Julie Packard has served as the sole executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium since its 1984 opening.
Julie Packard has served as the sole executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium since its 1984 opening. (COURTESY MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM)
In 1969, a drilling platform in the Santa Barbara Channel released 3 million gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, choking the life out of a long stretch of California coastline. Julie Packard remembers the event well. It was the first time she realized something she cherished but possibly took for granted could be sacrificed. And it was the moment she decided if it actually happened, if she lost the life of the ocean, she would have only herself to blame.

Five years later, Packard graduated from Crown College at UC Santa Cruz with a bachelor's degree in biology. And four years after that, in 1978, she commenced from the same university with a master's degree in biology, her principal interests and intentions focused on marine algal ecology and aquaculture.

At that time, Packard, a board member of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, began working to establish the Monterey Bay Aquarium, uniquely dedicated to understanding and preserving the Monterey Bay. She has served as the sole executive director of the aquarium since its 1984 opening, leading the institution through the establishment of various unprecedented exhibitions and conservation initiatives designed to expose and educate now more than 45 million visitors.

One of the more dramatic and, perhaps, controversial exhibits opened in March of this year. The 7,000-foot Hot Pink Flamingos: Stories of Hope in a Changing Sea is dedicated to examining how climate change is affecting ocean life — but it has been provocative. The diary farm industry has objected to a life-sized model of a cow wearing a gas mask (the mask has since been removed), and others simply object to being told what to eat. Largely, though, the exhibit has been well received, particularly its use of unique animals such as flamingos and sea turtles.

"There is compelling scientific evidence," said Packard," that climate change is dramatically affecting oceans worldwide in ways that threaten the survival of marine ecosystems and — ultimately — our human societies. But opinion polling shows that our knowledge and concern about climate change ends at the shore. I've seen the power of ocean animals to motivate and inspire the public. And I've seen the capacity of the public to move from caring about to caring for our oceans."

In 1987, the late David Packard established the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, dedicated to developing new technologies for understanding deep sea and global ocean systems. And, in 2004, Julie Packard moved beyond the immediate mission of the aquarium by establishing the Center for the Future of the Oceans to expand the idea of conservation, and to inspire action on behalf of all oceans.

"The creation of an aquarium-based conservation advocacy center," said Packard, "was not without risk. We realized that people might not welcome our increased focus on conservation messages. Our visitors might not want to get personally involved with conservation action . . . (Some) might disagree with our points of view or feel we should not be taking positions on issues. As our work unfolded, none of these issues turned out to be barriers; instead, the public response was overwhelmingly positive."

Just more than 40 years since Julie Packard's life path was irrevocably altered by an oil spill, it happened again. In the wake of the April explosion and sinking of the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Packard is deeply concerned about the acute and the chronic effects of the subsequent massive and continuing oil leak on the next generation of ocean and human life.

As someone who's worked long and hard on behalf of wildlife and nature, Packard views the tragedy as a human story.

"But it's not what you think," she said. "It's not about the tragic loss of human lives in the accident, or the vast economic impacts or the lost lifestyles. It's the tragedy that we all stood by — citizens, government, industry — and figured everything was under control, as we extended our reach deeper and deeper, into riskier and riskier waters, in oceans whose health is already under siege. We have the opportunity, right now, to come to our senses, and to do the right thing on behalf of our oceans, that sustain us in so many ways. How do I know this? Because . . . we've done it before."