By Jim Carnett
(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 37th year as Director of Community Relations, he is editor of Coast-to-Coast. This is a regular column that focuses on OCC’s history and distinctive characteristics and characters.)
Dennis Kelly’s sole ambition in life was to become a marine researcher.
“My goal was to pursue a career as a research marine biologist and to spend my time scuba diving and doing underwater research,” he says. “I wanted to remake the world.”
His hero was French diver, scientist, explorer and adventurer, Jacques Cousteau. Under a scenario hatched in Kelly’s young, fertile mind, the torch would be passed to him. Teaching wasn’t even on his radar screen.
But, providentially, Kelly washed up on the shores of Orange Coast College (metaphorically speaking, of course) 33 years ago and has since become one of the finest marine science professors – teachers – in the land.
“And I wouldn’t change a single thing,” he says. “I’ve done just about everything I could possibly imagine, and so much more. I’ve had a wonderful time at OCC.”
When Dennis graduated from California State University at Fullerton in 1974 with an M.A. degree in biology, marine biology and oceanography, he had four job offers waiting for him. He was tendered an assignment with the California Department of Fish and Game, a position with the National Marine Fisheries Service, and a post with the California Water Control Board.
“I was fascinated by the Water Control Board position and it paid the most of the four offers. I asked them, ‘What, exactly, am I to be doing?’ They couldn’t tell me! It was suggested that I’d have something to do with flood control channels but when I asked if I’d be taking water samples they clammed up. I passed on the offer.”
He was also accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of Washington and offered a lab position.
Then Orange Coast College made an appearance on the scene.
“Though I hadn’t attended OCC, I knew quite a bit about it,” he said. “I’d been hearing about the college for years. I worked as a lab attendant while attending Fullerton College and I visited my counterpart at OCC. I’d built the aquarium at Fullerton, and I helped Coast to build its aquarium. I got to know OCC marine science professor, Tom Garrison, and geology professor, Jim Reese.”
A marine science position serendipitously opened on OCC’s campus in ’74 just as Dennis was preparing to graduate from Cal State Fullerton. The 26-year-old marine biologist applied.
“I interviewed with Tom. I was aware of OCC’s Marine Science Program on the campus, but Tom began to tell me about the equipment and facilities at the Crew Base in Newport Beach. I got very excited.”
Garrison then uttered the magic word…“boats.”
“Boats?” Kelly exclaimed. “You have boats to use with your students?” Garrison proceeded to reel Dennis in, hook, line and sinker.
For about 10 minutes, Kelly waffled between getting his Ph.D. at the University of Washington or working at OCC.
“I made my lists. First, OCC: great campus; beautiful waterfront facility; boats; sunshine. Next, Washington: rain.”
He opted for Orange Coast College.
“Tom Garrison told OCC president, Dr. Robert B. Moore, that I was the guy for the job,” Dennis says. “I interviewed with Dr. Moore, and he hired me.”
Kelly was scared to death when he realized during his first week on the job that he would actually be required to teach students.
“I’d taken three teacher education classes in graduate school but they were of absolutely no value. I think the only thing I’d learned to do was thread a movie projector.”
Dennis sought help from his new Coast colleagues.
“I went to all the teachers in the Math and Sciences Division and said, ‘Um, how do you do this?’ I knew that Garrison, by reputation, was a great teacher. He had a prestigious National Salgo Noren Teaching Award hanging on his wall. He ended up spending lots of time with me.
“My office mate for my first three years was Lloyd Mason Smith, the large-lecture-hall virtuoso, and biology instructor. Lloyd looked over my shoulder and provided me with lots of very helpful suggestions.”
(When yours truly was an OCC student in 1967, Lloyd taught my large-lecture biology class. An excellent photographer, and a world traveler, he lavishly illustrated his lectures with color slides and personal stories. He ranks as one of the best professors I had during my entire college career.)
