It started more than three months ago. Volunteer divers working on a well-publicized scientific study in the water off the Balboa Peninsula found that some of the buoys used for the project had been cut loose.
A few weeks later, tubular casings were found to be leaking at the bottom of the kelp beds the scientists had planted. Workers for the project thought they had made a mistake in designing the tubes or in placing them in the kelp.
“We thought maybe this was an engineering problem,” said Steve Lusk, a spokesman for the Marine Forest project. “But when we went to untangle them from the ropes . . . we found that the pipes were leaking air, and we found drill bits broken off in the holes. That turned an engineering problem into sabotage.”
The Marine Forest project was started in 1988 by French marine biologist Rodolphe Streichenberger to try to perfect a way to grow sea life on the ocean floor.
To develop growing techniques, the scientists set up a 10-acre kelp plot 300 yards off the coast between the Balboa Pier and the Wedge between 30 and 60 feet below the surface.
Recently, however, the seabed experiments have come under attack, project members say. There have been four incidents of vandalism over the last three months, among them holes drilled in pipes and ropes cut off at the base. Among the casualties of the incidents were a set of kelp plants and a number of mussels more than 3 years old.
“When you lose an experiment, you lose a story of the sea in it,” Streichenberger said. “When you lose a piece that is 3 years old, you lose a lot of knowledge.”
Streichenberger said that project workers have no idea why anyone would want to destroy the kelp experiments, since the project has few competitors.
“You don’t have many avenues of suspicion in a place like this,” Lusk said. “But who in the world did we upset?”
In an effort to track down the culprits, Lusk is sending a letter to all the divers and other individuals who have helped with the project seeking their help in solving the mystery.
Streichenberger reported that so far, his techniques for kelp and mussel production are proving quite effective, showing that mussel and kelp forests can grow in sandy soil.