A golden mission
FAU Harbor Branch marks 50 years of studying the Earth’s oceans to ensure a better future
BY ANTHONY WESTBURY
As Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute turns 50, its team of researchers is focused on the critical issues facing the Earth’s oceans, near-shore bodies of water, its water supply and how these impact human health and well-being.
Harbor Branch’s mission is simple: Ocean Science for a Better World.
“We want to help the world,” executive director Jim Sullivan says. “More than 70% of the Earth’s surface is ocean. Our weather, our food, our very lives are dependent on the ocean.”
The 144-acre FAU Harbor Branch campus, which is on the Indian River Lagoon just north of Fort Pierce, has undergone major changes during its half-century lifespan. It has been transformed from a small independently funded outpost into an important research arm of the State University System of Florida.
What hasn’t changed is the enthusiasm and dedication of its 200-plus workforce, all linked to its mission to help the world.
In 1965, Ed Link discovered the channel abandoned. He operated Sea Divers Corp. and New Marine Science Center from 1969-1971 until the land was purchased by J. Seward Johnson Sr. and Harbor Branch was established in 1971.
An inventor and ocean explorer, Link decided the land and its access canal could be just the place for a marine science research center he had discussed with his colleague J. Seward Johnson Sr. Johnson was a son of one of the founders of the Johnson & Johnson conglomerate. He had long harbored hopes of using his sizable inheritance to create a research center. He and Link had met while serving on the board of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
Right away, Link and Johnson began buying up land around the quarry and canal area. Eventually, both built homes at the site.
While Johnson began recruiting budding ocean researchers, Link took a more practical approach — developing the hardware needed to explore the oceans.
Well known in aviation circles, Link had invented the pioneering Link Trainer, an early flight simulator that helped train more than 10,000 pilots during World War II. Link had since turned his attention to ocean exploration and immediately began building the submersible Johnson-Sea-Link I at Harbor Branch in 1971.
The Johnson-Sea-Link I and its successor Johnson-Sea-Link II in 1975 were revolutionary in having a 2-meter diameter acrylic clear sphere that allowed scientists an almost 360-degree view of the ocean, to a depth of 900 feet. The craft had lockout capabilities, allowing divers to exit and re-enter the sub at depth.
At the time, Harbor Branch was one of only three centers in the United States and one of only six similar worldwide organizations using submersibles for scientific discovery.
For the next three decades, the JSLs made more than 9,000 dives worldwide, allowing researchers to unlock many mysteries of the deep ocean.
The submersibles were key to the discovery of previously unknown deep-sea coral reefs only a few miles north of Fort Pierce by Harbor Branch researcher John Reed.
Reed, 73, is the longest-employed scientist at Harbor Branch. He started there straight out of graduate school in 1976, when it was just beginning to use the submersibles as useful scientific tools.
He recalls the staff at Harbor Branch as a small tight-knit group of young researchers, engineers and operational staff who worked and played hard together.
It was the submersibles that really put the institute on the map, Reed believes.
“People saw them on TV and the national news and immediately associated them with us,” he says.
CORAL REEF FOUND
At first, Reed was involved in aquaculture research, but because he had free access to the submersibles, he was able to switch his area of interest. Reed discovered the Oculina Reef in 300 feet of water off the Treasure Coast. It was a pristine world of fantastic coral formations and thousands of fish. One soccer ball-sized head of coral could support up to 2,000 animals, Reed discovered.
Yet even hundreds of feet below the surface, man was intent on destroying nature’s handiwork.
Reed found clear signs that deep-sea commercial trawlers were devastating the coral with their heavy nets. So, he began advocating for federal protection of the reef.
In 1984, Oculina Bank became the first protected deep-sea reef in the world. Reed subsequently explored even bigger reefs at depths of up to 2,000 feet off the Bahamas and the Eastern Seaboard as far north as North Carolina. He was able to persuade the government to extend federal protection status to 23,000 square miles of ocean floor.
Reed recalls that Johnson was a regular and enthusiastic visitor on many ocean cruises. Link was a different kettle of fish. He was a hard-driving, self-taught, hands-on inventor who held his employees to high standards.
And he could be a hard taskmaster. When a submersible had technical issues, Link would roar at the crew not to even think of going to bed until it was fully operational again for the next day.
