Senior Director at SF’s Steinhart Aquarium Has Rich History With Beloved Marine Museum

“We must actively heal the damage already done to the planet, as well as to the relationship between people and nature.”

Humans are intrinsically tied to the flora and fauna we share this oscillating space rock with. There’s actually a term describing this relationship: biophilia. But contemporary societies have largely unraveled this affinity from our routine lives.

Alas, it’s proven disastrous for conservation efforts — for our physical health, our mental well-being; for the future of our planet.

Ethically-run zoological facilities, like the California Academy of Sciences in-house Steinhart Aquarium, help mend this fallacy and reknot that aforementioned linkage. Having now called the San Francisco aquarium — which houses almost a thousand species of both aquatic and semi-aquatic wildlife, including an African lungfish named Methuselah, one of the oldest-known aquarium fish in the country at over 90 years old — his place of work for over two decades, it’s a connection to our human nature Senior Aquarium Director Bart Shepherd, who rocketed past his 25th year of working for the aquarium in 2022, knows all too well.

Like many of us who arrived in this city from faraway locations, Shepherd came to San Francisco with a wide-eyed ambition that he would later focus on after becoming smitten with SF’s premier marine museum.

“I moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1996 with a vague idea that I might be able to work at Steinhart Aquarium,” Shepherd told me in March of last year in light of his 25th work anniversary at the aquarium. “I had finished all of my coursework and experiments for my Master’s degree, but still needed to write and defend my thesis. A former colleague from the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Museum, where I had worked prior to grad school, introduced me to Tom Tucker. Tom was the Curator of Steinhart Aquarium from the 1980s through the 2000s.”

It was that initial introduction that spurred Shepherd to begin volunteering with Tucker a few days a week, mostly feeding animals inside the aquarium’s historied Fish Roundabout and a few other tanks; Shepherd also did some diving and cleaning — “very basic stuff,” as he comments.

Then in 1997 when two Steinhart Aquarium biologists left, something that Shepherd describes as being “unheard of,” he was brought on as one of four new “much younger” full-time employees. (For myself, Shepherd’s hiring sits as a prime example of when one’s skillsets they’ve fine-tuned over time allow them to meet a moment of seemingly serendipitous opportunity — “it was a moment of being in the right place at the right time,” Shepherd explained.)

It, too, was this fresh round of hires that sticks out in Shepherd’s mind as an inflection point when the organization started to pivot from “the old to the new,” which allowed the aquarium to grow into a contemporary facility.

However, there were some growing pains in transitioning toward a more modern-day zoological institution.

“Pretty much any new idea presented was met with ‘we tried that already’ or ‘that sounds like a lot of work,” Shepherd said when discussing some of the hurdles he and the new hires experienced at the beginning of their careers at the Steinhart Aquarium. “It took a fair amount of effort to make any changes in the organization, it was so entrenched in what had been done for decades. And honestly, it was a very mediocre facility.”

Nevertheless, they persisted in revitalizing the establishment — renovating the exhibits, doing deep cleans (that involved scraping away everything from flaked paint to dried squid), unclogging drains, and everything in between. The biggest changes to the Steinhart Aquarium came after a $30 million bond secured by the City in the late 1990s, allowing for it to move to a new site in Cal Academy. Though because of unforeseen issues and “the politics of it all,” it wasn’t until 2004 — seven years after Shepherd was hired — until staff and animals alike began actually moving out of the old establishment and into its new residence.

“On that time, the project grew from a ‘simple’ $30 million aquarium rebuild to an almost $500 million complete reimagining of the California Academy of Sciences,” Shepherd remarked, commenting earlier on how the sheer scale and time needed to complete the move was woefully underestimated.

Because the aquarium was quite literally being built from the ground up, Shepherd and others played a pivotal role in helping design the now-current iteration of the Steinhart Aquarium: “I worked on the designs of the new Academy, in particular, the Philippine Coral Reef aquarium, for six years before we opened. I had a hand in helping develop many of the other exhibits. I spent a year visiting the building during construction to check on progress and collaborate with a huge team of architects, engineers, and exhibit designers.

On the first day the reimagined Steinhart Aquarium opened on September 28th, 2008, Shepherd fondly remembers seeing thousands of people lining up outside the building just waiting to enter; some aquarium-goers toward the front of the queue camped out overnight; everyone was “just glowing with enthusiasm and appreciation.”

“We have robust conservation programs focused on coral reefs, African penguins, and local California marine environments,” Shepherd reminded me, explaining how the new building, which received a certificate of occupancy on October 26, 2007, is actively growing certain corals in captivity to both better understand their biologies and creative in-house genetic reservoirs, should such species of coral go extinct in the wild. Oh… and his team of biologists has also rescued African penguin chicks in South Africa.

“My team has gone to the Caribbean to collect coral sperm and eggs when they spawn, fertilize them in the lab, and then plant these baby corals back out on reefs,” he recounted. “We have gone to Cape Town to rescue African penguin chicks that were abandoned by their parents and hand-feed them until they are old enough to be released back into the wild.”

Each year, Shepherd and his team also conduct fish and invertebrate monitoring in coastal California waters through a partnership with Reef Check California, a nonprofit that monitors marine ecosystems — like kelp forests — inside and outside of California’s marine protected areas, allowing participating researchers to assess the health of these environments and mitigate potential problems.

The aquarium, too, supports rainforest conservation efforts through how it purchases butterflies for its rainforest exhibits, existing in tandem with other conservation goals and climate crisis mitigation projects the Steinhart Aquarium currently honors. Shepherd says that he and his team are working through “many different channels to advocate for strong climate change policies and actions.”

But as Shepherd describes, conserving the natural world around us — including the flora and fauna it contains — isn’t enough. We need to mend our relationship “between people and nature,” a mantra that fits in nicely with the facility’s new mission statement: we regenerate the natural world through science, learning, and collaboration.

“Simply put, sustainability isn’t enough anymore,” Shepherd said in conversation. “We must actively heal the damage already done to the planet, as well as to the relationship between people and nature.”

Now rounding the corner of its centennial, the future of the Steinhart Aquarium is bright and bioluminescent. The aquarium will continue conservation work, as well as exist as a hyperlocal touchstone for San Franciscans (and tourists alike) to engage and honor their biophilic tendencies.

“I’m honored to be the Director, and I look forward to celebrating this milestone anniversary, reflecting on our history, the impact that we have had in San Francisco and beyond, and the exciting future ahead of us,” Shepherd voiced in closing. “I’m proud to have restored a tradition of the Steinhart Director collecting and describing new species of fishes. We have an amazing team of people working here at the Academy, so it’s hard to predict what such a talented group of people will accomplish — but I know that it will be amazing and I can’t wait to see it.”

1 Comment

  • Peter Jacobs

    Sheperd sounds to be a remarkable guy and it is good to hear that Steinhart is getting the attention and improvement it needed.I am a former San Franciscan living in Baja. There is talk of building a similiar aquarium in Baja yet no date or extended information available. I have not been to The City in years yet still have a few friends there. I plan on visiting the first week of September ( my favorite time in SF ) and look forward ro revisiting my past even though the changes are not all positive. I am also becoming a fan of your reporting on the City, genre and interesting changes that I have not heard of before. Take care. Peter

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