While many people have the opportunity to travel the globe, there is one world that very few are lucky enough to explore – the vast and mysterious depths of the ocean.
However, Director of the UCSB Marine Science Institute Steven Gaines has made the ocean his home, scuba diving in such places as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, as well as New Zealand, Chile, New England, South Africa, Panama and the Caribbean.
Although Gaines said his interest in marine biology did not begin until he was a student at UC Irvine, he now describes the underwater world as mysterious and magical and wishes he could dive more often.
“[It feels like] free floating in space,” Gaines said. “I love being weightless.”
Now at UCSB, Gaines fosters interest in the ocean among UC students by uniting both graduate and undergraduate students to collaborate on ocean-related projects. Gaines said he takes an interdisciplinary approach to his research.
“My goal is to entice people to work together across the campus,” Gaines said. “To work on problems in novel ways.”
Gaines said the ocean is the world’s primary climate regulator, greatest oxygen supplier and also provides a major sink for carbon dioxide and 20 percent of the world’s food supply.
“We need to understand how the oceans work so that we may use them positively,” Gaines said.
For the past few years, Gaines has participated in underwater dives in the Red Sea – an ocean inlet between Africa and Asia – to study coral reef deterioration.
“The Red Sea is an important reef of the world to research because the reefs are very diverse, there are a number of species,” Gaines said. “We want to understand why the coral reefs have been destroyed.”
Along with Israeli and Jordanian scientists, Gaines said he has also dived off the shores of the Sinai Peninsula – a triangular peninsula between the Red and Mediterranean seas – to observe “atoll reefs,” circular coral formations that often encircle islands or manifest on the top of sunken volcanoes. As the volcano or island shrinks slowly below water, the atoll coral forms a ring that continues to grow up to the water’s surface, forming a coral circle with a lagoon in the center.
Gaines said oil spills, coastal development, limited water circulation and temperature extremes have damaged the Red Sea atoll reefs.
“We were driven by the fact that a number of Israeli and Jordanian scientists noted changes; they are trying to figure out the causes of change and human impact,” Gaines said. “We went over to try to evaluate what we would do about it.”
Because of this, Gaines said the researchers from Israel and Jordan contacted him to set up marine reserves, which help “manage coastal ecosystems in a more sustainable way.”
In addition to diving in the Red Sea, Gaines said he has also studied coral reefs off the coast of the Egyptian city Sharm El Sheikh, located at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula together with Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian scientists.
“We dove out of Sharm El Sheikh because it is a huge tourist area,” Gaines said. “We needed to see what impact the explosive growth in diving had on the reefs. There is easy access to get there, so a huge number of divers are there than any place on the planet.”
Gaines said bleaching, a process that turns the coral reefs white, results from the waste leftover from hotel construction sites as well as excessive scuba diving and fishing.
According to the Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology website, Gaines received his B.S. at UC Irvine and his Ph.D. in Ecology at Oregon State University. Gaines has also been a research associate and assistant professor at Brown University and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University from 1982 to 1986.