top of page

Marine Science Institute Remembers

Robert "Bob" E. Rutherford

1927 ~  2021

Carolyn L. Rutherford

1930 ~ 2010

The Rutherfords

Robert Rutherford, formerly of PanAm, Glen L. Martin Co of Baltimore and the Ford Foundation, founded the Redwood City-based organization with his wife Carolyn in 1970 in response to the great concerns about the water and air resources in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bob’s approach to environmental education was based on the concept that putting students in direct physical contact with their local bay environment would increase their awareness of local ecosystems and inspire stewardship of natural resources.

Under Bob and Carolyn's leadership, Marine Science Institute’s signature program, the Discovery Voyage, was launched. This was a 4-hour exploration of the San Francisco Bay aboard the Inland Seas. Students participated in 4 learning stations where they work in a cooperative setting using a trawl net, plankton tows and a mud grab to study the life that lives in our precious San Francisco Bay estuary.     

Robert E. Rutherford Obituary

Share your memories here

The Start of a Legacy

Conversation with Bob - 2017

Q: Carolyn and our early years:

                 B: We met at St. Petersburg Junior College.  I had just enrolled after being discharged from the Army Air Corps, and Carolyn and her mother had just driven across the country from Arizona after her father died, and she enrolled at St. Petersburg JC.  Her locker was next to mine.  When she opened the locker door all her books fell out.  I, of course, helped her pick them up.  The rest is history.  Four years later we were married.


Q: How long were we married?  How many children did we have when the Institute began?   

                 B: We were married in February 1951 and were very happily married for fifty-nine years until she died in July 2010.  We had four children who traveled with us to Egypt, to England, and on to California where the Institute was formed.


Q: How did I break the news to Carolyn that I wanted to form the Institute?  Was I nervous?

                  B: I don’t remember exactly, but we fully discussed all important, and not so important, things.  This discussion would have to had included the basic education concept, the operation of a ship which I knew nothing about at that time, funding for the project, and funds for us to live on—for starters.  And, we had very little money.  Was I nervous?  Not that I remember.  After all, we had been many places, done quite a few things all of which I believed would enable me to make it work.  Of course, this was a big deal—the biggest we had tackled yet.  But, we were an adventurous couple.  We also had the assurance from Earl Hearld that I could contact him at any time for advice, answers to any questions that might come up.  So, we were ready to give it a go.

The R/V Inland Seas

Q: How did we find and obtain our first ship, the RV Inland Seas?

                 B: I knew Len Larson, President of Ocean Science Services, the company that had the Seas but that had gone out of business.  The ship now belonged to the Stanford Bank, Palo Alto.  The country was then in the midst of another economic turndown and the bank, which unable to sell it, therefore was happy to let use it as long as we could pay the insurance and keep it in good mechanical condition.  Actually, it was a fine ship for us—good spaces for our classroom activities, and large open decks fore and aft for our deck activities.  Our crew, the teachers, and the students all found it ideal.  The only problem was that the wooden hull, in time, became expensive to maintain, and it required an expensive annual haul-out.


The Seas was built for the Army in Southern California in 1945 as an air-sea rescue ship:  85’ in length, 18’ beam, 5’ draft, its hull was double planked, and it was powered by two 250 hp diesel engines.  The ship had been converted for civilian use several years earlier when the two huge aircraft engines were removed and the diesel engines installed.  Also, the good news was that it was built to last a thousand years, although the life expediency for that ship in war was only sixty days.


We began operations in June 1970.  I called our program the “Discovery Voyage.”  Not “Discovery” because of the new stuff the students learned, but because they would begin to discover things with “new” eyes.  And, we followed the experience Earl Hearld gained from his experiment and worked with students in 5th grade and up.  All went reasonably well at first, but by that October our cash flow was intermittent and the bank was making noises about wanting the ship back.  A friend, Jay Thorwaldson, a reporter for the “Palo Alto Times,” wrote a story about the Institute and our financial plight. Mitzi Briggs, an Atherton resident, read the story and contacted the bank saying she would guarantee the mortgage providing the Institute obtained title to the ship.  I have often said that $58,000 ship was our first million dollar ship because of the interest paid before the note was retired.

Q: How many locations did we explore?

                 B: When we first began operating, we were at the marina in South San Francisco.  From there we went up to Dumbarton Shoals between Berkley and Richmond, or in or near Richardson Bay.  They both had problems:  usual hard scoured sand bottom produced so little in the trawls and we lost about 25% of the possible trips because of fog or wind.  And our office was in Palo Alto.  Then John Cristich took me to see a berth at the Port of Redwood City.  It was great and we could have the ship and office close together.  Plus, our working sites we close and good, and fog and wind were almost never a problem. 


We were at the Port of Redwood City until the Port needed the space for its development.  We then moved next door onto the Ideal Cement property, and we were there until it needed the space for its expansion.  Then we moved onto the Leslie Salt property.  This south bay location is excellent because:  it’s near the freeways and bridges for driving from the different parts of the Bay Area and the south Bay is excellent for our programs. Finding a place on the water has always been a problem. We have been fortunate because the Port space wasn’t too expensive, then the Ideal Cement and Leslie Salt locations were donated to us.


