This oral history interview is a project of the Historical Committee of the Outrigger Canoe Club. The legal rights of this material remain with the Outrigger Canoe Club. Anyone wishing to reproduce it or quote at length from it should contact the Historical Committee of the Outrigger Canoe Club. The reader should be aware that an oral history document portrays information as recalled by the interviewee. Because of the spontaneous nature of this kind of document, it may contain statements and impressions that are not factual. A full transcript of the video may be found below.
An interview by Marilyn Kali
Research by Kehau Kali Berquist
October 20, 2017
MK: Today is Friday, October 20, 2017. We’re in the Board Room of the Outrigger Canoe Club. I’m Marilyn Kali (MK) a member of the Club’s Historical Committee. One of the Historical Committee’s projects is to do oral histories of long-time members. Today, it’s my pleasure to be talking to Dr. Leighton Taylor, Jr. Good morning, Leighton.
LT: Good morning, Marilyn.
MK: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, when and where you were born?
LT: I was born in Southern California over 76 years ago, so I’m getting old, but thanks to the Outrigger and its facilities and ocean I’m able to stay in fairly good shape and keep moving.
MK: What city were you born in?
LT: Los Angeles, a suburb of Los Angeles called Glendale which is near where the Walt Disney Studio started and all of that, and then my family moved to a small ranch east of Southern California, a town called Beaumont where my dad grew cherries and peaches. So I essentially grew up on a fruit farm.
MK: That’s considered the High Desert in Beaumont?
LT: Yeah. It’s the pass between … If you drive from LA to Palm Springs, you go over a pass between two big mountains, so it was in that pass. Later, fortunately, my family moved closer to the beach. I spent a lot of my youth at the beach near Newport, Balboa Island, that area.
MK: Do you have any siblings?
LT: I have a sister who’s deceased who is older than me who lived in California. She grew up to be a farmer, a citrus farmer, but then later, she retired and moved to the beach. So I guess there’s an attraction to our family to the ocean.
MK: Salt in your veins.
LT: Right. Both of our children live very close to the ocean.
MK: Where did you go to high school?
LT: I went to Arcadia High School which is home to the Santa Anita Racetrack, the horse racing track. So everybody that went to Arcadia High School studied math at the racetrack. You could get in free after the seventh race if you lied about your age.
MK: There aren’t many people that know that. I grew up in Pasadena.
MK: We always went after the seventh race.
LT: Well, good for you.
MK: What year did you graduate from high school?
MK: Did you participate in any sports?
LT: I went out for football because my friends all pressured me into it, but I never played and I was the smallest guy around. You know those drills where you stand in two parallel lines and one guy runs out and the other guy runs out and tackles him? I’d always try and arrange to be opposite the guy nearest my size, but my friends figured that out after a while and they’d start putting the biggest guys next to me. It took me a few years to wise up and finally I decided “to hell with this, I’m going to go to the Drama Club because that’s where all the girls are.” so, I ended up being a drama guy which is more interesting than football to me.
MK: So you’re an actor.
LT: Right. I was trying to act like I was a football player, but I wasn’t.
MK: It didn’t work.
LT: It didn’t work.
MK: Where did you go to college?
LT: I went to college near Pasadena, a college called Occidental College which is also where Barack Obama went after he left Punahou after two years. I got two very special things there, a good education and my wife.
MK: What was your major?
LT: It was biology with a minor in comparative literature.
MK: Well, Occidental is … What do they call it? What kind of an education do you get? A general education or …?
LT: Well, I think liberal arts education.
MK: Liberal arts.
LT: Now, they have a very active marine studies program for undergraduates. They have six boats, a diving program, a diving locker.
LT: Yeah. That’s for undergraduates. They actually encourage undergraduates to do research with the professors and they publish papers as undergraduates. It’s a good school.
MK: How did you get interested in the ocean?
LT: Wow. That’s hard to say. It was always there for me. Even though for a few years I was under a cherry tree, I eventually discovered the ocean. I think the really … a moving moment, if it was not the moving moment, when I was about ten or eleven years old, I was fishing in Balboa Bay which has public piers and you can go out and fish. They have mussels that grow under them so you just pull off a mussel and bait your hook with mussel, and I caught a surfperch which is a family of fish that gives live birth. Most fish lay eggs, you know, and broadcast them on the ocean. But surfperches, the mother actually gives birth to live babies. I didn’t really know that at the time, but I caught this fish and my dad always says like most dads, “If you catch it, you eat it.” Right? So I took it in and cut it open and boom, all these little baby fish came out. They were kind of transparent at that point because they weren’t at term. You know, while in humans, we have a placenta which the mother gives nutrients and removes waste products through the placenta, in those fish they actually have very enlarged … the babies have very enlarged dorsal fins and they’re highly vascular so they lay on the mother’s tissue and essentially, it does the same thing as the placenta does. So these little babies came out and they’re all transparent. They have these huge dorsal fins and that just blew me away. So here I am.
MK: It interested you. How did you get from California to Hawaii?
LT: Well, after I finished undergraduate school, I wanted to go on with my studies for a couple of reasons. One of them is I’m very interested in marine biology and I also wanted to get a student deferment so I didn’t have to go to Vietnam, so that kind of helped. I was lucky to get one so I came to the University of Hawaii and studied here at Coconut Island in what we now call the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. I got a master’s degree here and I met some great people including some Outrigger members like Ricky Grigg. He was a grad student the same time I was.
Then after that, I moved back to California to Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla which is now part of the University of California San Diego and there was Ricky Grigg in the lab next to me. Then he got a job and came back to UH and became active in the Club, but more I think at that point and then I came back a year later. So it was almost like I was stalking him. He claimed that but I denied it of course.
MK: What did you major in at Scripps?
LT: Marine Biology specifically shark biology and then when I got here to … I got a job at UH after Scripps and was more involved with the reef fish ecology and some shark biology but mostly reef fish and coral and did that for a long time. I enjoyed it.
