The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1983, Volume 29, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Scripps in the 1950s

A Decade of Bluewater Oceanography

by Elizabeth N. Shor
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Senior Writer

Images from this article

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, founded in 1903 by a group of far-sighted San Diego civic leaders to fulfill the vision of Berkeley biologist William E. Ritter, became eighty years old on September 26, 1983.1 In honor of this 1983 anniversary year a number of public events have been held.

Although the Institution in La Jolla is in fact a graduate school of the University of California, San Diego, it long precedes its "parent" university. Also, while its name was "of oceanography" from 1925, it was not until 1950 that Scripps Institution researchers truly began studying the oceans. The decade of the 1950s will be remembered as the most challenging of the eight that have comprised the Institution's history.

Why? It was a remarkable combination of new research funds and of people. The result was an exciting era, full of discoveries that have made a lasting impact on our knowledge of the sea and the earth.

The money and the people arrived almost simultaneously. During World War II, the Navy had recognized its need to know more about the ocean. Wartime research laboratories had contributed greatly in anti-submarine warfare and sonar, and in knowledge of the thermocline, the deep scattering layer, and underwater acoustics. After the war, graduate students were eager to enter the new field of oceanography. Some were veterans who stepped off a Navy ship and onto a research ship with ease. Their college choices were limited; at that time Scripps Institution offered the only advanced courses in oceanography. During the war several Scripps professors had taught short courses in oceanographic subjects to military personnel, some of whom returned to the Institution for advanced degrees.2

Roger Revelle returned to Scripps also, after Navy service. He had received his Ph.D. at the Institution in 1936, had carried out studies of seafloor muds for his thesis, and had participated in work at sea. A primary organizer of the Office of Naval Research immediately after the war, Revelle helped Scripps find available Navy ships and Navy funds for Scripps to acquire them. He returned to the Institution as a professor, and in 1951 was appointed the director.

In 1941 the Institution had one ship, E.W. Scripps, a 100-foot sailboat with auxiliary power. Its longest research cruise had been to the Gulf of California. The Navy borrowed E.W. Scripps for research studies from 1941 until 1947. Then abruptly during 1947-48 Scripps acquired three "new" ships: Horizon, a Navy tug 143 feet long; Crest, a harbor minesweeper 136 feet long; and Paolina-T, a purse seiner 80 feet long.

These ships were modified for research cruises and promptly put into service on Scripps's new project, the Marine Life Research Program.3 It was part of a massive inquiry as to why the California sardines were apparently disappearing after having provided a major fishery for half a century. The sardine project, established in 1948, was funded generously by the state legislature and through a tonnage tax on sardines collected from fishermen. Along with Scripps Institution, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Division of Fish and Game, the California Academy of Sciences, and from 1951 Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Laboratory were all participants. Scripps's role was to gather general oceanographic data in the sardine habitat and information on the organic productivity of the ocean. For this the Institution was provided $400,000 a year.

The plan of attack devised in 1948 and modified in 1950 was a bold one. It was to survey 670,000 square miles of ocean, from the mouth of the Columbia River to halfway down Baja California and extending outward 400 miles. Through this region flowed the great California Current. For a systematic survey, a grid was laid out by drawing a line roughly parallel to the coast from which right-angle lines were drawn at 120-mile intervals. Along these lines stations were spotted every forty miles. Each station was to be occupied once a month by one of the participating ships. At each station were taken a plankton tow, a hydrographic cast, a bathythermograph record, and a phytoplankton cast. Some dip-netting was done for fishes, and notes were taken on marine birds and mammals.

The surveying ships were small for that large ocean. "A good part of the area under consideration is stormy and rough," observed a reporter, "and the devisors of new equipment aim for a product that can be operated by a seasick technician who must hold on to a stanchion with both feet and one hand while doing his work!"4 (The first reliable motion-sickness pill, Dramamine, became available in 1949, and it had drawbacks.)

The survey cruises went out every month of each year throughout the 1950s, in rough weather or calm. Through those years the participants gathered what is probably the most complete plankton collection of any area in the world, developed a great deal of new equipment, and acquired a thorough picture of the California Current region. They did not determine with certainty what happened to the sardines. But they turned their attention to all the commercial fisheries of California. The Marine Life Research Program continues at Scripps, although with fewer cruises than during the 1950s.

