Obituary Notice: Don Wilkie, Former Executive Director of Scripps Aquarium


Donald Walter Wilkie, director of the Scripps Aquarium-Museum from 1965-1993 and founding director of the Stephen Birch Aquarium-Museum (now known as Birch Aquarium at Scripps), died on October 5, 2015, in San Diego. He was 84 years old. During Wilkie’s tenure at Scripps, he oversaw the transformation of what started as a few marine exhibits near the beach in La Jolla into a leading aquarium and educational facility that today sees more than 420,000 visitors each year.

“Don helped many young professionals grow into their fields. I worked with him early in my career and his kind advice helped to guide me onto a long pathway of successful contribution sto the field of informal science education,” said Harry Helling, executive director of Birch Aquarium. “Indeed, we are all grateful for Don’s service as a leader in the renaissance of informal science centers and for his vision for today’s Birch Aquarium at Scripps as a world-class ocean interpretive center.”

Wilkie was born on June 20, 1931 in Vancouver, Canada. He earned his bachelor’s degree in zoology at the University of British Columbia in 1960 and Master of Science in ichthyology (the study of fishes) from University of British Columbia in 1966. Following graduation, he spent a year working for the British Columbia Fish and Game Department studying the ecology of coho salmon and steelhead trout, and then spent two years as assistant curator at the Vancouver Aquarium. 

At the Vancouver Aquarium, he conducted the first year-round sampling program of shore fishes in British Columbia, which included several fishes previously thought to be rare in BC waters. Wilkie also spent two years as curator of mammals and fishes at the Philadelphia Aquarium before in 1965 becoming the director of the Scripps Aquarium-Museum, at the time located on the Scripps Institution of Oceanography campus.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography has operated an aquarium and museum since shortly after its founding in 1903. Under Wilkie’s leadership, the aquarium was revitalized and a new education curriculum was developed. His duties included general administration, planning and designing exhibits, collecting aquarium specimens, and developing education programs for schools and the public.

Wilkie was instrumental in the planning, fundraising, and building of the new Stephen Birch Aquarium-Museum that opened in September of 1992. The new facility, which now sits on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is four times larger than the Scripps Aquarium was.

“The opening of the Birch Aquarium in 1992 was Don’s crowning achievement. He had been the moving force for at least 20 years behind it,” said Heidi Hahn, a former employee at the aquarium who worked with Wilkie for many years. “He touched many people with his great enthusiasm for life in general, the great outdoors and, more specifically, his passion for marine life education.”

In addition to his work as an aquarium director, Wilkie conducted research on the coloration of fishes in intertidal and subtidal zones. He published his comprehensive reference book, Aquarium Fish (published in four languages) in 1985, and also worked and published in the fields of fish diseases and aquatic animal husbandry. Wilkie was a seasoned diver—from the ice floes in Alaska to his favorite South Seas dive spot in Palau, and from the Great Barrier Reef to Espiritu Santo in Baja California Sur, Mexico and more.

Wilkie is survived by his wife Pat, his brother Gordon Wilkie, his children Linda Hauck, Doug Wilkie, Susanne Fitzpatrick, and stepson Jeff Bennett, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions in memory of Don Wilkie can be made to the following funds at Birch Aquarium:

  • Birch Aquarium Endowment (Fund R-38143): This endowment, known Ellen’s Circle after Ellen Browning Scripps, helps provide operating support to Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
  • Price Philanthropies Ocean Science Education Fund (F-3731):  This endowment helps to support the outreach educational programs of Birch Aquarium at Scripps. In particular, the Wilkie family wishes to support the Post-doctoral Fellowship component of the program, which prepares Scripps Oceanography graduates to assume leadership roles in STEM education.

For more information on giving, please contact Michele Bart at (858)534-2999 or

Colleagues wishing to express condolences are also invited to submit messages for web posting to:



Tribute to Don Wilkie

• Don,

Hearing of your recent passing brought on a cascade of fond memories about the time during which we were colleagues at SIO. There are many that I would enjoy sharing, but there is one memory that is the strongest for me and I hope you always remembered it as well.

It was the second or third day after my tenure at the institution began. You took me on a tour of the old aquarium. I was surely impressed by the quality of the museum exhibits showcasing the work Scripps scientists and was amazed at the diversity of fishes in the live exhibits, but most of all the emphasis on educating the visitors you incorporated throughout the program you created made me proud of you and your team.

What stands out in my memory is that during a conversation after the tour I observed that the building was crumbling before our very eyes. Apparently the concrete in the building, which was built in 1951, was being torn apart from the inside due to expansion rebar in the structure. I commented that the tanks were leaking, there were big cracks in the walls and floors underneath the tanks, there were towels soaking up water everywhere, and big chunks of concrete were falling off the ceilings in the administrative areas. I said “Don, the program that you have created is truly outstanding, especially considering the shape of the facility but I will have to say I am embarrassed that over 300,000 people a year come to visit the institution and this is what they see. I will never forget what happened next. You said “it has always been my dream to build a new aquarium” whereupon I shook your hand and said “okay let’s do it.”

And, you did it! But you didn’t just do it. You led the creation of a spectacular legacy that makes all of us at SIO proud. Thank you!

Don, it was truly a privilege knowing you and working with you all those years. I was proud to have you as a colleague. You made the institution a better place and in many ways you made me a better person as well. So I wish you fair winds and following seas on the new journey you have embarked upon. But there is one last thing Don, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps you created is truly fabulous, but, your real legacy is the millions, Yes millions(!) of adults and children of all ages who you exposed to and educated about the wonders and beauty of the oceans and earth that we all inhabit.

— Tom Collins, Deputy director, Administrative Affairs, Associate Vice Chancellor, Emeritus, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego


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