MK: At the university, were you a professor or were you a researcher or what were you doing?
LT: I was both but I had a special really lucky deal because in those days the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which is part of the Department of Interior then had a special program called Cooperative Fishery Research Units, big name but what it essentially was, was that it’s a cooperation between the state government, the state university and the federal government. The federal government paid me and another biologist to work as a faculty member and a researcher on the faculty of the Zoology Department at UH Manoa. The state gave us money to do research and the university gave us an office space and research space, so it was great. It’s the best of all worlds. We had a federal salary but were working at a State University. It was grand. I loved it. I did a lot of work in what we used to call the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Papahanau- Can you say that for me? I have a hard time saying that. Anyway, the special place to the Hawaiians that is to the northwest. Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Right.
MK: Specifically, what did your job entail?
LT: Basically, trying to protect the marine ecosystem out there which is a lot of seabirds, monk seals. There were really no monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands in those days. Fortunately, through protection they’ve come back and as you know, they’re honorary members to the Outrigger now. Sea turtles, monitoring fish populations, all of that. It was a great place to be.
MK: What do you think of our current president’s plan to take away the protection for the area?
LT: I’m totally against it. It’s short-sighted. If we go back to the protections to the Papahanaumokuakea National Monument, it started out as a wildlife refuge. Declared that by Theodore Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt to protect the seabirds which were being harvested for fashion in those days. Women’s hats had tropical seabird’s feathers on them and they were killing them by the thousands, and so Theodore Roosevelt protected that area because of that. Then later, George W. Bush declared it a national monument, and then later, President Barack Obama expanded it. It just doesn’t seem to make any sense to undo those proper actions that were done.
MK: It doesn’t make any sense. I hope it doesn’t actually go through.
LT: I agree. People in Hawaii are working to support that continuation of the national monument, maybe even give it more protections.
MK: How long were you at the University?
LT: Well, I was at Manoa for four years and then I moved to another university department, the Waikiki Aquarium, which at that time had a graduate and undergraduate education and research mission as well as public display which seems to be limited to now. But as I told you, that was a great job having the federal salary and working for somebody where the boss was way over in Portland, Oregon or somewhere and I didn’t have to deal with it. My senior colleague was a great guy and we’re both glad we were well away from the main office.
When I was at Scripps, I’d work … I was a post doc(toral candidate) at their aquarium. Scripps had an aquarium then down by the pier. It has since moved to a very nice location up on the hills called the Stephen Birch Aquarium. It’s a great spot. Because I have been associated with that aquarium, I was asked to serve on a search committee to find a new director to succeed Spencer Tinker (at the Waikiki Aquarium). I don’t know if he was a member of the Club in the old days but . . .
MK: He sure sounds familiar. I think he may have been.
LT: I was asked to be on the search committee and we interviewed people and we looked at things. The head of the search committee was Dean of Marine Science at that time who was John Craven, Dr. John Craven, well-known in Hawaii and his wife Dorothy and the kids. He was a great guy. We had a meeting one day and John said, “Well, we’ve chosen the candidate we want to be the director.” I said, “Really? I missed that meeting because I know we’d been going through these CVs and stuff. Who is it?” “You.” I said, “Me? No way.” I said I’ve got a nice solid federal salary. I’m working with graduate students. Why would I want to go?” John said in his very persuasive way, “Leighton, it’s the perfect job. It’s the perfect job. There’s no way you can screw this up. You can’t …” Because the poor aquarium was on really hard times at that time and had hardly any budget, had no support by the Legislature or the university except for John so it needed a champion and then John was essentially saying, “Even if you do a really crappy job, it’s going to be better than they’re doing now.” I mean how can you argue with that, right? I mean who gets a job where you can’t do it wrong.
MK: Well, a lot happened while you were there. You were there from ’75 to ’86?
LT: Right. The best thing I did at the Aquarium was hire my successor, Bruce Carlson, who had been my grad student. He was a student help. We had a lot of people. Because we had an undergraduate and graduate education mission we had a lot of graduate students working there as student workers. Some of them went on and did really great things. Paul Atkins who still lives in Hawaii is a really well-known photographer now. He makes films with Terrence Malick. He makes a lot of documentary films and ads. He started out filming with a Super 8 behind the scenes at the Aquarium to help pursue their educational program. Bruce Carlson eventually worked his way from student help up to director. It was the best job I ever had.
MK: Despite not being able to do anything wrong, you did all kinds of great things. What were some of the innovations that occurred during that period?
LT: Well, of course, in the greater aquarium world, there were a lot of things going on and we tried to incorporate some of those at the Aquarium, but our budget wasn’t big enough. One of the main things, which people take for granted now and is really what makes aquariums great, is cast acrylic. We used to call it Plexiglas. You can only make it quarter inch thick or something. It wasn’t very thick at all. An American discovered how to cast it, meaning pour it as liquid in large flat sheets, and they could make it really thick now. I mean if you go to Monterey Bay Aquarium now, the big tanks are probably ten inches thick of that cast acrylic. That’s what permits these wonderful displays that we have including one in the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia which Bruce Carlson went to from Waikiki Aquarium and became a science director there. They have a tank that holds six million gallons of seawater. If you think about the boundaries of a football field and if you fill that up to the chest of Colin Kaepernick’s (football quarterback) chest, that will be three million gallons.
MK: Oh, my goodness.
LT: So it’s twice that big. That allows them to keep things like whale sharks and manta rays and the water is very clear, but the length of the tank is such that you can’t see the end of it because seawater won’t transmit light that way. That was one of the big things, but we couldn’t afford a big tank like that, but we did enlarge a shark tank by using that Plexiglas.