To Roger Revelle the ocean was a challenge, "the last frontier of exploration left on earth,"5 especially the great Pacific, which in 1951 he said was "almost as unexplored as the earth was 1,000 years ago."6 He had been asked during World War II by a lady in the Navy Bureau of Ordnance, "What is the bottom of the ocean like?" He suggested a lecture of several hours' duration. But she was in a hurry, so he told her briefly that "in some places the deep sea floor is rough, hilly, and rocky, while elsewhere it is flat and muddy. . . . she extracted from me in that one sentence all I knew at the time about the floor of the deep sea."7

So, back at Scripps, Revelle proposed Midpac Expedition for the summer of 1950, a three-month voyage from San Diego throughout the vast area of the Pacific to the Marshall Islands and home. Scripps's ship Horizon and the Navy Electronics Laboratory's ship PCE(R)-857 carried the scientists and new equipment: recording echo sounders, a Kullenberg corer capable of taking seafloor cores to twenty-four feet long, a new type of rock dredge, an improved underwater camera, equipment for seismic-refraction measurements, and a probe for measuring the flow of heat through the ocean floor.

Intensive sounding lines outlined a previously unknown undersea mountain range some sixty miles wide, which the geologists named the Mid-Pacific Mountains. Soundings also showed that the Mendocino Escarpment extended a full thousand miles from shore. Seafloor photographs as deep as 20,000 feet showed ripple marks presumed to be from previously unsuspected deep currents. Seismic-refraction profiles indicated that only a thousand feet of sediments had accumulated on the seafloor through the millennia, leaving a mystery to be solved another day as to where the rest of the sediments had disappeared. For the first time ever the flow of heat through the ocean floor was measured, with seven valid records from the new piece of eqipment.8

The geological and geophysical results, new in 1950, would eventually contribute to the understanding of seafloor spreading and plate tectonics that came about in the 1960s.

In the summer of 1951 Scripps scientists sailed to and into the Gulf of Alaska on what they called Northern Holiday, which scientific leader Warren S. Wooster carefully explained: "A holiday is an old nautical term that designates a piece of work left unfinished."9 The expedition's goal was to fill in an unexplored area on charts and to complete the survey of the Mid-Pacific Mountains. The scientists watched other aspects of the sea too, described by John D. Isaacs in a radio message:

Night before last we passed over great shoals of salps and comb jellies that slipped under our bow and boiled out of our wake feebly protesting with flashes from their cold blue lanterns, pelagic flints, sparked by the steel of the Horizon's hull. Today at noon a shout brought everyone from chow; not 100 yards off our beam glowed a great green brown Japanese glass float. Swiftly it was astern and steady on its solitary course. We would have liked to have stopped and picked it up but we are not very maneuverable underway with cables streaming astern to the jog log and thermitow. These are invaluable but unbeautiful instruments that give us a wealth of oceanographic data. They stop us from chasing glass bubbles.10

The researchers also acquired "an incredible manganese nodule weighing more than 100 pounds." To the amazement of all, as they were retrieving a hydrographic cast, the massive rock rose up in a tangle of the wire, and was lifted safely aboard. Harris B. Stewart noted in the scientific log: 'Great manganese globules measuring as much as 5 inches in diameter were pyramided on the top of the specimen . . . We are restraining ourselves (with difficulty) from breaking off a chunk to see if it is MnO2all the way through. It looks as though it might be, but we will preserve it as it came up till older & wiser oceanographers have looked & marveled."11

On Northern Holiday another new piece of equipment was used successfully, the Isaacs-Kidd midwater trawl, which was devised by John D. Isaacs and Lewis W. Kidd at the urging of fish expert Carl L. Hubbs. This was a large net attached to a wide V-shaped diving vane that held the net open as it was lowered to great depth where it was then towed for considerable time.12 (The midwater trawl is still used routinely by biologists.)

In its earliest use in 1951 the trawl was towed at depths to 9,000 feet and was credited with "bringing forth unexpected quantities and kinds of weird deep-water marine creatures. Scientists hope eventually to be able to draw a full picture of life in the Pacific."13

Northern Holiday Expedition put Scripps Seamount on the charts: an 11,400-foot mountain, 18 miles across at the base, standing "in lonely grandeur on the sea floor" in the Gulf of Alaska, its summit a mile below the surface.

