It was once called the fish roundabout. The folks at the Steinhart Aquarium still get asked about it, Bart Shepherd ’92 says. In the dark, 360 degrees of marine life darted and swirled all around in glowing tanks, with you at the center of it all. It was supposedly once one of San Francisco’s best date spots. Shepherd was just a volunteer back then. He was there to feed the yellowtail.
“It was amazing,” he says. “I would literally carry two 5-gallon buckets filled to the top with whitebait fish — smelt and capelin and things like that — up three flights of stairs.”
All those steps later, he met with a frenzy. The bait would be gone within 30 seconds. “They would go crazy, splash all around and eat it,” he says. “Then I’d carry the empty buckets back down.”
More than two decades later, the Fish Roundabout is no more. Today, there’s a panoramic fish tunnel and an amphitheater that overlooks a bustling coral reef. In fact, the entire Steinhart Aquarium has since been replaced and remade within the modern California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. But Bart Shepherd is still here. He’s been aquatic biologist, senior aquatic biologist and then curator before becoming director in 2011. And he’s not just feeding the fish anymore: He’s finding them, cataloguing them, planning exhibitions and protecting their coral reef habitats around the world.
Bart Shepherd grew up in the Little Neck area of Virginia Beach, a tiny peninsula embraced by branches of the formerly oyster-rich Lynnhaven River. His father would take him out fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, and he’d spend time kayaking the calm nearby waters. From age 6, he kept an aquarium in his bedroom and would fall asleep to the sounds of its bubbling filter.
“I had a tiger shovelnose catfish, which is a fish that gets to be many feet long,” he says. “I should not have had any business keeping that in a 20-gallon tank.”
When he was in the sixth grade, his family went snorkeling in the Caribbean and young Bart was immediately “blown away” by the elkhorn corals there. Today, those corals are nearly 95% extinct.
“But all throughout the Caribbean they used to form these barriers that waves would break over,” Shepherd remembers. Coral reefs can reduce the energy of ocean waves by as much as 97%. “I can remember being a kid and snorkeling out. When the waves went by, the branches stuck up out of the surface of the water. I knew there was amazing stuff on the other side of that, but I didn’t know how you could get there.”
At William & Mary, Shepherd kept increasingly larger aquariums in his dorm room and later in the Sigma Nu fraternity house. But he graduated with an art history and anthropology double major, thanks to what he describes as a “genetic” predisposition to art. Still, it didn’t turn out to be an exact fit.
“I thought, ‘I’m gonna end up working in a museum for the rest of my life.’ I couldn’t have that happen,” he says. “I told everyone I really wanted to be a rock ’n’ roll guitar player.”
Named after a Dr. Seuss book, his band On Beyond Zee played gigs around Virginia and North Carolina before recording an album together. But when the band didn’t take off further, Shepherd returned home to Virginia Beach and a job at the Virginia Marine Science Museum (VMSM) — today known as the Virginia Aquarium. “I sold out and became a marine biologist,” he jokes.
A QUICK STUDY
So began an eventful few years that shaped his path as a scientist. Shepherd started out at the VMSM as an exhibits technician, maintaining the aquarium’s interactive displays for patrons. Before long, he switched over to the “live exhibits” side and spent a year learning about the hundreds of species of fish and coral on display there.
After a 1994 trip to the Galápagos Islands, he participated in an Earthwatch program: two weeks of diving and coral reef surveys along the shores of Maui. The program required no previous experience; a copy of the seminal “Corals of Australia and the Indo-Pacific” was there to help participants sort their organ pipes from their bottlebrush corals.
“I was flipping through and I could identify a lot of the corals just from knowing them from the aquarium world,” Shepherd says. The host professor from Earthwatch was surprised and asked ‘How do you know all these?’”
The aquarium experience and the trips to the Pacific gave him the confidence and motivation he needed to focus his career goals toward marine biology. It might not seem like a logical move for an art history major, but to Shepherd, it fit together perfectly.
“For an art history class, what do you memorize?” he asks. “There’s a painting, they put it up on a projector, and you need to know the title, the artist and the year it was painted. It’s the same thing for a fish. Give me a color picture of a fish: You need to know the genus, the species, the family, where it’s found, what it eats. It’s the same sort of visual reference system. That works in my brain.”