The other thing I’d like to think we were really good at is creating essentially natural ecosystems behind glass for fish and invertebrates and living corals. We were one of the … Thanks to Bruce and other aquarists, one of the first Aquariums to keep over twenty species of living corals, and some of the corals that we collected back when I was working there are still alive at today’s Waikiki Aquarium.
Whenever we’d get an animal, we’d say, “Okay, we’re going to act like this is the last one we can ever get.” Because a lot of people up to that point said, “Okay, these fish are cheap. If you don’t take good care of them, they die. It doesn’t matter because the ocean is full of them.” That was the philosophy we tried to change by saying we have to take the best care we can of this. We were lucky to have a lot of good people there. Some of them graduate students and went on to other things.
MK: They’re not using graduate students anymore?
LT: You know, I’m not really sure. I don’t see many papers being published there. I mean the Waikiki Aquarium was the first place to, certainly in the United States, to breed and raise chambered nautilus which were very rare animal to have on display in those days, but now it’s fairly common. Again, I’d say it’s the best job I ever had because I got to work with students, and docents were great. The Junior League started an education program. I think there were a lot of women Outrigger members in the Junior League who helped our early education efforts and became docents, and so I got to work with all kinds of people. It’s good.
MK: Well, some wonderful exhibits today that they have. Now, any other stories you can share about the Aquarium?
LT: I can think of a lot of them. I’m not sure if it would be judicious to share them. Well, one of the things in those days, our budget was low and the student helpers that we had, especially graduate students, they loved working there but we couldn’t really pay them a lot of money. So, under the guise of security, we needed twenty-four hour security. We had sleeping quarters for students. One of them was over the shark tank and it was just a little loft where a person would go up there and sleep, and then of course, we had a locker room, shower rooms and stuff like that. Certainly not as good as the Outrigger, but you could take a shower there.
One night, this guy came home. I don’t know if he had beer or what the deal was, but he ended up falling out of his bed into the shark tank.
MK: Were the sharks hungry that night?
LT: I think it scared the hell out of him probably, but nothing happened except a good story.
MK: Well, now the Aquarium is practically next door to the Outrigger. What can you tell us about the marine life in the ocean in front of the Club and the Aquarium?
LT: Well, like marine life throughout Hawaii is threatened and we’re not taking care of it as well as we need to, but it’s … I mean we all have to work together to do that to protect our marine environment and our Outrigger neighbors and throughout the whole state. Anyway, as members know, it’s a great place for people that swim, to the wind sock, have contests about how many humu they can see, how many triggerfish they can see on the way out. There’s a lot of triggerfish.
Most people that swim out there know that the fish numbers and diversity increase while the area is off-limits for fishing for two years while it’s rotating with an adjacent area. They also know that on the day that that switches and spear fishermen are allowed back here, that’s probably a good time to see sharks out there because the spear fishermen are … You know, there are some clues in the water for sharks, blood and stuff. Then within about three to four weeks, boom, that fish diversity is gone again.
This is sounding very negative. I’m sorry about that because it is a wonderful place. There’s the live corals coming back that got bleached out by the higher surface temperatures. The corals are coming back. People always wonder about sharks out here. People see them and I always say my belief is that more people are seen by sharks than sharks are seen by people because they’re out there all the time and they’re looking around. For the most part, they’re tolerant neighbors of us and they were there first anyway. But when I swim out to the shark I’m still a little … I look around.
MK: You’re aware.
LT: Yeah. Boy, if those sharks have a grudge against anybody, it should be me because back in the ’70s, I was involved with a lot of shark research and in those unenlightened days, what you did was to go out and catch them and kill them and then look at them. Nowadays, the shark biologists at HIMB are tagging them and watching the live shark and learning from the living creatures, which is what they should do. So I figured when I’m swimming out there, “Uh-oh. These guys got it in for me because I killed a lot of them.”
MK: Did you remember the shark that Cline Mann nicknamed Sam that swam at the Diamond Head Buoy? Did you hear stories about that?
LT: Yeah. I heard about him. I never saw him. Or it could be a her. I don’t know. I don’t know for sure how closely Cline looked but he was a smart guy, he probably knew it was a guy. Because as you know, you can tell the gender of sharks, adult sharks by just looking at them. Their pelvic fins, the ones near the tail on the bottom, if they’re males sharks, they have these extended things which are used in breeding. The female doesn’t have those. If you see one with a pair of little things sticking back, that’s a male. If they don’t have them, it’s a female.
MK: I’ve never gotten close enough to check that out.
LT: Well, if you do, be sure to look.
MK: I know the kids used to go out there surfing (Diamond Head Buoy) and they’d look around and somebody would get excited, “There’s a shark. There’s a shark” and then the others would say, “Oh, that’s just Sam. He’s old. He’ll leave you alone.”
MK: You never had any dealings with him?
LT: No, no.
MK: Where did the Aquarium get its fish?
LT: Locally from fish collectors that went out and collected them and we had collectors on our staff. Rarely, we’d trade with other aquariums.
MK: Did you get them from right out in our front yard?
LT: No. In those days, it was mostly at Kahe Point and Waianae Coast where the reefs are a lot more developed. Some of them were out here. I mean if they were things like manini or convict surgeonfish or kali or things like that. But the rare ones like Potter’s Angelfish and Tinker’s Butterfly Fish, we’d collect them out at the Waianae Coast.
The reason I bring those two up is those species were named for directors at the Waikiki Aquarium. The first director was Frederick Potter who actually worked for the trolley company. There was a trolley that came down to Waikiki, and to encourage ridership all the way up to the end of the line here in Kapi’olani Park, that company built the Aquarium. Frederick Potter was the first director so he got this beautiful orange and blue angelfish named after him. Then he was succeeded by Spencer Tinker, who many people might remember, who was the director for a long time, and he had a beautiful black and white and golden butterfly fish named after him, Chaetodon Tinkeri.