“Yeah, he advised me to show lots and lots of slides during my lectures,” Dennis recalls.
Kelly, now 59, has learned a great deal about teaching over the years. In 2004-05 – three decades after he was hired – his hard work and initiative paid off, big-time. He was named OCC’s Faculty Member of the Year.
“I finally know what I am doing,” he declares today with a laugh. “I’ve learned over the years to keep students first. I deliver a product, and I try to make it as interesting, fun and intriguing as I possibly can. I’ve become more of a counselor to students over the years. I learned that lesson from my counselor-friend on staff, Steve Goetz. We talk a lot about working with students.”
In accepting his Faculty Member of the Year honor in 2005, Dennis told the audience that he felt enormous gratitude toward his students for their enthusiasm and support over the years.
“They’ve been a wonderful group and have kept me motivated and excited. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing research with them, and I think they’ve enjoyed it as well.”
Kelly says students haven’t changed all that much during the past 33 years, though conditions have.
“It’s so much harder for students today, things are so much more expensive. Lloyd Mason Smith was of the opinion that you throw out pearls to the swine and allow them to pick them up if they so wish. But today you need to find out where the student is. I have students who work 15-hour days, or ride a skateboard to school because they don’t have a car, or who haven’t had anything to eat in two days.
“Dr. Moore used to always preach to us that we’re here for the students. Well, that’s my mission. If a student of mine is hungry I say, ‘Come on,’ and take him or her to lunch. ‘What can I do to help you?’…that’s my mantra. I want to be here for them.”
Kelly, a burly SoCal Irishman (he was lanky when I first met him in 1974…but, then, so were we all!) with a ruddy complexion, is chair of the college’s Marine Science Department. He’s also director of the school’s public aquarium. Orange Coast College’s campus has the largest cold-water aquarium in Orange County, containing 1,600 gallons of water. Kelly and his students conduct aquarium open houses for children and the public twice annually.
“I’m stunned, I really don’t know what to say,” Kelly told me in early 2005 when he was notified of his Faculty Member of the Year Award. “Wow! I feel very humble. I really don’t have the words to express what I’m feeling.”
Dennis was notified of the honor while teaching an oceanography lab class. Several OCC staff members brought balloons into his classroom.
“It’s wonderful to be acknowledged by your colleagues,” Kelly said. “Whatever small measure of success I’ve been able to realize in my years on this campus has come as a result of the wonderful help and support I’ve received from my colleagues, and from my students. I couldn’t have done anything without them.”
That’s not false humility. Dennis is genuinely grateful for the support he’s received at Coast.
“Orange Coast College is a very affirming place. I’ve always been patted on the back here, and told to ‘go for it!”
Kelly says he considers it a privilege to teach at OCC.
“I love this campus, and I love my students and colleagues. This is a great place to spend your career.”
During the 2007-08 academic year Kelly is teaching classes in “Oceanography” “Oceanography Lab,” “Marine Aquarium Science,” “Coastal Oceanography Lab” and “Marine Mammals.” He also frequently teaches OCC’s “Island Ecology” course. He’s something of an expert when it comes to the world’s islands.
Kelly was nominated for the teaching award by OCC biological sciences professors, Ann Harmer and Sharon Daniel. Both are quasi-experts on what it takes to qualify for Faculty Member of the Year. Each is a past recipient of the award. Harmer won in 1995-96, and Daniel was the 2002-03 recipient.
Kelly, a marine mammals expert, is known nationwide for his extensive research on dolphins, killer whales and gray whales.
“My desire growing up was always to be a marine biologist, never a teacher,” he told the audience during his 2005 Faculty Member of the Year lecture. “I wanted to conduct research.”
Raised in Orange County, Kelly told the audience that his first serious introduction to dolphins came while surfing off the local coast.
“As a teenager, I’d see dolphins in the waves, surfing. At first I wondered what they were up to. Then, I realized they were playing. Just like humans, they love to surf. Incidentally, they surf inside a wave rather than on the outside.”
