When Biosphere 2 was launched in 1991, one of the biomes included in the 3.14 acres of glassed-in research terrarium was a thriving coral reef. Along with the other areas housed under the 7.2 million cubic feet of glass – like the savannah, marsh, desert and rain forest – the ocean biome was integral to the initial two-year mission in Oracle, Ariz. It has since been used for research and public outreach.

But over time, the biodiversity within the impressive 700,000-gallon, 9,000-square-foot ocean tank has diminished. With its opportunity for research and education on the wane, the University of Arizona – which bought Biosphere 2 in 2011 – has re-envisioned the space to mimic the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, the incredibly rich marine ecosystem that separates Baja California from mainland Mexico.

“Our transformation of this ocean into a 'Desert Sea' will highlight the rich ecology, diverse human cultures, and conservation challenges that are concentrated in the Gulf of California,” says a crowdfunding plea to finance the project.

Highlights will include Baja’s picturesque rocky shorelines, an array of cactus and a sargassum forest in the deepest part of the ocean tank.

Plans for the makeover began in July of last year, and now the gallery space will be opened to the public to show the beginning of the transformation. The Ocean Gallery will include an exhibit called “Return to the Sea of Cortez,” which chronicles the journey of author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts to the Gulf in 1940. More recently, a group of writers and scientists – including Biosphere 2’s program manager for the ocean, Dr. Rafe Sagari – retraced this historic adventure, the research and accounts of which will also be included in the exhibit.

“The gulf is an amazing place, one of the biologically richest environments on Earth; and it’s full of species of fish, invertebrates, reptiles and mammals that are found nowhere else on Earth, including one of the most critically endangered species, the vaquita porpoise,” says Sagari.

“We want to show our visitors and school groups, many of whom don’t recognize the close connection between desert and sea, just how vital the Gulf of California is to our environment," he added.

Watch Sagari discuss the ocean overhaul in the video above.

Related stories on MNN:

Biosphere 2 reboots living lab to mimic Gulf of California
The 700,000-gallon ocean tank within the living lab is being transformed into an ersatz Sea of Cortez.