So by the time I came, mostly those really beautiful fish had already been named, but a graduate student of mine discovered a new species of little goby, a little tiny fish that lives back in a cave, so he named that after me, Trimma Taylori. In the paper in which he described it, you had to write a scientific paper when you describe the species, he said that it’s distinctive because of the lack of scales on the top of its head.
MK: Oh, dear. Is our coral outside in front of the Club healthy and growing?
LT: Well, I’m not aware of any surveys that have reliable data, but just anecdotally, it looks like it’s coming back from a period of real distress because of, you know, people know about coral bleaching caused … The warmer water temperatures tend to kill the algae that grow inside the tissue and that has bad effect on the coral tissue. Of course, there’s a biologist in Hawaii at HIMB, Ruth Gates, who’s working on how we can help solve that problem. But it looks like the coral is coming back.
Members might recall the king tides that we had several months ago, June, July and August where the … Every year, we have very high and low tides at that time of year. When the moon and the sun are lined up in a certain way, it makes the tides very high. This year, they were much higher. The tides weren’t really that much higher but the sea level around Hawaii was six to eight inches higher not because of melting of ice caps or anything but because when water gets warmer as it was, it still is, it expands and when things get warm they expand, so the great mass of seawater around Hawaii expanded.
Then there was a current pattern like an eddy that caused a standing higher edge of sea level. Those two things combined to make the high tide six to eight inches higher than they were predicted to be. They were predicted to be two foot eight and they were three feet or so or above three feet and the lows correspondingly are going to be below zero meaning they’d be very low and in some areas reef would be exposed. The reef, they never hit zero. They were always six to eight inches above zero. That was kind of an aberrant thing but it gives us an idea of what a new normal might look like someday.
MK: Going back to the Aquarium, I seem to recall that the Aquarium sponsored reef walks. Was that during your time?
LT: Yeah. One of the things we’ve started there was marine education program for kids and for families and for adults. Reef walks were among those to get people more interested in what kind of animals are out there and get involved in the ocean. We even went to the point of travel. We had a biologist who would lead travel to Palau, snorkel trips to Palau. I don’t know if you remember Audrey Sutherland. She wrote a book called “Paddling My Own Canoe” or something. She actually swam the north shore of Molokai, camped out. Anyway, she would help lead these kayak trips to Palau.
MK: Well, are there different kinds of coral? I mean when we talk about our reef, our reef is made up of coral. Are there different kinds or is it all just one kind out in front of the Club? What do we have out there?
LT: Well, there’s a lot of different kinds of coral. The corals are related to sea anemones. People probably know if you look at a coral polyp. Those things that we think of corals are big stone structures made by the little animals that leave them. In a way, they’re like condominiums … right? … with one individual in each cell. The thing that corals can do which other plants and animals can do, but they do it really well is to take dissolved essentially limestone, calcium carbonate dissolved in seawater, take it out and cause it to precipitate, cause it to get hard. That’s how they make their condominiums or skeletons.
The shape of those skeletons vary from species to species. We’ll see species out here that are big and round like just before you get to the Wind sock, there are some big pillowy corals called piridies and over on the reef you can see things that looked like cauliflower which are another kind of coral, but there are other animals and plants that are able to take that limestone out of solution, too, and those include some algae, some limu make this red encrusting covering in the reef that cements the reef together.
Of course, snails, cones, shells and things like that, they’re doing the same thing. Sea urchins do the same thing. When they die, when these organisms die and living tissue decays away, that limestone remains and it breaks up and that’s really what forms most Hawaiian beaches is the remnants of those plants and animals. So we have them to thank for our beaches.
MK: How old are they?
LT: Oh, tens of years, maybe hundreds of years depending on the size or colony, where it is. One of the first projects I did as a master’s student out here was kind of fun for me because I wanted to find out how fast corals grew, and that cauliflower coral I was talking about grows on all kinds of things. It would grow on the chains of the buoys that marked the harbors, and then when you come in to the harbor there’s a red and a green buoy, and those are cleaned by the Coast Guard every two years. They keep regular records of when they clean them so they pull the chain up and knock all the corals off, clean it off, put it back down again.
So, I could go around and scuba dive on these chains and knock off corals, and I knew the earliest time they could probably start growing, in other words, right after they cleaned the chain, and then if it’s been a year since that time and now I had this chunk of coral, I could figure out how much it had grown in that time period. It’s amazing how fast corals grow once they start, certainly that species. Other species don’t grow as fast maybe.
MK: Well, now we always consider that the ocean out here is our front yard. What else could we be doing to help make it healthy so that it lasts and we still have this beautiful front yard in the future?
LT: Well, I think just locally here, just taking care of things and being a good host to the monk seals is a great example. I know that sometimes it gets a little annoying when you go down there and want to be in a certain place in the beach, but I think just acting as model citizens to do that is a good thing because the way we’re going to protect the ocean is each of us individually caring about it, but acting as agents with our community and with political groups and NGOs, non-profits that have a mission to do that.
We all have to be busy about doing that. We can’t just take it for granted. Certainly, the Club has become better about using materials that can recycle and so we don’t have plastic ending up in the ocean, because as everybody probably knows, that’s one of the biggest problems now for both local oceans and the world oceans is pollution from tiny pieces of plastic.
I talked about working at Papahanaumokuakea Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Even in the ’70s, you’d go to seabird nests … The parent seabirds come back and feed the babies in the nest by regurgitating fishes that they’ve collected. There’d be all these plastic stuff around the nest that the parent fish mistook as fish and they go down and get it and bring it back and feed it to the young and in a lot of cases the young choked and died.
You’d find little things like … I found a toy soldier one time on a nest and little fragments of zoris (rubber slippers) and pieces of bleach bottles. You can imagine how much worse it is now. I mean we see these pictures about the jars in the middle of the Pacific that are just full of plastic and stuff. We have to be careful about that individually and as a society.