When Kelly began teaching at Orange Coast College his specialty was not marine mammals, rather it was a marine invertebrate called a tunacate. (No, that’s not a disgusting casserole you were served in a middle school cafeteria!)
“Very early in my career at Coast I began to study dolphins, and I spent lots of time at Marineland and Sea World…places I was very familiar with. Actually, those were good places to learn about dolphins. Ultimately, however, you have to study dolphins in their habitat. I began observing them in the ocean with my Orange Coast College marine science students. They encouraged and inspired me.”
Over the past 30 years, Kelly has become one of the world’s leading experts on dolphins. He began his Coastal Dolphin Survey Project in 1977 and it’s still going strong.
“That Coastal Dolphin Survey Project has put Orange Coast College on the scientific map,” Dennis says. “We’re known nationwide for that project.”
He has published 12 papers on his research, and was the first to discover that bottlenose dolphins off Southern California’s coast engage in a birthing behavior called nursery circles. He published a paper on that behavior, and it received wide play in the national news media.
Aside from his introduction as a teenager, his interest in studying local dolphins was initially piqued years ago when a surfer in his OCC class asked a simple question.
“The guy sat in the back of the room, and usually slept through class, but one day he raised his hand. I thought, ‘Well, this should be interesting.’ He lived on the peninsula in Newport. ‘What are those dolphins I see every morning when I go out surfing?’
“My first thought was, ‘You go out surfing every morning?’ ‘Yeah, and you come to class and fall asleep,’ another student piped up. I asked the surfer to describe what the dolphins looked like. After he did I said, ‘Those sound like bottlenose dolphins.'”
But, frankly, Kelly was stunned.
“I thought it impossible for there to be a resident population of dolphins living just beyond the waves off Newport. With the sewage runoff that we have in this area, I didn’t think they could possibly survive.”
Dennis learned that there is indeed a population of bottlenose dolphins, ranging from San Diego to Santa Barbara. His students have since documented that fact, and have been studying them for 30 years.
Just within the past year, Kelly’s students have discovered groups of dolphins entering Newport Bay and traveling as far up the bay as OCC’s School of Sailing and Seamanship located on Pacific Coast Highway, directly opposite Lido Isle.
“This is unprecedented,” he says. “Over the past 30 years we’ve never seen this happen before. Dolphins just don’t enter Newport Bay.”
Dennis and his students have developed a theory as to why this is happening.
“The dolphins come in only on high, high tides. We think they’re entering the harbor because schools of sardines are being chased into the bay on the high tides by the giant squid off our coast. The dolphins are going in to feed on the sardines. We’re going to keep looking at the situation.”
In addition to starting OCC’s Coastal Dolphin Survey Project, Kelly was one of the founders of the Orange County Chapter of the American Cetacean Society.
In recent years, he and his students conducted unique “Night Watch” research at Crystal Cove, located between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, to monitor the nocturnal activities of bottlenose dolphins. While conducting their research, the students photographed the dolphins, and acoustically recorded the sounds that they produce. Kelly and his students have also conducted considerable offshore research.
“A primary lesson that I have learned from studying dolphins,” he told his audience during the 2005 lecture, “is to always expect the unexpected. Dolphins will fool you. When I first began to study them I expected them to act like the rats I’d studied in cages in college. That was a mistake.
“If you go north up the coast to find them, they’ll be south. If you go south, they’ll be north. They are totally unpredictable and completely creative.”
The brain of an average dolphin is half-a-pound heavier than that of the average human.
“These are large-brained, very intelligent and highly vocal animals,” Kelly said. “Dolphins produce a lot of sound and they communicate extensively with one another.”
A second lesson that Kelly shared with his audience was that when a dolphin dies, it’s difficult to determine exactly why it expired.
