One smart day in Woods Hole

A visitor watches a deep-sea diving suit trainee  being lowered into the water on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s dock.
A visitor watches a deep-sea diving suit trainee being lowered into the water on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s dock.PATRICIA HARRIS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/Patricia Harris

WOODS HOLE — In this brainiest corner of Cape Cod, PhdDs in deck shoes and baggy shorts are a dime a dozen. If they seem to be having a little too much fun going out on research vessels to sample the water column or hatching squid and skates in giant holding tanks on shore, who can blame them? Woods Hole is a kind of summer camp for inquiring minds, and even visitors who didn’t do their high school science projects on the taxonomy of cephalopods can tap into some of that salt-air, gee-whiz excitement.

This former fishing village and whaling station has evolved as a world capital of marine, biomedical, and environmental science, a place where the living ocean is a laboratory full of authentic wonders. If you decide to take a break from splashing in the sea and lolling on the sands, a series of tours and exhibits will give your whole family a peek at the action. The best day to visit Woods Hole is Friday, when luncheon and evening lectures round out the experience.


Woods Hole started down the road to erudition in 1871, when Congress created a summer sampling station here at the juncture of the warm-water Gulf Stream and the icy Labrador Current. The lab for what is now the National Marine Fisheries Service became full time in 1875; it studies fish and shellfish resources as well as the impact of fisheries (and fishing limits) on communities. It also monitors the impact of climate change and food web dynamics on the ocean ecosystem.

While those lofty tasks might sound daunting, the grand abstractions of marine science find simple expression at the Woods Hole Science Aquarium, a favorite with kids. The 140-plus species displayed make a good introduction to the small-scale denizens of the sea. At the first tank of commercially exploited species, kids are mesmerized by codfish swimming lazily around the water column — until they spot the periscope-like eyes of the flounder (shades of “Finding Nemo”) poking warily up from the gravel where it has camouflaged itself. In other tanks, Atlantic salmon line up in the current like chorus girls and gaudy lionfish flaunt their rippling manes. The popular upstairs touch tank (two fingers only, please, and no lifting) is filled with mollusks, sea stars, anenomes, and other slow-moving creatures.


Bumper and Lucille , two rescue harbor seals unable to return to the wild, occupy a 17,000-gallon pool in a small plaza in front of the aquarium and steal the show during their 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. feedings. Trainers encourage them to jump through hoops, retrieve rings, and perform other tasks to make them easier to handle and to keep the intelligent creatures from getting bored.

Over at the Marine Biological Laboratory , even bigger fish tanks are part of the draw for the hourlong tour of the independent research institution established in 1888. Class begins in a real classroom, complete with left- and right-handed desks, inside a former whale oil candle factory. “The objective here is discovery,” said our guide, engineer Joe Messina. He explained that the simplified systems of certain sea creatures provide research models to tease out more complex processes in the human body. He pointed to highlights such as the use of horseshoe crab blood to screen for bacterial contamination and the ongoing work on spinal-cord nerve regeneration using the sea lamprey as a model. Scientists are even studying the reflective mechanism in cuttlefish skin that allows the squid cousins to camouflage themselves in the wild — with hopes that it might have applications in military camouflage. “It’s a far-out one,” Messina noted, “but other far-out ones have worked out, so you never know.”


After an overview video, Messina led us to the tank room, where he lifted one kind of marine life after another out of the water — horseshoe crabs, whelks and their string-of-beads egg cases, scallops, gelatinous masses of squid eggs . . . He selected two sponges that would grow together, and another pair that would grow a wall between them. They are research subjects to study the mechanisms of organ transplant rejection.

Returning to the human realm, Messina took us to the library that the MBL shares with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The old-fashioned stacks are filled with research journals and books in the marine and biological sciences. “They are all available in digital form,” Messina explained, “but over the years scientists have added their own research notes in the margins.” The record of evolving science captured on the pages is overwhelming — more than 50 Nobel laureates have taught, studied, or done research at the lab over the years.

The tour concludes in the Pierce Exhibit Center, which highlights some of the discoveries over the years (starting with the horseshoe crab blood research) and touches on current projects. The stories are compelling — the lab’s advances may lack the flashiness of big science, but they often improve and prolong the lives of people around the planet.


Established in 1930, the institute is a relative newcomer in Woods Hole. If the National Marine Fisheries Service and the lab stick largely to the local catch, the institute casts a wider net. Its vessels roam the planet, studying the oceans and ocean floor around the globe. (Neither of the large oceanographic vessels will be in port this summer.)

The institute’s Ocean Science Exhibit Center trumpets achievements that blend the imagination of Jules Verne with the adventurousness of Indiana Jones. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the institute’s most famous research vessel, the Alvin, the deepest-diving manned submersible in the world. The center has a cut-away model of the interior of the vessel that can take three people for dives of up to nine hours and to depths as great as 14,800 feet. The model, complete with a full instrument panel of switches and gauges, is especially popular with teenage boys.

Perhaps the most glamorous of expeditions was the 1985 discovery and mapping of the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor. The initial photography was done with Argo, a remote-controlled underwater vessel, and closer exploration was carried out with Alvin and another remote-controlled vehicle. More otherworldly explorations include the strange forms of sea life around hydrothermal vents on the deep ocean floor — lifeforms that depend on an entirely different chemistry than those of us who breathe oxygen and bask in sunlight.


Hourlong tours, conducted mostly on the institute’s dock, focus more on the nuts and bolts of the research operation. Most of the research is done “on the wire,” guide Hovey Clifford explained as he showed us the complex sensor wires used to place instruments in the water.

A trainee happened to be getting his initial session in a one-atmosphere submersible articulated diving suit (the Exosuit), so we rushed over to watch him being lowered into the water. “It’s like a wearable submarine,” said diving safety officer Ed O’Brien, explaining that the diver could descend 1,000 feet into the water and return immediately to the surface without needing to decompress.

But not all research requires putting a human in the water. One ingenious device can be lowered into the water to take 12 samples at different depths. Clifford unfurled a fine-mesh sieve the size of a giant wind sock and showed us the soupy, cloudy jar of sea water it had concentrated. “Every brown dot is a plant or an animal. It would take me a lifetime to count it all,” he said. “This summer, when you’re on the beach and a wave rises up and you swallow a gulp of seawater, remember: You’re getting your protein.”

The living ocean, indeed.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.