MK: I think that’s something we need to pay attention to. You’ve touched briefly on global warming. What are your thoughts about it?
LT: I don’t like it.
MK: Is it real? Some people say there’s no such thing. It’s not global warming.
LT: Well, I have never done any direct research myself but I haven’t done any direct research on brain disease either, but I believe it exists because there’s research other people have done and there’s evidence for it. It’s the same way with global warming. There’s certainly evidence for it. Undeniable evidence. Some people deny that there’s any climate change at all. Some people deny it. They say, “Yeah, there’s climate change but it’s a natural kind of cycle. Humans have nothing to do with it.”
But there are so many data that suggest that it is human activity that is causing global warming. If we’re wrong about that but we take action as if it were true, we’re still going to be better off than not taking any action. If it’s true and we take no action, then we’re really in trouble. That seems to be the way our nation is treating it: It’s not a problem. We can keep burning coal. We can’t. People need to wake up and realize it’s a major problem and we have to deal with it.
MK: Well, we’re losing our seawalls slowly but surely. Do you think the Club will still be here in fifty years?
LT: Well, I sure hope so. It might be further up in Kapi’olani Park or somewhere maybe if the Elks will keep leasing. I don’t know how far back their landholdings go but …
MK: Well, I hope so. Did you see the monk seal (Kaimana) that was born on our beach?
LT: Oh, yeah.
MK: Rocky and Kaimana?
LT: Yes. Right. Yeah.
MK: You’ve studied monk seals at some point. Could you share us your experience?
LT: Well, I don’t know if I really studied them. I certainly observed them and wrote a paper or two about them. The Waikiki Aquarium was lucky to host monk seals so people could see them. As I said, back in those days, nobody had ever seen a monk seal close up except in a place like Waikiki Aquarium and then later Sea Life Park. So in those days, it was important to know about the seals so we could keep them healthy and keep them relatively normal. Then up in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, I counted them and tagged them and did research on them up there and did swim with them a lot and got to watch them, how they fed, what they did, and it was interesting.
One thing I saw at the French Frigate Shoals, which is the first big atoll that you come to after Nihoa and Necker, it had some rocky pinnacles that are left there that stick up above the water and they have caves underneath them. You can actually free dive into the caves and when you get into them, I looked up in one and noticed there was a lot of air in the top of one. The top of the cave would be below sea level in other words, so you’d swim in.
Normally, you’d expect it to be full of water, and as every scuba diver knows, when you go into a cave and exhale, the bubbles go up and they get trapped up there. You can look up and it’s like looking at the bottom of a mirror and you’d see a reflection. I was free diving and I was the only guy around. Our research boat was nearby. I swam in this cave and I looked up and there was a bubble just like there’d been a scuba diver in there, and I thought, “Where did come from?” Because there’s no way that the waves could do it.
I swam around for a while. I saw a monk seal go in there and not come out for a while. I went down and looked and it was exhaling bubbles, blowing them up into the … like that. Later, I saw … I don’t know if it’s the same monk seal or not, I couldn’t tell … stick his snout up into the bubble and inhale. Because exhaled air is full of carbon dioxide and stuff, but if it sits, it will come to equilibrium and the oxygen will come back to it.
What I think was happening, and I had some people here analyze gas and so forth, these guys were extending their breath hold time. They could stay underwater in a nice safe place away from sharks because there wasn’t much beach nearby to haul out on. So they could go under there and stay down longer because they had their little cache of air that they could breathe. I published a little paper about that. It was not a really scientific paper because I got a small sample and kind of speculated, but it was fun and I had pictures of all of them.
MK: It sounds like you’ve been diving in some wonderful interesting places around the world. What were some of your more interesting dives that you’ve done?
LT: Well, I guess … It’s hard to say. Certainly the Solomon Islands, the Fiji. I have a dive boat down there, a lot of good work. I know I have many regrets but one of them is that I wasn’t born a little bit later so I could use the diving techniques that people are using now like Richard Pyle at Bishop Museum and Randy Kosaki who is the head of the National Monument. They’re able to use rebreathers now and dive to 400 feet and see things that nobody has ever seen before, discover new species, and with those rebreathers, they don’t release any bubbles either like I was talking about in the caves with normal scuba divers. So fish react very differently to them. You’re not down there making a lot of noise by exhaling your bubbles so you can see all of these animals. I regret missing out on that. I’m a little old dog to learn that new trick, but I can see where that kind of diving would be very exciting.
I think the most fun and exciting dive to me I made was actually free diving with whale sharks in Kanton Island, an atoll southwest of here. That was a lot of fun.
MK: Whale sharks are pretty big, huh?
LT: Oh, yeah. They’re super big. Yeah. Twenty, thirty, forty feet. Maybe not quite forty feet but they look like they’re forty feet. That experience came because Kanton Island at that time was under the … being cared for by the U.S. Air Force because there was a big air strip down there that have been built originally for Pan Am Clippers that flew through Hawaii and then down there. So they expanded the airstrip as an alternate landing place for the Apollo spacecraft to come down and land. So, there was this big, long airstrip.
Kanton is an atoll that’s essentially C-shaped. It’s only got one little entrance into it. It’s like a closed C. This whale shark swam in there and got trapped. Then couldn’t figure out how to get out again I guess and they were way in the back. So the Air Force said, you know … They called up and said, “We heard that you know about sharks. Can you come down and take a look at this and see what we can do?”
They had big airplanes that would go down there in those place, big cargo aircraft. Originally, they were there to serve the Apollo mission. The Apollo mission was over so the Air Force had about ten people down there just because they hadn’t figure out what to do with it yet. So these ten people, some of them Air Force, some of them civilian employees, were just down there with nothing to do, but every week they’d send this big airplane down there with fresh meat and in those days, Playboy Magazines and that’s all they were carrying.