Shepherd trucked up to Poughkeepsie, New York, to begin pursuing a master’s degree in evolutionary biology at Vassar College. There, Shepherd dove into the locomotion of fish — and all the complex math and physics required to describe it. “It was a very intense period of time,” he says, but he remained focused on the ultimate goal: to get certified in the field where he knew he could succeed. He moved to San Francisco in 1996 with some friends to finish writing his thesis; after all, it’s halfway to Hawaii, where so much of the good coral action is.
The City by the Bay is also home to the California Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit founded in 1853 that today includes the popular Morrison Planetarium, the indoor Osher Rainforest, the Tusher African Hall and the Kimball Natural History Museum, among many other highlights. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums-accredited Steinhart Aquarium arrived in 1923 and celebrates its centennial this year.
“I had this sort of weird idea that I could get a job at Steinhart Aquarium,” he says. He connected with a former colleague from the VMSM who put him in touch with Steinhart’s then-curator. Before long, he was a volunteer carting smelt up to the Fish Roundabout.
He defended his thesis at Vassar the same week he was hired full-time at Steinhart — right around the time plans were being drawn up for a new California Academy of Sciences.
REEFS AT RISK
Coral reefs occupy less than 1% of the ocean floor, but harbor 25% to 30% of all marine life. Island resorts all around the tropical latitudes rely on their dazzling shows of color for snorkelers and recreation, to the tune of $36 billion per year. So naturally, the Steinhart’s centerpiece exhibit is the Philippine Coral Reef, the largest indoor reef in the world at 25 feet deep and 212,000 gallons. Mangroves stretch their roots over the surface, where yellow-green corals drink in light from the sun and — on foggy San Francisco days — metal halide lamps.
“I spent six years working on this tank, from models and blueprints and species lists to going to the Philippines and doing dives,” Shepherd says. “We took photos of the kinds of sand that exist there, trying to get the highest degree of scientific accuracy that we could.” The Philippine reef here is thriving, and still growing every day.
But real-world reefs are sensitive systems, often the only oases for fish in an otherwise bleak and forbidding ocean floor. Small changes in water temperature, pH or salinity can spell disaster. And then there are the usual suspects: climate change, coastal development, overfishing and pollution.
“It’s hard to not be depressed and disillusioned by these things when you experience them firsthand,” he says. In a 2021 presentation given to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, Shepherd showed two photos of Tahitian reefs taken only 10 weeks apart. The first is of himself, floating in full scuba gear above a healthy reef. The second is a nearby reef that has bleached in response to climate change. Corals bleach when their water is disrupted and the algae that supply their energy and brilliant colors get rejected. The corals turn white, and while they do not always die, death becomes much more likely.
“It was incredibly depressing to have to swim over this for three hours, four hours a day, watching this,” he said. “By the end of the two weeks or so that we were there, a lot of the corals had already died.”
The world’s coral reefs face numerous existential risks. Shepherd categorizes them as global, regional and local. At the largest global scale, wholesale climate change and rising temperatures affect all reefs, everywhere: Reefs in the Caribbean and the Bahamas bleached in 1995, 1998, 2005, 2010 and 2015, primarily due to warming oceans. Regional risks have more to do with local weather events such as tropical cyclones. When Cyclone Tasha contributed in 2011 to massive flooding in the rivers of Queensland, Australia, the Great Barrier Reef was in the path of all that excess freshwater and bleached. Even this year, the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico’s reefs are beset by disease outbreaks. On the purely local scale, a reef can be damaged by the hull of a ship or sunken debris.
The California Academy of Sciences (often shortened to Cal Academy) founded Hope for Reefs in 2016 as a major initiative, aiming to “regenerate the natural world through science, learning and collaboration.” It’s a mission close to Shepherd’s heart, as the initiative’s co-director. Hope for Reefs has turned its attention to colder, deeper water as the oceans warm; studying the species unique to these dark mesophotic reefs is imperative in order to rescue these evolving ecosystems. And the Steinhart’s growing Philippine reef isn’t just a one-of-a-kind exhibit: it’s teaching Hope for Reefs how best to place coral regrowth tiles to support struggling colonies. How rough should a surface be to allow coral larvae to latch on and grow? Can you 3D-print the seeding mechanisms for future coral reefs? More than just a display for marine life, the Cal Academy seeks these answers as it partners with researchers and conservation groups like SECORE International (SExual COral REproduction) to bolster restoration efforts.
“We were founded as a research organization,” he says. “The idea at the time was documenting biodiversity, describing biodiversity and looking at the interconnectedness of all living things.”