“Every time we dived with the JSLs,” Reed recalls, “we saw things no one had ever seen before. We discovered new reefs, new species and new bioactive compounds.”
Shirley Pomponi was recruited by Harbor Branch in 1984 for the SeaPharm Project [today it carries the decidedly less-catchy name of the Biomedical and Biotechnology Research Program] identifying medical compounds from marine organisms.
She has spent her entire 37-year career at Harbor Branch collecting, identifying and processing marine organisms [mostly deep-sea sponges] that have the potential to be powerful human disease fighters.
Pomponi and her team have amassed more than 19,000 microbial cultures that contain promising chemical agents. One such compound is discodermolide, a chemical found in a deep-sea sponge that became a candidate for drug trials intended to fight cancer.
Pomponi’s work has also revealed compounds that may be useful in combating antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus bacteria, an antiviral chemical that shows promise against COVID-19, and others that perhaps one day may be used against pancreatic and lung cancers.
It takes a really long time from the initial assay of such organisms to final development, Pomponi says, but “it’s really, really exciting work.”
Her bubbling enthusiasm is echoed by fellow Harbor Branch researchers. Dennis Hanisak and Brian Lapointe are long-time employees who concentrate their efforts on water quality.
While Hanisak has worked for more than four decades on nutrient overload issues in the Indian River Lagoon, Lapointe has spent 30 years researching the adverse effects of nitrogen-laden sewage on coral reefs in the Florida Keys. Lapointe has also studied sargassum seaweed concentrations in the Caribbean, which he believes are also due to sewage-related pollution.
Hanisak has been involved in aquaculture at Harbor Branch for many years and established a seagrass nursery there in 2015. Prior to that, seagrasses were dismissed as uninteresting by many scientists, Hanisak said, but more recently their value in providing nurseries for juvenile fish and as a vital food source for manatees is becoming painfully clear.
Hanisak has seen devastating seagrass losses in the lagoon — over 60% in two years, he notes. The decline and associated fish kills intensified after 2016, he says, and continues today. He believes those losses can be reversed in some areas, but said the northern part in Brevard County [which makes up 70% of the lagoon] may require wholesale seagrass planting to recover.
HOPE FOR LAGOON
He likes to think “we can turn this around,” noting that a half-cent sales tax in Brevard goes toward muck removal and shoreline restoration, both of which should help. He also cites Tampa Bay as an example of how tighter restrictions on use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and more advanced sewage treatment can bring a water body back to life.
“After 30 years [of these measures] and even though the watershed there has seen more than 1 million new people coming there, overall nitrogen loading has actually gone down,” Hanisak says.
Lapointe, who was inspired to become an ocean research scientist after watching the Jacques Cousteau TV shows at age 9 in West Palm Beach, is still enthusiastic about what he does. He began doing field research in the Florida Keys in the early 1980s, which he refers to as “a dream job that has evolved into an almost 40-year career studying nutrients and algal growth.”
Lapointe recalls the controversial papers he wrote in the 1980s that suggested how human activity was changing the very chemistry of the seas. Many fellow scientists dismissed Lapointe’s hypothesis and blamed reef die-offs on overfishing. Lapointe’s views have since become widely accepted in the 21st century.
FAU TO THE RESCUE
All the Harbor Branch old-timers recall how financial hard times in the mid-2000s led to Florida Atlantic University absorbing the research facility. This has reinvigorated Harbor Branch, offered uninterrupted operational funding and released funds to completely renovate and upgrade the campus. It is poised to expand again within a matter of months.
They all agree that, however cozy and tight-knit the pre-FAU campus was, the institution simply would not have survived without the infusion of FAU money. Pomponi, Hanisak and Lapointe all pay tribute to the role of former state Senate President Ken Pruitt in 2007 in achieving the move into the university system.
“He’s my hero,” Pomponi says. “Without Pruitt, our patron saint, I don’t think we would have survived.”
FAU Harbor Branch at 50 years old isn’t just surviving, it is thriving.
“When Ed Link and Johnson created the institution, it was for people with a natural curiosity about the ocean and getting to undiscovered areas,” executive director Sullivan says. “It was done in the spirit of science for science’s sake.”
Today, FAU Harbor Branch is all about applied science, solving the problems of the world through intense research. And Sullivan expects that mission to continue unabated in the future.