So, I went down there with another diver and we looked around and saw all of this reef development, beautiful reef, beautiful fishes, this big airplane, and realized this would be a great place to collect fish and corals and bring them back to the aquarium on this big airplane. There’s no way we could fill that airplane up with anything. We took a lot of stuff up there and started collecting little blacktip reef sharks, which many people have seen in Hawaii and they’re born at about a foot long and they look perfectly proportioned at that size. They looked like six-foot-long sharks, but they’re only this big.
So, we could collect the sharks down there and bring them back here and display them but also provide them to other aquariums throughout the U.S. and Japan to display this terrific shark which do very well under human care, and so that was fun.
MK: Did you get the whale out?
LT: You know, I think it eventually found its own way out. To tell you the truth, Marilyn, we were not interested in getting it out because if we did, there were no excuses to go back.
MK: Do you have any other stories about blacktip reef sharks that you could tell us?
LT: I think everybody knows a species that’s in a Hawaii and they tend to … The pregnant females come in to shallower areas and give birth to their little pups, and then the pups stay in those shallow areas. The Maui side of Lanai is a good place to go look for blacktip reef sharks. The Portlock area used to be a great spot for that, anywhere where there’s big expanses of sandy bottom.
Kanton Island Lagoon where we were down looking at the whale shark had this very extensive sandy bottoms and they were just loaded with pups, the little guys that grow up as adults to be five feet long or so. It was just loaded with them and they were easy to transport. They did very well under human care and they looked really easy to catch because they were in about mid-shin or to knee-deep water and sometimes even ankle-deep water. You could run through the things and with a giant butterfly net catch them, right? Except it wasn’t that easy. We weren’t really that good at it and it took a lot of effort to get a shark.
One of the employees that worked down at Kanton Island for the Air Force had this Labrador retriever named Blackie and Blackie could catch those sharks like nobody’s business. He’d ran out there and then he’d kind of herd them into shallower water and then he’d take his paw, boom, knock them onto the beach and we’d just pick them up. So most of the sharks at the Waikiki Aquarium blacktips, they had been collected by a dog. So I think it was great.
MK: Oh, dear. Now, you were involved with whales at one point and you got to name a whale. How did that happen?
LT: Well, kind of close. It wasn’t really a whale. It was as shark that feeds like a whale. It opens its mouth and swims through water that’s loaded with plankton, little shrimp, little tiny animals. There are two other shark species that feed that way. The whale shark, it still eats meat like a shark. It just eats teeny little pieces, shrimp, and it does that usually near the surface in the tropics. The other species of plankton-eating shark is the basking shark which is not related to whale shark but it feeds in a very similar manner in more temperate waters like Monterey Bay, there’s basking sharks, the Irish Sea.
Those were the only two known species of plankton-eating sharks until 1976 when some Navy researchers working off Kaneohe … They’re out in pretty deep water doing classified research but it seemed to involve hydrophones and sound and everything. But because it was deep water and they had about a sixty-foot boat, they couldn’t anchor in the water so they’ve deployed this sea anchor, a big parachute essentially that would cause a lot of drag and the boat could stay more or less in the same station.
They pulled it up one day and it had this big shark hanging on the end of it. They hauled it in to Kaneohe Naval Air Station over there and the lieutenant in charge, Lieutenant Linda called me up at dinner time one night and said, “Leighton, we got a whale shark over here. Are you interested? Do you want to see it?” I said, “Sure.” She says, “It’s not really that big for a whale shark. It’s only about fifteen feet long or so or seventeen feet long.” I borrowed a truck to maybe take it back if it looked interesting and went over there and they had this thing hanging up by a crane out of the water.
Linda said, “It’s a whale shark, right?” I said, “No. It’s not a whale shark.” “Well, what kind of shark is it,” she said. I said, “I don’t know.” She said, “You’re supposed to know that stuff.” I said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” So I put it in the truck and we brought it back here at the Aquarium. Well, actually, Brooks Takenaka at the United Fishing Agency, the fish auction, he let me put it in their cold storage till we figure out what to do. I got to thinking, “I’ve never seen anything like that or even a picture like that. Maybe I missed something.”
I was close enough out of grad school. I called my professor, my major professor who had directed my research and taught the ichthyology course I took to study fish course and I said, “You know, Dick …” Rosenblatt was his name. “Dick, I know I missed some of your lectures.” He said, “You missed a lot of them, Leighton.” I said, “Well, I missed some of your lectures, but maybe you’ve covered this shark,” and I described it to him and everything. Nowadays, you’d send a picture … right? … but I couldn’t do that, so I described it. He said, “I’ve never seen or heard anything like that.”
Anyway, it turned out to be not only a new species of shark but a new genus, which is a large group of species, and a new family of shark. So we hauled it over behind the Aquarium on the grass and did all the measurements and started studying and had a box made to put it in. It had this huge gaping mouth because it has to open its mouth and filter a lot of water to get the little shrimp out of it like whales do and like these other two sharks. So people just … I don’t know who said it first but it just seemed obvious. They called it the Megamouth Shark because mega, huge mouth. Big mouth shark.
It’s still called the megamouth shark but its scientific name is Megachasma pelagios which means giant yawner like a chasm, giant yawner of the open sea. It seems a reasonable name for a shark like that.
MK: Is it still on display at the Aquarium?
LT: When a new species is named, the author of the species, which happens to be me and a couple of other guys, the authors have to designate what’s called a holotype that means the key specimen that if somebody finds something similar to it but it’s a little bit different, they compare it with this one and see if it’s a different species or not. The holotype is at the Bishop Museum in a big box and they display it occasionally. But since then there’s been, I don’t know, eighty taken in the world’s oceans; Brazil, Japan, Philippines. They actually have one in a fish market in the Philippines. California, all around the world they’ve been collected.
MK: Wow. So they get around.
