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The sea runs deep in new biography of John Olguin, longtime director of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

September 30, 2011 |  9:08 pm

Olguin 2
John Olguin taught us to love the ocean.

Indeed, it was Olguin’s job to argue the case for protecting the sea as longtime director of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro.

The ocean was central to his married life, too. All of their lives, Olguin and his wife, Muriel, slept under the stars -- rain or shine -- on a large bed on the porch of their San Pedro home, and awakened to the barks of sea lions and the calls of gull below.

Olguin, who in 1999 was named Citizen of the Century by the Los Angeles Times, died in January at the age of 89.

His authorized biography, An Ocean of Inspiration: The John Olguin Story, from Rocky Mountain Books of Surrey, B.C., Canada, casts a warm and intimate eye on his remarkable life. It was co-writtenby three close friends and colleagues: Stefan E. Harzen, chairman and chief executive of The Taras
Oceanographic Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to marine mammal conservation; marine mammal researcher Barbara J. Brunnick;and Mike Schaadt, the current director of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.

Their research for this chronicle, which was launched a decade before Olguin died, was driven by great admiration and begins when he was born to an impoverished Mexican family in San Pedro.

"We had access to his archives and photographs," Harzen said. "He was an extremely hard worker, and had a wonderful view of the world in the sense that he tried hard to understand the really important things in life -- and reached out to share what he had learned with others."

Olguin worked as a lifeguard in 1937, at 16, and graduated from San Pedro High School in 1941. He won a Silver Star while in the Army from 1942 to 1945, serving in New Guinea, the Philippines and Japan.

He went on to organize the world’s first commercial whale-watching program for children in 1971 and presided over grunion watches in which thousands of onlookers dashed to the beach fronting the aquarium to witness the reproductive mayhem of the silvery, slender fish riding in on the swells to mate on the sand.

He found the love of his life in Muriel. The couple stayed fit by rowing 24 miles from San Pedro to Santa Catalina Island in a little boat packed with a thermos of coffee, warm clothes, sleeping bags, their little poodle, Pico, and his guitar. They also carried flares and a battery-powered light to row at night.

Their vibrancy, passion and influence come to life in these pages: “The couple ventured out to sea: pulling the oars -- not hard, just steady -- and leaning back to use their own weight to draw through the water. That’s what got them the mileage. As John used to say, “Five miles to a peanut butter sandwich!”

The book is scheduled for release on Oct. 16, and will be available at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, 3720 Stephen M. White Drive, San Pedro, and at Williams Bookstore, 443 W. 6th St., San Pedro.


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-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: John Olguin. Credit: Los Angeles Times