The Marine Science Institute’s touch tanks provide visitors with a close encounter of the oceanic kind.

The touch tanks, which contain a wide variety of ocean creatures, from lobsters to swell sharks, are not open to the general public. However, thanks to the ongoing efforts of the institute, classes and tour groups will continue to receive occasional opportunities to cop a feel.

Established in 1969, MSI supports marine, coastal zone and freshwater research as well as marine policy studies and educational outreach in marine science at UCSB. MSI is developing the Marine Science Education Center, managed by Scott Simon, which will create programs to help meet the needs of the community. The new facility will house the touch tanks, which were previously run by the life sciences departments.

“Historically, MSI has administered a tour program, but the touch tanks themselves are located within a space that has been assigned to the biological sciences departments,” MSI Management Services Officer Shanna Bowers said.

The touch tanks have been open to groups for scheduled tours during one week each quarter, Bowers said. In the past, MSI has scheduled tours for Parents’ Day and UCSB alumni groups. With the new educational facility, it will expand its community outreach. However, Shane Anderson, the director of the facility which houses the current touch tanks, said the touch tanks’ primary purpose – to support the needs of instruction and research – will remain unchanged.

“Our mission isn’t outreach,” Anderson said. “The facility is for use by classes.”

Anderson said that he makes sure the facility has sea life relevant to students’ studies. For instance, the tanks currently contain sponges and anemones to aid in the instruction of invertebrate zoology.

One interesting inhabitant of the facility is the swell shark. As a defense mechanism the swell shark puffs its body in order to wedge itself into tight spots. This way it becomes more difficult for a predator to grab onto.

While the touch tanks will not be open to the general public, faculty and students may become involved in developing curriculum with local schools that will complement scheduled tours. The Materials Research Lab and the Physics Dept. have high school outreach programs, and similar initiatives are envisioned for MSEC. These new programs will include a docent that will educate visitors and ensure the safety of the marine life.

“Marine Science is very concerned that marine animals are not abused. The animals are rotated, kept in appropriate conditions and certain animals are kept away from one another.” Bowers said. “All programs are docent-monitored so that the animals are treated well.