The changes in the intracellular pH (pHi) of sea urchin sperm associated with motility initiation and acrosome reaction were investigated using uptake of two different probes; 9-aminoacridine and methylamine, as a qualitative index. Sperm suspended in Na+-free sea water were immotile and able to concentrate these amines 20-fold or greater indicating that pHi is more acidic than the external medium (pHo = 7.7). This uptake ratio was essentially constant over a wide range of probe and sperm concentrations. Discharge of the pH gradient with specific ionophores (nigericin, monensin, and tetrachlorosalicylanilide) or nonspecifically using low concentration of detergents (Triton X-100 and lysolecithin) all resulted in the release of the probes indicating they are indeed sensing the pH gradient across the sperm membrane. Addition of Na+ to sperm suspended in Na+-free sea water resulted in activation of motility with concomitant efflux of the probes indicating the alkalinization of pHi by 0.4-0.5 pH units. That this pHi change is the causal trigger of motility was suggested by experiments using NH4Cl and nigericin, which increased the pHi and resulted in activation of motility in the absence of Na+. When sperm were directly diluted into artificial sea water (motility activated), a slow reacidification of pHi was observed in one species of sea urchin (L. pictus) but not in the other (S. purpuratus). This acidification could be blocked by mitochondrial inhibitors, verapamil, or the removal of external calcium suggesting that the increase in metabolic activity stimulated by the influx of Ca2+ is responsible for the reacidification. Induction of acrosome reaction further alkalinized the pHi by about 0.16 pH units and was also followed by prolonged reacidification which correlated with the observed increase in Ca2+ uptake. Either mitochondrial agents or the removal of external Ca2+ could also block this pHi change suggesting a similar mechanism is involved.