LT: Right. Unlike whale sharks and basking sharks, which feed near the surface, these guys feed pretty deep below the surface, maybe a thousand feet, eight hundred, five hundred feet deep. They come near the surface at night when there’s no moon because the animals they’re feeding on follow a light regime and so if it’s noon, really bright sun, that community of animals, the shrimps that the shark feed on go deep and when the light level drops, they come up near the surface.
So the whale shark … you’ve got me calling it a whale shark now. The megamouth shark follows this and goes up and down. That’s when it was caught when it came up and apparently mistook that parachute for a big school of shrimp or something, but you’re right they feed like whales.
MK: Yeah. Well, let’s change the subject a little bit and talk about the Outrigger Canoe Club. How did you become interested in joining?
LT: It looked like a great place to hang out, eat, drink, do sports and some good friends of mine, Gordon Damon, I think a lot of people remember Gordon. We lost him a few months ago, but he was a big help to me at the Aquarium. He said, “You know, you need to join the Outrigger Club. It’s your kind of place plus you’ll meet a lot of great people there that will help you support the Aquarium.” So, I joined. I’ve never regretted it.
MK: That was in 1975.
LT: Yes, I think so.
MK: Gordon was one of your sponsors?
LT: Yes and an oceanographer, Jim Jones was the other sponsor. He was an oceanographer and researcher up at UH.
MK: Did you get involved in any ocean activities at the Club?
LT: Well, you know, sadly, I never got involved in paddling. I should have I suppose. It would be good for me. But mainly swimming and the Waikiki Rough Water Swim.
MK: Oh, I’m glad you’re a swimmer. Did you know that the Castle Swim is coming up next week?
LT: I do and I think that’s a … How long have they been doing the Castle Swim? That’s a longstanding Club tradition, right?
MK: Absolutely. Actually, it started in 1917 so this is the 100th anniversary of the Castle swim.
MK: So you should enter if you’re … Are you in shape?
LT: I’m in shape. I won’t tell you what kind of shape, but I’m in shape.
MK: It’s about 1.2 miles.
LT: You know, I cheat nowadays when I swim, I don’t wear goggles anymore. I just wear a mask and snorkel because it’s easier for me to breathe plus I can see things, and I figure it’s not really fair to swim that way but since I’m an ichthyologist, it’s okay because I can say I’m doing research while I’m swimming.
MK: Well, I understand they now have a fin division in the Rough Water Swim.
MK: There are people who swim with fins?
LT: I got beaten by somebody swimming with fins one time. It was a Labrador dog. I’m not kidding. It actually had a number on it and its master was on a longboard knee paddling where that’s its escort. It just didn’t really speed past me but it passed me pretty fast. So I’m swimming and I think, “Geez, I got beat by a dog.” Then I thought, “Well, you know, it’s got webbed feet. They’re bred to be in the water. They’re especially selected with these webbed-feet. It’s essentially got four fins it’s swimming with.” So, that’s how I consoled myself for that.
MK: Was this the Rough Water Swim?
LT: Yeah, yeah. The dog swam two and a half miles or whatever it is.
MK: Well, you’ve said you were a snorkeler and a scuba diver over the years. Are you still involved in those activities?
LT: Yeah. Yes. Not as much as I used to. I don’t do a whole lot of diving in Hawaii. Some of it is travel diving. Island Divers in Hawaii Kai has dives occasionally off China Walls where people would go clean up the bottom where it’s just full of fishing line and lead weights and things that ulua fisherman have sacrificed in their fishing method, but the bottom is covered with that stuff and so it’s a good dive for me to clean that stuff up. I think … Was it Kaimana (monk seal)? … the pup that was here was caught with one of those lead things in its mouth.
LT: Anyway, that’s a fun dive to do and it’s local and shallow.
MK: I bet you have lots of underwater photography pictures you’ve taken.
LT: I’ve got boxes, little yellow boxes full of slides. I used to take pictures but I’ve realized that there are so many other people. Hugo de Vries and Mike DeGruy in the old days and Al Giddings who I used to work with, Norbert Wu. Those are guys that … and women photographers, too, that I can’t think of right now but they’re out there. They’re so much better photographers than I am. Why should I accumulate more yellow boxes?
MK: They do pile up. Now, you ran the Honolulu Marathon as well.
LT: I started and I finished and there was some running involved. Yeah.
MK: Only once?
LT: Two or three times, but that was long ago. Our son who grew up here in Hawaii now lives near the ocean in Malibu. When he was about fifteen, I thought he was pretty lazy and not working out so I said, “Rob …” This is like September or something like that, I said, “Rob, you start working out for the marathon, and at the finish line, if you come in under four hours, I’ll give you a hundred bucks.” He said, “No way you’re going to be at the finish line under four hours so give me the hundred bucks.” I said, “Well, you can wait around then.”
I thought that would give him the incentive to work out regularly. So he shows up with me and another Club member Billy Al Bengston, and Billy was a really good runner and kind of uncle to Robbie so he took Robbie under his wing and they took off and I’m in the back. I get to about eighteen miles and Robbie says, “I’m quitting. I’m walking.” Billy says, “It hurts as much to walk as it does to run or hurt as much to run as it does to walk. Keep going.” Robbie and Billy finished at 3:59:50 or so, barely under. But Robbie couldn’t walk for the next four days because he had not worked out and somehow he did the run but boy did it take its toll on his quads.
MK: Did he ever do it again?
LT: Yeah. Actually, he went out for cross country at Punahou and Ralph Dykes was the coach at the time. He’s now my reef buddy. We do work on the reef together. So maybe it was $100 well-invested.
MK: Well, you served on the Public Relations Committee for seven years at the Club and you chaired it in ’81 and ’82. How come you joined the committee?
LT: Well, I think that printed word is the best thing to hold communities together really if it’s books, newspapers. The magazine The Outrigger gives is a great way for people to stay in touch with the Club whether they are nonresident on the mainland or they’re here. I’d like to write so I want to be involved with that.
