The drive out to the Poly Pier is ominous. The narrow concrete bridge jets out into the middle of Port San Luis. The bottom steel looks like a grate, showing the ocean below. On a clear day, the view of Port San Luis stretches down the coast past Port Sal to Vandenberg.
Tom Moylan, Poly Pier’s director of operations, has a background in zoology and aquatic biology, and spends a lot of time on a marine research boat. Moylan’s pleasant demeanor shines as he casually shows off his work.
“It’s great being so close to campus that the students can come out here and experience first-hand what it’s like to do research in the field,” Moylan said.
The pier was donated to the university by Unocal in 2001 for a marine science and research center and is used for many of its programs.
The College of Science and Mathematics is in charge of the pier and has been allocated $3.5 million for maintenance and operations for the center.
The center hosts marine biology, invertebrate zoology, ocean technology, aqua culture and introduction to biology classes.
Moylan schedules lab times and helps the classes get the materials and supplies they need for marine research and experiments. He also builds the equipment for students and teachers and the facility’s maintenance. The pier must be cleaned often because it is prone to damages from ocean water. There are spikes on the equipment that remains outdoors so seagulls won’t land on it and damage the equipment with their excrement.
“Anything to do with facilitating use of the pier or developing content for the laboratory, I work with faculty to adapt it so they can use the facility,” Moylan said.
The Poly Pier is used for many other projects, including research by the physics department.
Recent Cal Poly graduate Dov Rohan, 24, is a research assistant for physics professor Thomas Bensky. Rohan spends his days out on the pier ensuring that student projects run smoothly and research is carried out properly.
“I love it because I get to spend my days out here on the ocean doing what I love to do, and especially on warm days like this, it’s amazing because I am lucky to have this job,” Rohan said.
Rohan said the physics department and the biology department are working together to develop a laser detection system to measure the fluorescence of phytoplankton and the importance of these creatures to Port San Luis.
Another project the departments are working on is a LIDAR system (Light Detection and Ranging), which measures boundary layers and the effects of Red Tides (that is where phytoplankton bloom near the surface of the water making the ocean a red or brown color) and upwelling sand movement.
The pier also has a pump building used to pump water from the ocean into 1,000-gallon tanks to filter in water used for research.
“There are two types of water filtered into the lab: raw seawater, which aides in looking at what’s in the seawater and keeping the animals alive; and then filtered water, which looks at specific species with no contributing factors such as other life-organisms,” Moylan said.
Inside the lab, there are student-made tanks, which house the ocean creatures being studied, including sea anemones, sea stars, octopi, shrimp, urchins, lobsters, sea cucumbers and limpets. One project that started last fall studies sand crabs and their behavioral habitat.
Outside, there are multiple tanks that are used to control the environmental conditions for urchins, because they are studying how important UV rays are and what the urchins do with the sunlight.
“Urchins are able to extract those compounds that block UV rays into parts of their body, which are more sensitive to light, and also give those cells to their offspring, so it protects them before they even hatch,” Moylan said.
Potential future projects include building a boat launch under the pier to make it easier fo faculty and students to cruise around Port San Luis so they don’t have to go to Morro Bay for boat expeditions.