“I have closely studied 15 dolphins over the years who have died, and we’ve necropsied eight of them on campus. Frequently, there is no easy answer.”
Kelly has studied killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. Killer whales are not true whales but huge dolphins. Kelly told the audience in 2005 that three communities of killer whales coexist from Alaska south to Seattle. The southern residential population of about 100 whales lives between Seattle and Vancouver Island. A northern residential population of 250 exists between Vancouver Island and Alaska. The two groups feed on salmon almost exclusively and never eat marine mammals.
“When members of the two groups meet, they have a greeting ceremony that’s quite remarkable,” Kelly said.
The third group is a transient whale population that moves in and out of the area. The transient group attacks seals and sea lions. The two residential groups and the transient group pay no heed to one another as they cross boundaries.
Kelly said that 185 killer whales live off Southern California’s coast.
His heroes, he told the audience, have included British naturalist, Charles Darwin; Monterey marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, who served as the prototype for John Steinbeck’s famous character, Doc, in “Canary Row”; and, of course, French oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau.
“Cousteau used to say ‘It’s a silent world,’” Kelly told the audience. “As wonderful as Cousteau was, he was wrong about that. It’s not a silent world at all, it’s very noisy down there.”
He also said that, as a kid, Lloyd Bridges and the “Sea Hunt” television series enchanted him. Bridges played scuba diver, Mike Nelson. Dennis was also a fan of the equally popular TV series, “Flipper.”
“Much of Sea Hunt was filmed at Marineland,” he says. “Most of the underwater sequences were filmed in Marineland’s big tank. That’s why all the underwater scenes were so clear.”
Kelly spent much of his childhood at Marineland, on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. “That’s where I first watched dolphins giving birth. The people at Marineland got to know me so well that they invited me into the backstage area to see the animals.”
Young Dennis thought that was very cool.
After being honored as OCC’s Faculty Member of the Year, Dennis was the featured speaker at the college’s 57th commencement, held in May of 2005. He delivered a stirring presentation, titled “You’ve Made a Great Start.”
Kelly assured the audience that OCC’s professors, teachers and staff members strongly support the efforts of students.
“(We) tend to have high expectations for you while you are here, higher than you could have imagined when you arrived. We believe in what Henry David Thoreau once wrote: ‘Build your castles high in the air, that is where they should be. But build firm foundations.’”
He encouraged the graduates to use Orange Coast College as a springboard for the future.
“This was a great start for you. This experience has shown you what you are capable of if you dare to pursue your dreams for yourself. Let this experience be your steppingstone to great things...unbelievable things.”
The sea has always captured the heart of this native Californian who knows a thing or two about following dreams. Kelly was born in Hollywood, lived in San Fernando Valley, and then lived four blocks from Disneyland when the park opened in 1955.
“Every single Kelly from every part of the country came and stayed with us in the 1950s,” he recalls. “I was one of the first 200 kids at the gate when the park first opened. Walt (Disney) was there to greet us.”
A member of Loara High School’s CIF champion tennis team his senior year, Kelly graduated from Fullerton College and earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at Cal State Fullerton. He has also taken courses at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, the USC Wrigley Marine Laboratory and at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Lab.
Through Kelly’s efforts, and those of his close friend and colleague, Dr. Tom Garrison, Orange Coast College boasts the largest marine science program of any community college in the nation.
Dennis enjoys reminiscing about his early days at OCC.
“It was an exciting time at Coast when I first arrived,” he says. “We had a number of wise, old seasoned veterans in the Science Division like Hueston Harper, Lloyd Smith, Jim Reese and even Tom Garrison (he’d been there six years when I arrived).
“But there were lots of brand new people like myself, Lance Gilbertson, Ann Harmer, Sharon Daniel, Frank Visco, Don Collins and Norm Cole. We all ended up growing up together. It was like a wonderful graduate seminar. We’d all go to lunch together and talk about our research, and you’d find yourself saying, ‘You found out what?’ We all took our research seriously and incorporated it into our labs.”
