Harry Helling comes to Scripps Birch Aquarium with new vision in La Jolla

Although for now he still commutes to work every day from Orange County, new Birch Aquarium Executive Director Harry Helling says he’s fully on-board with becoming a San Diegan, again, and that fans of the UC San Diego-based facility can expect a few changes in the aquarium’s public engagement.

A 1980 graduate of UCSD, Helling has returned to La Jolla after splitting his last 30 years between Orange County’s Ocean Institute and Crystal Cove Alliance. At the youth education-focused Ocean Institute, he built a reputation for building programs, becoming the facility’s director of education and later, from 1997 to 2002, serving as its president and leading its multimillion dollar expansion campaign. He’s spent the last seven years serving as president at Crystal Cove Alliance, a group dedicated to preserving Crystal Cove State Historic District in Laguna Beach.

Back at work in La Jolla since earlier this month, Helling is embracing his new role, from starting the process of moving south to San Diego to laying a vision for the aquarium’s ability to educate and influence. He was formally named in October as successor to Nigella Hillgarth, who in May 2014 left Birch to become president of New England Aquarium in Boston.

The Ocean Institute placed a high priority on what Helling calls “high-level” STEM initiatives, those focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, through sea-going vessel programs, camps and labs. Now at Birch, Helling brings that experience to La Jolla. He also helped found The Ecology Center, another Orange County nonprofit, to create a 28-acre organic and sustainable farm. Helling and his Ecology Center co-founders focused on sustainability initiatives in the areas of energy, water, food and shelter for schools and the community at large. That work will further serve as a blueprint for ways in which he hopes to build on the aquarium’s ability to communicate with the community.

“As (UCSD) accepts that as its top issue, we, too, will be addressing that,” he said.

Improving the understanding and protection of the planet is the idea behind a few initiatives Helling will spend his first few months developing at Birch, he said.

“Issues with the ocean have become more complex,” Helling said, noting that he was drawn to Birch because of the aquarium’s connection to the community, and its ability to be the vehicle to connecting people to Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s research. “I think the entire university is changing its course, trying to say, ‘How can we be more valuable?’ as that complexity increases. “The university’s doing that at large. Scripps is doing the same thing. The stakes are higher now, and now it’s incumbent on us to take more of a role in translating that science and turning it into something that’s productive in helping move us toward a more sustainable planet.”

By the beginning of 2016, Birch will be ready to announce its yearly initiatives, but Helling already has a general sense of what he’d like to see. “I can tell you there will be more programs that are outward-facing, meaning work with the community, work with partners, collaborators outside of Birch. You’ll see a slow erosion of the walls here, if you will, that define us as this little facility.”

Work at Birch, he added, will be incorporated more into that at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, so as to make the two indistinguishable. “When you come here, (you’ll be) be coming to Scripps,” Helling said, “and getting the entire Scripps experience.”

That translates to his expectation for an increase in Birch’s interest in conservation-centric initiatives, as well as new ways of telling the scientific stories Birch wants the community to hear, from new engagement in the arts and humanities to others expressed through social sciences.

“You can expect to see art incorporated into this in different ways, in theater,” Helling said. “It’s going to be a little different approach; it’s a part of taking more seriously our responsibility to tell these wonderful stories.”

Deborah Zmarzly, Birch’s director of programming, served for a year as interim director of the aquarium just prior to Helling coming on board. She said she’s supportive of Helling’s vision for Birch’s greater connection to the community.

“I’ve known him through other work I’ve done, and I was absolutely thrilled to have him emerge as the leader of Birch Aquarium. It’s so important to understand the science that Scripps researchers are doing, and to be able to translate that into school and public programs. To have someone who’s passionate about doing that — in all the years that I’ve been teaching, I find that it’s the personal enthusiasm of people that really lights up other people.”

For Helling and his wife, Kathy — both of whom worked at Scripps Vaughn Aquarium-Museum, Birch Aquarium’s forerunner, 30 years ago — his return “feels like we’re coming full-circle,” he said. “We’re coming back to a place that we already loved. We’re coming into a facility that’s already loved, respected and has a good body of work, and our hope is to grow that.”

It’s a girl!

A number of visitors to the aquarium had a chance to meet Helling for a first time on Nov. 19, when a “gender reveal” party was held to announce the sex of the aquarium’s rescued loggerhead turtle, complete with the cutting of a cake that would reveal pink cake beneath the frosting if the turtle was a female or blue cake if it was a male.

A look at the length of a loggerhead’s tail can often be enough to identify its sex, but since Birch Aquarium’s turtle was found as a juvenile, its tail length was insufficient in telling aquarium officials whether they had taken in a male or a female.

Testosterone tests were performed to figure it out on a hormonal level.

The result? The cake was pink, indicating that the turtle Birch Aquarium has been housing for nearly a year, is indeed a female.

The rescued loggerhead was found on a beach in New Jersey, emaciated and unable to swim with paralyzed back flippers. Determined un-releasable and safer in captivity, the turtle has gained 35 pounds and grown 3 inches since it was found — 17 of those pounds and 2 of those inches have been gained during its time at Birch, aquarium staff members say.

Helling said the event illustrated the already strong ties with the community Birch has — ties he only expects to get stronger. “When they built the first building at Scripps (more than a century ago), ... they realized that doing oceanography and learning about the sciences is not disconnected from the community,” Helling said. “The aquarium has always been envisioned as a means to connect people to the science and the understanding of the ocean.”

Harry Helling can be reached at (858) 534-3474 or