Most aquariums are skilled at taking care of their animals but are not focused on promoting the research. Most universities excel at advancing science but don’t have the expertise or wherewithal to properly keep animals. Steinhart and the Cal Academy pointedly do both. Shepherd was as intimately involved with the redesign of the exhibition spaces as he has been with understanding the specimens that live there. He nods toward William & Mary.
“With my fine arts background in combination with science, it’s been fantastic,” he says. “The architect teams were putting blueprints and floor plans out, and I could read them because I had taken two semesters of Gothic cathedrals.
“The art and art history background continues to serve me well because it’s not just the world of the animals behind the glass; it’s also the stories you tell on the public floor. It’s the media and imagery you use and how you pull people into the mission.”
But as good as the Steinhart is at pulling people in, he holds a patent for pulling something else in entirely.
INTO THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Meet the peppermint angelfish. Although Bart Shepherd does not name the aquarium’s fish, you can call it Pepp. Pepp lives in San Francisco but like so many of the city’s residents, it comes from somewhere else: in this case, the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Its ostentatious red-orange and white striping wouldn’t be out of place in a Mission District mural. And even in a city that has played host to myriad unique characters, Pepp stands — or swims — alone.
“This is the only one of these you’ll see in a public aquarium anywhere in the world,” Shepherd says. Some of Pepp’s neighbors are a spotted Harlequin sweetlips and a Katayama’s swallowtail, which measures only a few inches long but stuns with neon color. The exhibit is called “The Twilight Zone: Deep Reefs Revealed,” made intentionally dark to mimic the mesophotic environment of these hidden reefs. One tank is completely black, save for the glowing spots on its flashlight fish.
“The peppermint angelfish is only found on deep coral reefs in French Polynesia, about 300 or 350 feet down. It’s the only place that we know of where it’s found.” Shepherd pauses for a moment and then adds, “I mean, it could be found all over the place, but nobody has looked.”
Looking for fish at that depth is a complicated ordeal. While Pepp is calmly wending around its tank, Shepherd points out a mannequin weighed down like a deep-sea diver around the corner. He was part of the team that dove off French Polynesia in 2019 to collect rare specimens like the peppermint angelfish.
With over 250 deep dives under his belt, Shepherd knows most of your dive time must be spent slowly ascending back to the surface to guard against decompression sickness, better known as “the bends.” So it’s important to get as deep as you can, as fast as you can. They use motorized “scooters” to propel them faster than swimming could alone. This mannequin has one festooned with a ferocious piranha sticker.
The mannequin also has two scuba tanks under one arm and a rebreather that scrubs carbon dioxide from the diver and allows the air in the tanks to last longer. If too much carbon dioxide builds up during a three-hour dive, the diver can get tunnel vision, hyperventilate and eventually pass out. When you’re on a risky dive looking for new species, those are the last things you want.
“We find a great many undescribed species almost on every dive,” he says, “because we’re the only ones looking in these places.” At one point, the Steinhart had an unprecedented “seven or eight” undescribed fish in the gallery at one time.
But fish get the bends, too. Most fish have a swim bladder that inflates and deflates to allow it to maintain neutral buoyancy. Bring it up too fast, and you might see an over-inflated bladder poking out of its mouth. And since it would be a shame for a previously undescribed species to suddenly die on the way back up, Shepherd needed a solution.
“The way that aquarium people have typically dealt with [decompression] is to take a hypodermic needle and go through the side of the fish into the swim bladder,” he says. “They vent the gas from there. But I don’t like poking holes in fish. If you miss, you hit an organ, and you’re there to preserve. There’s a lot of risk there.”
A coworker, Matt Wandell, suggested building a portable fish decompression chamber. They designed it together around a simple canister filter, like the one often used for home drinking water. Add a collecting jar for the fish, and a dive computer to show the depth that the device is simulating, and voila: a deep-water fish collector, named SubCAS. On the surface, SubCAS connects to a high-pressure pump for water circulation and feeding. Over the course of a few days, the collected fish gets acclimated to surface pressure and is more ready for its new home. And there’s more: thanks to SubCAS, Shepherd holds a U.S. patent and a publication credit in the journal Frontiers of Marine Science. There’s even a children’s version of the paper, published in Frontiers for Young Minds.