When the Scripps oceanographers turned their attention in the opposite direction, they whimsically thought of Southern Holiday, but settled for naming their voyage Shellback Expedition instead. It sailed for "one of the least known oceanic areas of the world": west of Central America and northern South America, for studies related to fisheries. The data collected in that three-month cruise of 1952 concerned the temperatures and salinities of "ocean cur-rents that twist and mix around the earth's waistband."14

Also in 1952 began Capricorn Expedition across the Pacific to the Tonga Islands that included a survey of one of the ocean's trenches, for which the ship Spencer F. Baird carried new tapered cable that could reach the bottom of the sea. From the small ship 35,000 feet above the world's second-deepest trench Revelle sent a radio message to home base:

All of the best instruments and scientific ideas of the expedition are directed to making the most of this challenging oceanic complex but it is already obvious that Tonga [i.e. the Tonga Trench] does not give up her best secrets without making us work terribly hard for them. We have made frequent attempts to core but the hard rocky slopes west of the trench appear to be singularly unimpressionable.15

Accounts of the oceanographic expeditions of the 1950s were full of superlatives: first, largest, deepest.16 Transpac Expedition in 1953 included a survey of the "unknown sea" east of Korea and Japan. Mukluk Expedition in 1957 was proclaimed "the first time that deep current studies of this kind have been made in the Pacific." Through the use of Swallow floats for measuring currents, devised by visiting British oceanographer John Swallow, sluggish deepsea currents had been found flowing just south of the Aleutians "like a vast, slow-moving underwater river several thousand feet below the surface."

Norpac Expedition in 1955, coordinated by Scripps's Joseph L. Reid, was dubbed "the largest oceanographic expedition in history." Three Scripps ships were among the nineteen vessels from three nations that joined in this cooperative synoptic survey of a vast area of the North Pacific Ocean.

But the record was broken two years later, when the International Geophysical Year came along. In addition to the meteorological and other studies of that international program, seventy-five research ships plied the high seas, "taking samples and measurements with long fingers of steel in the great depths of the sea." Scripps Institution designated three major expeditions as IGY ones: Downwind for five months, Dolphin for three months, and Doldrums for two months.

There were still superlatives. East of the Tuamotu Islands in the South Pacific the scientists on Downwind Expedition found "enormous fields" of manganese nodules, of which H. William Menard said, "If we ever run really short of these metals, this looks like a good place for someone to start underwater mining."17 On Dolphin Expedition the first large permanent subsurface current, named the Cromwell Current, was outlined. It was, said Revelle, "one of the greatest oceanographic discoveries of our time, comparable with the wartime discovery of the jet stream in the atmosphere."18

Expeditions throughout the Pacific Ocean meant many days at sea and only brief glimpses of tropical ports. Menard observed: "A few days of snorkeling on the reef of a deserted atoll in the Tuamotus; a boat ride through basking sea turtles in the Revilla Gigedos; a stop at Robinson Crusoe's cave on Más a Tierra (now Isla Róbinson Crusoe), a climb on a giant stone image on Easter Island-these are not everyday pleasures, and so cherished more."19 Revelle wrote of Capricorn Expedition visiting the "wonderfully romantic part of the world, the islands of Melville and Gauguin, of Loti and Maugham. To all of us there was something bitter-sweet about the contrast between the hard and rather grim work at sea and the lotus lives of the islands."20

Meanwhile, back near the beach during the 1950s, a new tool was being enthusiastically used by Scripps scientists: self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, scuba. The Gagnan-Costeau Aqua-lung was marketed in 1947, and Scripps first bought one in 1950, for studies of the kelp habitat by Conrad Limbaugh. Other biologists began using scuba, and so did geologists for studies of submarine canyons, seafloor structure, and sand transport. Limbaugh, once called "an extremely athletic-looking scholar," began teaching classes at the Institution in safe scuba diving in 1951. He spent much of his own diving time in the kelp forest, "the seaweed jungle which covers much of the ocean bottom off La Jolla."21 Graduate students and staff were encouraged to learn to use this new nearshore tool of the 1950s.

Divers on Capricorn Expedition in 1953 explored coral reefs and Falcon "Island," which had been a smoking cinder cone 600 feet high in 1929 but in 1953 was a shallow peak twenty feet below the surface. Willard Bascom, one of the divers, said that "the fresh dark basalt of the recent volcano was studded with little coral colonies just getting their start in life and already tiny angel fish swam through their branches. . . . We were a little awed to be present at the birth of an atoll, the greatest structure ever built by an animal, including man."22

Another major Scripps project that was carrying out basic researches in the 1950s was API 51, supported by the American Petroleum Institute. Directed first by Francis P. Shepard, this conducted "the first large-scale investigation of the environment in areas where oil may be forming."23 The region explored was the northwest Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi delta, where the geologists used coastal boats, marsh buggies, and scuba gear as they gathered sand, mud, rocks, and cores for analyses of the way in which sediments are formed.

