine Facility's wharf and pier on the Point Loma peninsula. The work is something out of the ordinary for a university system more accustomed to building dorms and classrooms. But without the reconstruction, officials say, it may soon become impossible for trucks, forklifts and cranes to safely load ships with the heavy lab equipment, underwater cables, computers and food researchers require for months on the ocean.

The Nimitz facility "is a very iconic centerpiece in the history of oceanography. We need to keep it going," said Peter Ortner, a University of Miami professor and chairman of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, which helps coordinate and schedule research trips at sea for scientists across the country.

Located on former U.S. Navy property and heavily reliant on federal funding, the six-acre Nimitz facility is one of a few university-run ports in the country dedicated to ocean science and is considered preeminent on the West Coast. It is the home base for four of the 20 ships in the national research consortium, vessels on which researchers from UC and many other universities try to book space years in advance.

The Melville and Roger Revelle, both more than 270 feet long, have a global range; they are owned by the Navy and operated by Scripps. The smaller New Horizon and the Robert Gordon Sproul, owned by UC, concentrate on the eastern Pacific and California coast.

The Revelle is now off the Philippines with scientists from UC, the University of Washington and Oregon State studying deep ocean currents and internal waves. On a recent Melville voyage, UC San Diego student researchers discovered methane deposits below the ocean floor off San Diego.

"Our mission is to make it possible for scientists to have unencumbered access to the sea and to do it safely," said Bruce Appelgate, the Scripps associate director who runs Nimitz. Sometimes, the staff and crews have just two days of turnaround "to configure the ship into the laboratory of your dreams," he said.

On a recent cloudy day, Appelgate walked along the 307-foot wharf where the Sproul was moored and then on the attached 365-foot pier, to which the Melville was tied. He pointed beneath the platforms and bumpers to show how four decades of seawater have corroded pilings and mooring fixtures. Because it is no longer safe to position heavy cranes on the pier next to ships, he has to rent equipment with much longer reach from the shore.

Onboard the blue-and-white Melville, traditions and innovations were evident. It has panels of computer screens that continually track ocean conditions and special freezers to store biological specimens; the galley is old-school with the crew's coffee cups hanging on wall pegs.

The Melville is expected to be replaced next year by a new and even more high-tech Navy-owned research vessel named after the late astronaut Sally Ride. That vessel's imminent arrival pushed UC to move faster on the pier renovation, officials said.

The $25 million for the construction comes from a combination of sources, including $8 million from a UC systemwide bond issue, $5 million from a state waterways grant and more than $9 million in indirect funding from the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

"It's different. It isn't your average dorm, it's not your average research facility. But it's a pretty straightforward project," said Patrick Lenz, the UC system's vice president of budget and capital resources.

Under plans approved by the UC regents, the docks will be rebuilt very close to the current dimensions, although new rules require them to be two feet higher to accommodate potential rising sea levels caused by global warming.

"It would look really bad if the Scripps pier was underwater," said Appelgate, a geologist.

If contract bidding goes well, demolition is expected to start in summer and work finished in about 18 months. In the meantime, Scripps probably will use wharves elsewhere in San Diego harbor, he said.

(Another Scripps pier, 12 miles to the north in the La Jolla Cove, is used for some research projects and smaller boats but can't accommodate the oceangoing ships. That is close to Scripps' popular Birch Aquarium, which is open to the public, unlike the Nimitz facility.)

Nimitz also is home to the Floating Instrument Platform, or Flip, which looks like a large submarine but is towed to sea, where much of it fills with water and submerges to provide a stable position for experiments; when most of its body drops down, working and living quarters above literally flip from horizontal to vertical, requiring repositioning of everything from tables to toilets.

larry.gordon@latimes.com