Even today when there’s social media and there’s websites and Facebook and Instagram, I think it’s still really important to have the printed word around because it’s tangible. Not everybody is involved with social media either because they’re old or because they’re smart and don’t want their whole lives out there. So I think there’s a lot of argument for printed media like The Outrigger and I certainly enjoyed working with the committee in those days and they were kind enough to let me write a little column called Outrigger Neighbors which is a profile on an animal from time to time and that was good.
I think also that our printed magazine is a great record, and since this oral history is a project of the Historical Committee, I think the members of that committee know how important the printed magazine is and will continue to be. I mean when biographers do work a hundred years from now, they’re going to be at a real disadvantage I think because biographers now can go back and hold letters in their hand, read letters, read books that people wrote, and I think it’s going to be really hard to write biographies from emails that are in a format that nobody can read anymore, you know.
Anyway, that’s my prejudice as a writer. So serving on that committee was great because it kept me involved with writing and communicating to Club members about what’s going on here.
MK: Were you also involved with the House Committee?
LT: Actually, it was Building and Grounds Committee.
MK: And Building and Grounds.
LT: I think I was invited to join because they figured I worked at a place a few doors down that was subject to wear and tear from the ocean and sea air so I might know something about it, which I didn’t, but it was fun to be on.
MK: Do you serve on any other committees in the community?
LT: I’ve worked with a non-profit out in East Honolulu or East Oahu called Malama Maunalua. Our mission is to help the marine ecosystem heal in that area. Maunalua Bay, just to remind us all, goes from Koko Head to Black Point. So, all in front of Kahala. That whole reef has got a lot of problems from runoff from the hills to invasive algae, overfishing. So Malama Maunalua is trying to work with all of our community to help the bay heal, get back to position where it’s got diverse and high fish numbers and invertebrate numbers so families can fish and catch something.
MK: That’s important, too. I’m going to change the subject a little. I understand you’re retired now and that you got involved running a vineyard in Napa Valley.
LT: Yes. When I left the Waikiki Aquarium, I moved to the mainland to work at a natural history museum in San Francisco, California Academy of Sciences and part of my job there was to oversee a 2,000 acre ranch up in Sonoma County. It was a natural area reserve that had been given to the museum by a philanthropic donor or supporter. My wife and I would go out there to visit the property and talk to the manager about what was going on and stuff. It was just a beautiful part of the world.
Linda had grown up in a farming community and I had grown up in a farming community. She said, “You know, it would be great to get a couple of acres up here, maybe next door in Napa or something like that and we ended up with 180 acres. Those were the days when normal people like us could buy land in Napa and Sonoma. It’s not possible anymore. So, we got lucky. Our timing was good. We got a piece of property and we decided to … Linda decided to start growing grapes. I had a consulting business so I’d go out and get money and I’d bring it back and she’d bury it in the ground in the form of vines.
We got involved in growing grapes for other wineries and they were really good grapes so we decided we’ll start making our own wine out of part of it. So we established our own little brand and-
MK: What was the name of your brand?
LT: Cloud View Vineyards. It was a Bordeaux varietal vineyard red wine, combination of two main grapes, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. That was a lot of fun, but would people say, “You used to work in an aquarium. How come you work in a winery?” So it took me a while but I figured out this pat answer. “Well, they both involved pumps and a lot of tubes and managing living communities because yeast is a living community. Plus if you do it right, they both smell good and if you do it wrong, they both smell bad.”
MK: Are you still in business?
LT: I’m in a special part of the wine business now called inventory reduction, which I hope you will all join me in drinking other people’s wine because there’s a lot of wine out there. We have an obligation to lower the inventory. That’s what I’m thinking. I think the Club is doing a really good job with their wine list and their wine service. We’re lucky here to have a good wine program.
MK: Do you attend any of the wine dinners that they have?
LT: Yeah, occasionally, but I used to be in that business and that’s what I do, so it reminds me of hard work and I like to avoid that.
MK: Okay. Let’s change subjects again. You’re married.
LT: Yes. To Linda. Fifty-five years. We had our 50th wedding anniversary celebration here at the Club. We had a great time.
MK: Fifty-five years and you have children. How many?
LT: We have two children. Rob who is a nonresident member and Maria. He lives in Malibu with his family. Our daughter Maria who grew up here, too, came back from California with her husband and twins and they live in Niu Valley. They’re not members of the Club right now but I’m hoping to get them back in.
MK: Especially your grandchildren.
LT: Yes. Right. Yeah.
MK: That’s wonderful. Were they paddlers or involved in the Club when they were growing up?
LT: They paddled. Not really super committed like a lot of people are fortunately but they paid their dues and paddled.
MK: Good. Well, Leighton, I’ve really enjoyed our chat this morning. Is there anything else that you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?
LT: I don’t think so, Marilyn. It’s been a great pleasure. I appreciate you doing it. I know that everybody subconsciously at least values their membership in the Club and recognize how important it is and sometimes we need to bring that more to our consciousness about how lucky we are to have this place and each other.
MK: What has been being a member of the Club meant to you?
LT: Access to a lot of good people and certainly to a good part of the ocean here and nothing like an Outrigger shower, too.
MK: And the parking.
LT: Right. Yeah. Somehow despite changes in managers and so forth, the staff always seems to remain not only cordial but loving.
MK: They’re like our family. People like Domie (Gose) who fixes our canoes. I mean he’s like everybody’s uncle or brother or whatever, and the people in the dining rooms, they’ve all been wonderful. I think that’s one thing that people love about Outrigger.
LT: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
MK: Well, thank you very much for doing this oral history today. The information and stories about our ocean front yard will be a great addition to our archives. Thank you.
LT: Thanks, Marilyn.
Service to the Outrigger Canoe Club
Public Relations Committee
Building and Grounds Committee