He sees the challenges of sea-level rise and climate change as being the most pressing and he expects Harbor Branch to be working on dying reefs, saltwater intrusion into freshwater supplies — huge problems the government is already addressing.
“There’s going to be mitigation work on desalination, the proliferation of marine plastics in our waters, nutrient pollution from septic tanks and sewer systems that are all contributing to the degradation of water quality,” Sullivan predicts.
“We’re also expanding our ocean technology development using remote sensing, small satellite technology to monitor water bodies. We’ll always need technical innovations and I want to see HBOI as a leader in this.”
The next 50 years at FAU Harbor Branch could indeed become life-changing for all of us.
CELEBRATING FAU HARBOR BRANCH
Exhibition – FAU Harbor Branch has partnered with the Elliott Museum to present a one-of-a-kind exhibition to the Treasure Coast community and visitors from around the world.
A Johnson-Sea-Link submersible will be on display at the museum. Additionally, an exhibit highlighting the incredible history and current research of the institute will be displayed inside the museum.
When: From Nov. 1 to April 30, 2022
Lecture Series – The museum will host a series of lectures presented by FAU Harbor Branch researchers. Open to the public, these lectures will give the community a chance to hear directly from researchers about topics affecting coastal communities and beyond.
When, who and what: Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m. – Jim Masterson will present Celebrating 50 Years of Ocean Science for a Better World.
Wednesday, Dec. 15, at 7 p.m. – John Reed will present Deep Sea Discoveries and Adventures — Highlights of Dives with the Johnson-Sea-Link Submersibles.
Where: 825 NE Ocean Blvd., Stuart
Details on all other activities to be held at FAU Harbor Branch in Fort Pierce can be found at www.fau.edu/hboi/50
FAU HARBOR BRANCH TIMELINE
1971 – J. Seward Johnson Sr., with the help of longtime friend Edwin A. Link, establish Harbor Branch north of Fort Pierce.
1971 – The original Johnson-Sea-Link submersible is designed with a nearly 360-degree visibility from its acrylic sphere. Operating for more than 40 years, JSL submersibles performed more than 9,000 dives by more than 3,000 scientists.
1973 – First major research project, Indian River Coastal Zone Study, begins with researchers from Harbor Branch, Smithsonian Institute, the Link Foundation and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
1984 – 92 square miles of the Oculina Bank are designated as the first marine area protecting deep-water reefs in the world.
1986 – FAU Harbor Branch ships and JSL subs assist NASA and the Navy in locating and identifying wreckage of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
1991 – Harbor Branch begins aquaculture training program, teaching former commercial fishermen displaced by Florida’s netfishing ban how to grow clams, sparking a new industry.
1999 – A month-long Harbor Branch expedition of the waters around Cuba is portrayed in the Discovery Channel’s Cuba: Forbidden Depths TV documentary.
2002 – FAU Harbor Branch scientists are the first to successfully repopulate a damaged coral reef with sea fans raised in captivity.
2007 – Marine and Oceanographic Academy launches at FAU Harbor Branch in partnership with Fort Pierce Westwood High School and the St. Lucie County School District.
2010 – FAU Harbor Branch assesses the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
2013 – Establishment of the Indian River Lagoon Observatory Network, an array of environmental sensors that measure real-time weather and water quality data in the Indian River Lagoon.
2014 – FAU Harbor Branch builds world’s first ocean energy turbines for offshore testing.
2015 – Researchers establish a land-based seagrass nursery with the goal of restoring vital habitats in the Indian River Lagoon.
2016 – FAU Harbor Branch scientists publish a study on leiodermatolide, a novel marine natural product isolated from a deep-sea sponge that shows activity against pancreatic cancer.
2018 – The Florida Center for Coastal and Human Health is established to fulfill an unmet scientific need to understand harmful algal blooms and their impacts.
2019 – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appoints Jim Sullivan, executive director of FAU Harbor Branch, to the newly formed Florida Governor’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force.
2019 – After conducting a 30-year study at Looe Key, Harbor Branch researchers determine that mass coral die-offs were partly the result of land-based pollution from sewage, fertilizers and run-off water.
2020 – FAU Harbor Branch aquaculture researchers are first in the world to spawn bonefish in captivity.