The University of Arizona

We're Building an Ocean in the Desert

Nowhere Else on Earth: The Desert Sea VIDEO

The Desert Sea at Biosphere 2: Transforming the Ocean from b2science on Vimeo.


The ocean biome at Biosphere 2 is a 676,000 gallon saltwater tank that was originally designed as a coral reef.  The ocean provides a large platform for scientific research that can replicate some aspects of the complex real ocean in a controlled environment. Previous research in the ocean has included pioneering studies on ocean acidification, the fate of plastic pollution in ocean waters, and the diversity of micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses in the ocean. 

Ocean Now

Various student groups have also conducted surveys of the ocean life, revealing 10 or more species of tropical fish and 10 species of algae, as well as various marine invertebrates like tube worms, that live in the ocean with no external feeding.  These surveys indicate a large decline in biodiversity in the B2 ocean since its original form as a living coral reef.  This decline has greatly hampered our ability to do cutting edge science on the ocean and to share with visitors the story of our amazing and imperiled ocean environments. We are planning on transforming the ocean into a living replica of the Gulf of California, which will provide numerous new opportunities for scientists, school groups and public visitors.

Our Desert Sea

The Sonoran Desert owes its biological and cultural diversity in no small part to its proximity to the rich waters of the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California, yet many southern Arizona residents and most visitors from afar have little notion of the tight connection between desert and sea. We are working on a visionary yet pragmatic transformation of the large 676,000 gallon B2 saltwater ocean into a “Desert Sea”--

Sea of Corteza living model of the Gulf of California--that will highlight the rich ecology, diverse human cultures, and conservation challenges that are concentrated in this unique sea.


Educational opportunities will accrue through enhanced visitor interpretation, new K-12 curriculum, and special programs built around the new exhibit. Research opportunities in marine ecology, biochemistry, climate change, ocean acidification, genomics, and conservation biology will also find rich ground in the new environment. The Desert Sea will additionally foster strong bi-national collaboration with scientists, conservationists, students, and educators in Mexico.

Our Vision

Ocean Vision

We are working on plans to transform the ocean to look like the Gulf of California.  New added features including rocky shorelines, a cactus studded island designed to mimic the Gulf’s midriff islands, and a sargassum forest in the deepest (21 foot) part of the ocean tank, will highlight some of the biologically richest habitats in the region. The Gulf is host to a rich array of hearty vertebrate and invertebrate animal species and algae that will be beautiful additions to our ocean tank.




We’re Getting Started

Getting Started

This is a big project, but in the meantime, we are making a number of improvements to our underground ocean visitors’ gallery (OVG), including installing a new exhibit, “Return to the Sea of Cortez” that shows how much the Gulf has changed since the 1940 expedition of author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. We are also bringing new Gulf fish and invertebrate speciesto our display tanks in OVG, developing a tidepool touch tank experience for visitors, and providing visitors simple guides from the Seafood Watch program to help them make choicesabout seafood consumption that minimize harm to the ocean environment.  We also have recently opened a new Marine Science Lab within the B2 habitat that we’ll use for new K-12 ocean-based classrooms and for ocean research such as feeding experiments with our new Gulf Species.



The New Ocean Gallery Has Opened!

As part of our planned transformation of the Biosphere 2 ocean, Ocean Viewing Gallerywe are excited to open our new Ocean Gallery and the Return to the Sea of Cortez exhibit at 5 pm on Saturday, March 8 at Biosphere 2. The new Ocean Gallery tells the story of the past, present, and exciting future of both the Biosphere 2 Ocean and the Gulf of California. From earlier times of abundant life and optimism about their future, through many challenges of balancing human and ecological needs, to a hopeful future where more people are becoming passionate about understanding, protecting, and restoring ocean environments, the B2 Ocean and the Gulf of California have many mysteries and wonderful tales to share.

Within the Ocean Gallery we are also opening the “Return to the Sea of Cortez” exhibit that chronicles the storied journey of author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts to the Gulf in 1940. This remarkable journey, which brought together ecology, philosophy and the fellowship of two active minds, is one of the finest examples of collaboration between science and the arts. The exhibit reveals what was discovered when scientists and writers retraced the original journey sixty years later. Biosphere 2’s Program Manager for the Ocean, Dr. Rafe Sagarin, was a key part of this expedition.

While touring the new Ocean Gallery, visitors will find large viewing windows to see under the surface of the existing B2 Ocean, while smaller aquaria populated with colorful Gulf of California species will give a preview of the kinds of life forms we’ll bring to the Desert Sea transformation. OVG TanksChildren can join the spirit of discovery that inspired John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts with their own field notebooks that they can use to sketch our animals, learn how marine biologists really work, and plan their next coastal expedition. They’ll also be able to see and touch some of the Gulf’s tidepool animals in our touch tank. This is a great opportunity for visitors to Biosphere 2 to see a transformative science and education project at its early stages and even contribute ideas to how we should develop the Desert Sea.


Getting Involved with the Desert Sea

Along with recently hired Director of Education and Outreach, Dr. Kevin Bonine, marine ecologist Dr. Rafe Sagarin, who has conducted research throughout the Gulf, will be coordinating the planning and development of this exciting project. 

We are fortunate to have a great group of volunteers, including divers from The Dive Shop in Tucson, Arizona, who have been maintaining the ocean tank and are excited to build for its future. We will be working with scientists, aquarists, museum designers, and artists from the US and Mexico, to ensure that all the changes we make best fit B2’s scientific research, public outreach and STEM education goals.  We would love for YOU to be a part of this transformation.  If you would like to volunteer, plan your research project around the ocean, or know of a student who should be part of this project, let us know!  Contact: Rafe Sagarin, Program Manager for the Ocean,


Rafe SagarinBiosphere 2 has hired Dr. Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist with extensive experience in the Gulf of California, as a Project Manager to coordinate the project, which began in July 2013.  Dr. Sagarin is the first dedicated leader the ocean environment has had since the University of Arizona took over B2.  Dr. Sagarin conducted some of the first marine research linking changes in marine populations to climate warming (Sagarin et al. 1999) and he also documented extensive ecological changes throughout the Gulf of California as part of an expedition to retrace John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts’ famous “Sea of Cortez” expedition (Sagarin et al. 2008; Steinbeck and Ricketts 1941).  Sagarin is a Guggenheim Fellow and the author of Observation and Ecology: Expanding the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World (Sagarin and Pauchard 2012), a book which addresses the challenges of connecting our understanding of complex ecological systems across scales, exactly the type of challenge we try to address at B2.  He also serves as a faculty mentor to the UA’s Carson Scholars, a carefully selected group of the UA’s most promising graduate environmental researchers, who are trained in science communication skills.  For this proposal, Dr. Sagarin will serve as: coordinator; facilitator of the meetings described; lead research scientist; and mentor to the graduate researcher.  Dr. Sagarin will continue to work with B2’s Director for Science, Peter Troch, and B2’s Director for Outreach and Education, Kevin Bonine, to ensure that the transformation process is compatible with, and advances, B2’s overall research and outreach goals.