The OCC marine science professor took part in a month-long Antarctic research expedition in 1992, sponsored by the Antarctic Ecosystem Research Group. He studied krill, shrimp-like creatures that are just two inches in length. Krill are an important part of the delicate three-step Antarctic food chain.
Kelly returned to the Antarctic in 2000 to do additional research.
He is a member of the American Cetacean Society, and is also involved with the Marine Mammal Rescue Center. Several years ago, Kelly studied humpback whales and spinner dolphins in Tahiti. He examined ancient artistic depictions of dolphins in Greece during the summer of 2001.
Kelly has spent his career studying islands. He’s visited islands of the Pacific and Caribbean, islands in Puget Sound and the Antarctic, and Southern California’s Channel Islands. He has taught classes on OCC’s own beautiful British Columbia island – Rabbit Island – located in the Straight of Georgia, north of Vancouver. He has taught a class at Catalina’s USC Wrigley Marine Laboratory, and has worked closely with the Catalina Island Conservancy.
The OCC professor lectures statewide on marine science and marine biology issues. He frequently speaks to the college’s Friends of the Library, and to the Trabuco Chapter of Phi Delta Kappa.
Kelly has led many whale watching excursions for the college, and has accompanied students on field trips all over the world.
“During my first year on the faculty, biology professor, Norm Cole, invited me to assist him on a field trip to Scammons Lagoon in Baja, California. I had absolutely no field research experience at the time. But Norm was a field biologist’s field biologist. We took two vans full of students to Scammons and camped out in the desert and took inflatable boats out into the lagoon. It was great!”
Kelly led field trips back to Scammons and to the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound, the Yucatan Peninsula, Ponape Island in the South Pacific, the Channel Islands, and Rabbit Island in British Columbia.
Travis Tucker, an OCC student in the 1970s, went on field trips with Kelly to Scammons and Ponape.
“They were great trips,” he recalls. “Kelly’s enthusiasm was infectious, and I learned a great deal from him.”
“In my early years, Dr. Moore was very supportive of field trips…he encouraged them because he felt they provided life-changing experiences for students,” Dennis says. “Every time I sought approval for a trip he’d say, ‘Okay, Dennis, do a good job and don’t get into trouble.’ I always followed his advice.”
Kelly worked on Garrison’s 30-part ground-breaking, Emmy Award-winning PBS television series, “Oceanus,” in the late 1970s.
“I was featured in four episodes,” he remembers. “But I was a young teacher at the time, and I really messed up some important information in one of the episodes. Over the years I received dozens of phone calls calling attention to my mistake. It was a sore point for me.”
In 2004 the series was updated for PBS, and re-titled “Endless Voyage.” Finally, Kelly got a “do-over.”
“They put me in the same chair in the same room, wearing the same shirt…almost 30 years later. But I was able to correct my mistakes, and I’m grateful for that opportunity. The 1970s interviews, in some instances, were juxtaposed with the 2004 interviews. I’ve had students who’ve watched the series say to me, ‘Do you have a son who’s a marine biologist?’”
From Mike Nelson, to Flipper, to Marineland, to Jacques Cousteau, to Orange Coast College’s Marine Science Department, to Faculty Member of the Year, to leading international dolphin expert…Kelly’s career-arc has been nothing short of spectacular.
Not bad for a Southern California beach kid who discovered that dolphins love to surf…INSIDE waves. He parlayed his interest into a highly satisfying professional career and a personal passion!
Dennis Kelly has discovered that life sometimes takes you exactly where you wanted to go all along.
WE GET LETTERS….
The piece on Sue Brown was just excellent – and well deserved (“Sue Brown Fought for the Rights of Female Athletes and Coast Students,” Orange Slices, Oct. 25). Orange Coast College is a much better place because of her integrity, hard work, and compassion for students. Well done!
David A. Grant