Dr. Jerry Schubel was a national leader in the scientific world about all things related to the ocean when he came to Long Beach's Aquarium of the Pacific in 2002.
When he retires next week (July 31), he will have positioned the aquarium in the center of the debates regarding the ocean's role in the future, from sea level rise to feeding the planet's population. His crowning achievement, the $53 million expansion called Pacific Visions, is being described as the cutting edge platform for discussion of humankind's future and the role the ocean will play in it.
"Pacific Visions gave us the platform to get the message out," Schubel said last week in an interview. "The real test will be how we use it to change attitudes. Back in the beginning (of his tenure) we started to add components that most aquariums don't have to accomplish that goal."
In a way, Schubel was just following orders.
"Jim Hankla (city manager in 2002) and (Mayor) Beverly O'Neill hired me," Schubel said. "They told me then that it had to be more than a fish tank. We set out to do that, and now scientists from around the world know of the aquarium and the work we do here."
Hankla said that when Schubel came to town, he originally was being considered as a consultant in the search to replace Warren Iliff, the president and CEO who opened the Aquarium of the Pacific for Long Beach. Hankla and Russ Hill, then chair of the aquarium board, met with Schubel.
"About halfway through our meeting, Russ and I looked at each other," Hankla said. "There wasn't any point in searching further. He was our guy, and we took it to the board.
"Jerry is a visionary. He imagined the whole thing in his head, then he went out and made it happen."
Schubel had the credentials. From 1974 to 1994, he was dean of Stony Brook University’s Marine Sciences Research Center. For three of those years he served as the University’s provost and is Distinguished Service Professor emeritus.
Before going to Stony Brook, Schubel was associate director of The Johns Hopkins University’s Chesapeake Bay Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in oceanography from Johns Hopkins University. He has written more than 225 scientific papers and his list of scientific group affiliations covers more than a page.
His emphasis on making the Aquarium of the Pacific an educational institution rather than strictly an attraction started early.
"I was very impressed with the opportunity," Schubel said. "There was the setting on the ocean … there was a chance to create a different type of aquarium. We began to develop programs to tackle issues you couldn't tackle elsewhere."
Schubel started the Aquarium Academy and the Aquarium Lecture Series. He brought in Science on a Sphere — a literal globe displaying different information with different programs — and created programs for it. He convened multiple scientific panels on topics ranging from aquaculture to sea level rise. He led study to complete a Climate Resiliency Report for the city of Long Beach.
"We decided the aquarium should be a gathering place, a place for discussions," said Doug Otto, a board member since the aquarium opened. He led the search team for Schubel's replacement. "It started with the cultural festivals — there's one almost every week now — and grew with the academy, the lecture series. Pacific Visions was the culmination. It is the ultimate flexible space to prompt discussion. It fits in perfectly with Long Beach's identity as an educational center."
Schubel worked for years on both the concept of the two-level Pacific Visions and the fundraising to pay the $53 million tab. The unique exterior is matched by exhibit areas and a 300-seat theater with a curved, 130-foot long screen and other enhancements to create an immersive experience. There are only two tanks on the second floor with any fish.
“It’s not about bigger tanks for bigger animals,” Schubel said when the expansion opened. “It’s about the one animal that’s putting all the other animals on this planet at risk: It’s about us and our activities that are causing so much trouble.”
A new emphasis on coral reefs prompted a revamp for the Tropical Pacific Gallery and a new movie and exhibits in Pacific Visions for 2020 — but the coronavirus pandemic hit just weeks after the unveiling. That story of coral reefs and how they reflect the health of the ocean will be waiting when patrons are allowed inside again, Schubel said.
Those exhibits are a continuation of Schubel's vision of education and turning to the ocean for answers. And the pandemic should be an opportunity to find new solutions, he said.
"This COVID situation is going to have a long, hard fiscal wake," Schubel said. "As an informed educational institution, we have to reexamine how we look at the ocean. It is an opportunity to look at a Blue Economy, where we use the ocean to solve our problems."
Schubel said his vision of the aquarium's mission is in safe hands with his successor, Dr. Peter Kareiva, whom Schubel knows. Kareiva also is a well-known scientist with an institution administration background — something critical as the aquarium negotiates through the impacts of COVID-19.
"The most serious challenge we've had so far is what we are facing now," Schubel said. "We went into this year, fortunately, with some reserves. But as we enter 2021, those reserves will be exhausted. The next 18 months will be critical."
Schubel said he won't be far away — he and his wife Margaret will move to Carlsbad to be closer to their daughter. He said he won't be playing golf or sitting on the front porch, but rather will work on "issues important to me."
And he will continue to be an influence in Long Beach, former Mayor Beverly O'Neill said.
"Jerry is a motivator, a visionary," O'Neill said. "That's why the Aquarium of the Pacific is known as not just an aquarium. And he'll continue to motivate others to keep it that way."