Shepherd credits his Steinhart colleagues. “You put these creative, talented people together and ask them to solve problems: It’s amazing to watch,” he says. “I really enjoy the partnership between the aquarium and the research scientists.”
If you can’t see it, Shepherd argues, you can’t convince people to save it.
W&M IN THE WEST
On June 3, during William & Mary Weekend in San Francisco, Bart Shepherd will join Derek Aday, dean and director of W&M’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and Robert Rose, director of W&M’s Institute for Integrative Conservation (see "Wisdom for Water," below), for a panel discussion in front of the expansive Philippine reef exhibit. Shepherd will host some behind-the-scenes tours, show off the unrivaled flotilla of fish and connect attending alumni with the important research that the Cal Academy sponsors.
“Institutions like the Steinhart Aquarium are vital; they help people understand their connection to our aquatic environments and the importance of conserving those environments in the face of rapid global change,” says Aday.
“I can’t wait to connect with and learn from alumni at W&M Weekend in San Francisco. I’ll bring news of VIMS’ work on coastal ocean and estuarine science and share updates on the W&M water initiative, through which VIMS is partnering with faculty, staff, students and alumni to find solutions for the most pressing challenges facing coastal communities and ecosystems worldwide.”
The San Francisco weekend is the fourth in a series that brings W&M alumni, students, parents and friends to iconic cities across the nation for one-of-a-kind experiences and access to experts. In 2016, the Tribe descended on Washington, D.C., before assembling in following years in New York and Chicago. After a pause for the COVID19 pandemic, the event returns for its first West Coast edition.
The Steinhart’s colorful sea life befits its colorful city. In only 49 square miles, the art, music, diversity, scenery here are unique, always evolving and impossible to recreate. Shepherd and his wife, Kathy Bello Shepherd ’90, have two daughters in the city’s Castro district; he’s never lived outside San Francisco since arriving in California. He’s fond of running in the Presidio — home to an ex-artillery post named for W&M alumnus Gen. Winfield Scott 1807 — and along Crissy Field on the city’s northern coast.
“It’s spectacular,” he says. “The views of San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz — watching the weather change there — are amazing. I see people surf the breaks right underneath the Golden Gate Bridge; it just blows your mind.”
And beneath the surface, so many wonders worth saving.
WISDOM FOR WATER
William & Mary is situated along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay and its estuaries; early plans for Williamsburg in the 1690s included harbors on both Queens Creek and College Creek. Today, W&M is dreaming even bigger with its Vision 2026 water initiative, tasked with “finding innovative solutions to ensure the resilience of the world’s oceans, coasts and waterways.”
William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) has been mandated by the Commonwealth of Virginia since 1940 to conduct research and provide advice on use of marine resources. And as sure as the streets of Norfolk now occasionally flood in broad daylight, VIMS is dialed in on the same threats facing coral reefs: rising seas, warming temperatures and pollution.
For example, in 2018, VIMS Professor Emily Rivest and colleagues tested coral larvae and their algal symbionts to see how they might respond to projected — worse — water conditions. The results, published in Frontiers of Marine Science, used innovative genetic techniques to find that algae were much more sensitive to change than their hosts were. Rejected algae in the coral’s larval stage spells near-disaster for a reef ’s development, so Rivest suggested further research: perhaps identifying a gene signature or elevated levels of particular proteins could be warning signs that algae are on the brink. With enough notice, it may be possible to intervene and improve outcomes.
Institute for Integrative Conservation (IIC) Director Robert Rose cut his academic teeth on rainforests, but he retains a soft spot for their underwater cousins.
“One of my favorite trips was visiting coral reefs off the coast of Belize — I couldn’t even imagine a more spectacular opportunity to see wildlife,” he says. “The downside of rainforests is you don’t often see much biodiversity when you’re in them, but coral reefs just come alive when you visit.”
The IIC is “a little unique in academic circles,” Rose says. While IIC-affiliated faculty do publish substantive research, everything done through the IIC is connecting students and faculty to a conservation challenge and an external partner. One recent project brought William & Mary students together with a director of Conservation International for a yearlong project studying changing land use outside of Mongolian national parks.
For Rose, conserving and preserving these environments demands a delicate and thoughtful balance. In the context of the IIC, the word “integrative” means prioritizing biodiversity as well as the humans working and living in those spaces.
“When we think about a conservation project, we think about how we can work with local communities,” he says, “so that communities always have a voice in conservation. We can identify ways to bring those pieces together in an integrative conservation solution.”