On the beach itself-that is, at the Institution-came several physical changes during the 1950s. The Aquarium-Museum was completed in 1950, but not until six years later was another building erected. That was an office and laboratory structure attached to older Ritter Hall. In the planning stage then was the new campus that was to become the University of California, San Diego. Even as buildings were being planned for the upper campus, three new structures were added at Scripps. They were Sumner Auditorium, Sverdrup Hall, and another large wing on Ritter Hall, all completed in 1960. A smaller administrative center attached to Scripps Building had been built in 1959; it came to be called New Scripps, and so the oldest building on campus became Old Scripps. The lower level part of the oceanographic campus was brimful of buildings by the end of the 1950s. Growth since then has been chiefly up the slopes.

The isolation of Scripps Institution in the 1950s and the frequency of major scientific expeditions created a social life of its own at home base. It began with the wives-lonely women whose husbands were often at sea, and mothers of small children who needed an evening out. In fact, wives of graduate students set up the first formal group, called Oceanids, which held monthly meetings, occasional lectures, dances, fund-raising events, and potluck suppers. The service function of this group was particularly to welcome newcomers to the Scripps community, to draw them in so that they would not feel so lonely when the men went to sea. Oceanography was a man's world in the 1950s, and the Scripps women were housewives and mothers or land-based technicians and secretaries.

The decade of the 1950s was the first of bluewater oceanography at Scripps Institution, instead of coastal studies. In fact, at the end of it, the institution operated the largest fleet it has ever had: nine ships in 1961, all converted from other uses. All the oceanic programs-wide-ranging expeditions, Marine Life Research, API 51, and others-supported a continuing succession of graduate students, many of whom are today's oceanographers.

It was a decade of exciting discoveries. These were discussed enthusiastically with colleagues from around the world at the First International Oceanographic Congress in New York in 1959. That meeting brought together "more seagoing scientists than had ever before clustered on a single spot of dry land."24 There were close to a thousand participants, from thirty-eight countries. They talked some about reviving that old idea of continental drift, they decided to drill a hole to the mantle of the earth, and they looked forward to expeditions in the unexplored Indian Ocean, which was to become a major international effort of the 1960s.

As the decade ended, Scripps scientists were planning new expeditions and more sophisticated equipment. The first free-fall instruments were being tested. Plans for the Floating Instrument Platform FLIP were well advanced. Marine Life Research scientists were pondering the significance of the unusual ocean temperatures of 1957-58, an El Niño. Chemists were accumulating evidence on the effect of burning fossil fuels and warning of the "greenhouse effect." Geophysicists were trying to assess the meaning of 735 miles of horizontal offset on the ocean floor off California, determined by precise magnetometer surveys. There was much to do, but the explorations of the 1950s provided a solid base for future oceanographic studies.



1. Elizabeth N. Shor, "How Scripps Institution Came to San Diego," Journal of San Diego History, XXVII (Summer, 1981), pp. 161-173.

2. Much of this is recounted in Helen Raitt and Beatrice Moulton, Scripps Institution of Oceanography: First Fifty Years (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1967), pp. 137 ff.

3. Elizabeth Noble Shor, Scripps Institution of Oceanography: Probing the Oceans 1936 to 1976 (San Diego: Tofua Press, 1978), pp. 43-78.

4. Scripps Institution of Oceanography (hereinafter SIO) news release, January 10, 1950, by Sam Hinton.

5. San Diego Union, June 24, 1956.

6. Newsweek, April 23, 1951, p. 90.

7. Roger Revelle, "Introduction," in Helen Raitt, Exploring the Deep Pacific (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.), p. ix.

8. Shor, Scripps: Probing,pp. 382-394.

9. La Jolla Light, July, 1951.

10. Radio message to SIO, August 9, 1951. See also: Shor, Scripps: Probing, pp. 394-399.

11. Log book of Northern Holiday Expedition, Geological Data Center, SIO.

12. Shor, Scripps: Probing, pp. 60-61.

13. University of California Clip Sheet (news releases), July 25, 1951.

14. San Diego Union, August 31, 1952.

15. La Jolla Light, January 22, 1953.

16. Bound volumes of news clippings titled "History in the News" in the SIO Archives contain many items on Scripps expeditions through the years.

17. University of California Clip Sheet, January 1958.

18. New York Times, June 29, 1958, Sec. IV, 9:6.

19. "The Research Ship Horizon," SIO Reference 74-3, 1974, p. 4.

20. "Introduction," in Helen Raitt, Exploring, p. xiii.

21. San Diego Union, October 28, 1951.

22. A Hole in the Bottom of the Sea (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1961), p. 40.

23. Science Service, June 5, 1951.

24. Time, September 14, 1959, p. 46.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS are courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography.