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August 24, 1998

Kenneth Norris, world-renowned expert on whales and dolphins, dies at 74

Kenneth Norris (More photos)

By Tim Stephens

Kenneth S. Norris, acclaimed marine-mammal researcher, founder of the University of California Natural Reserve System, and beloved teacher of natural history, died on Sunday, August 16. He was 74.

Norris died peacefully at UCSF Medical Center, surrounded by his family, after several months of illness.

As a scientist, teacher, author, and champion of the natural world, Norris left a rich and varied legacy. He retired in 1990 after 18 years as a professor of natural history at UCSC, but remained active until recently.

Norris's research contributions alone reflect the remarkable range of his accomplishments. Much of what we know about whales and dolphins, particularly their social patterns and echolocation skills, stems from groundbreaking investigations by Norris and his various research teams over the years. As a desert ecologist at UCLA, he discovered circadian rhythms in snakes and the function of color changes in reptiles and amphibians. Even his doctoral dissertation on how water temperatures affect intertidal fish won an award from the Ecological Society of America.

His stature as a scientist enabled Norris to influence public policy in significant ways. As a scientific adviser to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, for example, he helped write the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Norris also spearheaded a national campaign to reduce the numbers of dolphins killed in tuna-fishing nets. For these and other contributions, he was named "Man of the Year" by the American Cetacean Society in 1976 and the following year he received the California Academy of Sciences' Fellows Medal for his studies of marine mammals.

The author of several books on whales, dolphins, and porpoises, Norris received the prestigious John Burroughs Medal in 1992 for his book Dolphin Days: The Life and Times of the Spinner Dolphin.

Norris was especially proud of his role in creating the UC Natural Reserve System (NRS), which now encompasses 120,000 acres of protected natural habitat throughout California. As an assistant professor at UCLA, Norris recognized the need to preserve undisturbed natural areas for teaching and research. Through the efforts of Norris and others, the NRS was established in 1965, starting with seven university-owned reserves. There are now 33 NRS reserves, an unparalleled system of living laboratories and outdoor classrooms. In June, the NRS received a $4 million endowment from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which they named the Kenneth S. Norris Endowment Fund for the California Environment as a tribute to his leadership.

Norris was born in Los Angeles on August 11, 1924. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in zoology from UCLA and in 1959 he received his Ph.D. in zoology from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. In 1953, two years into his doctoral studies, Norris was hired as the founding curator at Marineland of the Pacific, the country's second oceanarium. His work at Marineland included the first confirmation of sonar in porpoises.

In 1959, Norris returned to UCLA to teach herpetology and continue his earlier research on desert reptiles. His interest in marine life eventually led him to Hawaii, where he served as founding scientific director of the Oceanic Institute from 1968 to 1971, while continuing his association with UCLA part-time. His research in Hawaii included studies of spinner dolphins and fish culture. He also assisted in the establishment of Hawaii's Natural Land Reserve System.

In 1972, Norris came north to serve as director of UCSC's Center for Coastal Marine Studies (now the Institute of Marine Sciences). Norris held the post from 1972 to 1975, working with professor of biology William Doyle to secure land and funding for what is now the Joseph M. Long Marine Laboratory. Norris also designed Long Marine Lab's marine mammal pools, which are still used for dolphin research.

Norris chaired the Environmental Studies Department from 1977 to 1979. He then founded and served as coordinator of the Environmental Field Program, which provides financing for undergraduate research projects.

As a teacher, Norris was legendary for his ability to inspire students. He taught the popular "Field Quarter" class in UCSC's environmental studies program, a wide-ranging and rigorous course in the natural history of California. Each spring, Norris led the two-dozen Field Quarter students into the mountains, forests, and deserts of California to learn from nature firsthand.

As a teacher and mentor, Norris helped launch the careers of many students over the years. He influenced students at both undergraduate and graduate levels, and many of them have gone on to make notable contributions in their fields, said professor of biology Daniel Costa, who was one of Norris's graduate students.

Norris is survived by his wife Phyllis; his brother Robert; his children Susie Norris, Nancy Norris Littlestone, Barbara Gaskell, and Richard Norris; and six grandchildren.

Friends may make contributions in Norris's memory to the UC Natural Reserve System or UCSC's Long Marine Laboratory. For more information, contact the NRS at (510) 987-0150 or the Friends of Long Marine Laboratory at (831) 459-4568.

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