The Lab at the End of the Earth

Mar 28, 2024 | Marine science, Oceans

I introduce myself to visitors at the University of California, Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and Reserve by listing my qualifications as a docent:

First, I am local, so nearby that I can see the Lab from our house.

Second, this is a UC-Davis facility, and we are a bona-fide UCD family. My husband taught at the medical school for more than twenty years. Our daughter got her undergraduate degree at Davis. Her rescue dog is named Aggie, like UCD’s athletic teams.

Third—and I admit to saying this solely to impress—I have a Master of Science degree from Columbia University.  I pause for a beat or two. Then I add, “But it’s in journalism!” Visitors laugh and ask how I came to be a docent.

What drew me to the Lab—what’s always drawn me to certain places—are its stories. From the day I first ventured onto the 616 protected acres owned, leased, or managed by the Reserve, I was intrigued.   Driving  past coastal prairies and dunes, I beheld what looks like a  space colony hunkered on the continent’s rim.

The sun bounces off the roofs of massive structures, high as barns and wide as warehouses.  Sturdy, low concrete buildings, fortified against wind and waves, crouch above a postcard-pretty cove. A dramatic wall of windows rises like a wave joining two wings of  classrooms and state-of-the-science laboratories dedicated to aquaculture, climate change, ecology, geochemistry, microscopy, molecular biology, oceanography, and toxicology.

Smelt, rockfish, starry flounder, and other locals swim in giant aquaria in the Lab’s Great Hall. A cozy library houses over 6,000 volumes and many data-rich special collections, including some 3,800 student research projects dating back to 1928.  A terrace overlooks marine sanctuaries where whales spout, dolphins frolic, and sharks hunt.

Out back are a greenhouse, a dive pool for scuba instruction, an elaborate hydraulics system that can pump 750,000 gallons of sea water a day, and a climate-controlled nursery that shelters more endangered white abalone than exist in the wild. Offshore, on the Reserve’s bluffs, and in local estuaries, sophisticated sensors monitor winds, waves, currents, fog, salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll concentrations, and other vital indicators.

“The ocean is the planet’s vascular system, its life’s blood,” says Dr. John Largier, the Lab’s director, “One of our missions is to keep our finger on its pulse so we can see long-term trends and extreme events and understand how the ocean is changing over time.”

Since opening in 1966, the Lab has emerged as a powerhouse in coastal and marine science that attracts scholars and students from around the globe. On a front line of environmental change, multi-disciplinary teams respond to climate upheavals in real time, simulate ocean conditions and predict their impact, and develop strategies to maintain nature’s resilience and slow the loss of biodiversity.

“We can go into the ocean and ask questions of animals in their natural habitat, but we also can bring the ocean inside,” says Dr. Kristin Aquilino, associate director, “This allows us to ask complex questions that are vitally important to our oceans’ health.”

As the planet warms and seas rise, the Lab’s  research has taken on new urgency. I often talk with its scientists about how they cope with such  pressure and with the climate anxiety that troubles many lay people. Fully grasping the magnitude of the perils we face, they nonetheless voice optimism.

“What gives you hope?” I ask.  Their response: “The work we’re doing here.”

These world-class wonderers give me hope. From their perch at the end of the earth, they are helping shape the most crucial frontier of all: the future.

The Bodega Marine Lab and Reserve offer docent-led tours to the public on Friday afternoons from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m.  Click here to register for a specific date and time.

Photo credit: Deedee Shideler/ BML/ UCDavis


Dianne Hales, a New York Times best-selling author, serves as a docent and research volunteer at the University of California, Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and Reserve; a tide pool guide for the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods; and a monitor for the Seabird Protection Network.

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