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Oct 18
OCC's Dennis Kelly Public Aquarium Named for Esteemed Professor

OCC Public Aquarium coral reef tankThe dedication ceremony for the Dennis Kelly Public Aquarium on Oct. 21 will cap the career of one of Orange Coast College's most highly regarded professors. 

Named for the man who was hired as the first aquarium director in 1974, OCC's Dennis Kelly Aquarium boasts approximately 35 tanks and a total volume exceeding 4,000 gallons, making it the largest (and possibly only) student-run aquarium in the country. 

Kelly — who retired in 2013 and still teaches at the College part-time — was instrumental in helping to grow and develop the place that now bears his name, leading hundreds of excursions into local waters to catch marine life that he would bring back to OCC for students to study. 

Over the course of his 40-year teaching career, Kelly also took students to far corners of the world, in search of the type of learning they could not find in a textbook. From 1982 until 1999 Kelly led groups of students to the San Juan Islands, north of Seattle, for a week to study wild killer whales. He has been to Antarctica with students twice for research expeditions, to the South Pacific to study gray whales, and to Rabbit Island in Canada for field studies.  

students observing OCC Public Aquarium tank

It was also Kelly who established the Aquarium as a student-run facility — while overseen by OCC marine science faculty members, the Aquarium is completely student run, and marine science students and managers who are enrolled in classes at OCC are responsible for all maintenance, species planning and husbandry decisions in the facility. 

"Dennis Kelly not only directed the aquarium for nearly 40 years, he inspired students to develop the skills to become aquarium managers," says Marine Science instructor Karen Baker. "Many of his students continued in the field as professional aquarists and marine scientists." 

More recently, the Aquarium has undergone a large expansion, including introducing a seahorse tank, a coral reef tank, freshwater planted and aquaponics systems, a "monsters" tank for large fish, and a brackish tank that mimics the environment created when river water meets seawater in estuaries. 

"In the last few months we have significantly expanded the number and diversity of systems housed in the OCC Public Aquarium," says Marine Science Instructor Rob Ellis. "The primary goal was to be able to better demonstrate the complexity and diversity involved in aquarium science and to give the student managers enough systems so that they could take creative freedoms to work on individual projects that interested them." 

Earlier this month the Aquarium announced that it will open for weekly public hours and educational tours, giving the community a chance to experience firsthand the diverse marine life that OCC's marine science students are studying. During the Fall 2016 semester, public hours will take place on Wednesdays from 3:30–4:30 p.m. 

The Aquarium also offers private tours for large groups. For more information contact 

A dedication ceremony will take place on Oct. 21 at 5 p.m. in the lobby of the OCC's Lewis Center, which houses the Aquarium.​