Waterfront property is very limited, very expensive, and often not too convenient for one or more reasons.  For example, we have often been invited to use a wharf and office space at Ft. Mason in San Francisco.  Although that location sounds good, and many have encouraged us to relocate there, the tides there create a surge that is destructive to a ship smaller that a liner.  And, after all these years that marine science has been around, neither we nor anyone else operates from there.

Q: Did we rename the ship? 

B: No.  Renaming a ship is considered, by some, bad luck.

Launching Programs

Q: Science Program:  Trials and errors?

                 B: While there were most likely several trials or even many errors, I don’t remember them.  We did, however, learn a few things.  One of the most important came at the end of an early trip and while we were reviewing the day’s programs, one instructor commented that a student asked at the end of the discussion on the use of the Secci disk, “What’s a meter?”  He said that student most likely didn’t get any of that discussion, and probably other students, too.  What to do?  The Prep Guide was born.  Simple at first, it later became rather elaborate so the teachers could really prepare the students.  The Prep Guide later became a Master’s thesis for one of our Instructors.


In the early days while out of the classroom activities were fairly new, quite a few teachers were scared to death to leave the comfort of their classrooms they knew so well for the outdoors they didn’t know—and for us too many didn’t.  How could we help those teachers overcome their fears?  The Prep Guide helped.  We also began to develop things for the teachers to do during a Voyage, also for the parents who drove. In time this problem began to disappear.  Entirely?  I don’t know, maybe we’ll never know.


It also took time before some teachers were confident that there was something in our programs for all students.  In the early days too many teachers “just knew” their students, particularly the disadvantaged, had to be in the classroom if they were to learn anything.


Another important lesson came when a teacher asked me what we had for her students?  Who are your students? I asked.  Third grade, she replied.  Nothing I replied as we were working with 4th or 5th grade and above.  That teacher then banged on the table and said, “Don’t you know that students must be turned on to science by the time they reach 5th grade or we lose them to science.  That’s when we developed the Shoreside Program.


Another important lesson for us was to get the instructors to stop trying to tell the students all they knew about a subject in twenty or twenty-five minutes.  No one would remember.  Finally, they began to limit their spiel to a select number of topics that were most important.  Then students began to remember—and they remember to this day!

Q: Program growth & land development, trailers, aquariums, and classrooms.

               B: Because waterfront land is both expensive and almost nonexistent, a trailer was the answer and we found and obtained a three-wide arrangement.  Good, but not super great. 

Another reason we never built more permanent structures is because our landlords had said the property was for cement and salt use and not to put down roots. 

The aquariums and classroom came about because we added the Shoreside program.

The classroom building is there and built so that it can be moved or removed easily.  The cement slab can also be removed fairly easily. 

I would hope that when MSI has its own land, it will have at least five acres, and ten would be even better.  Over the years I have learned we never know what we might want to build or develop into, so best to have “enough” or a “little bit more.”

Make Way For The Brownlee

Q: When and why did we think about and how did we obtain the RV Robert G. Brownlee?

                 B: It was about 1993 or so when MSI became one of the Brownlee Foundation’s four , which had become one of our steady contributors.  We had become one of four of their recipients.  One day, not long after Robert Brownlee died, we received a letter saying it wanted to memorialize him in a special way.  It at that time that we had come to the decision that the Seas’ hull was too expensive to maintain.  I responded to the Foundation’s request with a letter that went something like this, “A memorial to Robert Brownlee?  How about this  .  .   .”  I then went to describe what we had in mind, and our budget was about $500,000.  As I recall they answered with an offer of funding the new ship with an advance grant of $350,000, (my memory of these numbers may be a little off).


When we began to look for a ship, we found that Exxon had taken almost everything that floated that was on the Pacific and Gulf coasts for its oil spill at Valdez.  We then checked the Atlantic coast and found nothing we could use.  Then we began to investigate building a ship.  This led to marine architects and shipbuilders.  Frankly, I don’t know how we would ever accomplished what we did without John Cristich!  He knew, he could speak their language, he guided us and at times he guided both the architects and Marco in Seattle, the boatbuilder.  John actually designed the hull that is so great.  Marco was great.  Most shipbuilders, once you sign the contract, just load the design with extras.  The saying in the shipbuilding world is find a ship you like and buy it.  You can’t afford to build one.  At Marco I had the feeling we could discuss what we wanted, shake hands, and we would get what discussed when we said we would.


I had the task of finding the money.  As I remember we signed a contract for $1.7 million.  All we had was $350,00, and we had to make progress payments.  Somehow, we met most of the time dates.  For the final amount, I had to refinance our Palo Alto home to pay the last $175,000 at the time required.  Then the president of the Brownlee Foundation personally lent us this amount so I could pay off my mortgage and move into the Sequoias.


How good a job John did and how good of job Marco did for us can be seen in the first insurance survey.  It stated that the replacement value was $2,250,000. When we took delivery, we had about $1,800,000 in the ship. 

Tell us About the Grey Whale

Q: The Gray Whale saga is interesting.

             B: A California Gray Whale strayed into the south Bay as marine animals sometimes do. After a Voyage it was sited in Redwood Creek.  It then disappeared.  Early one morning about three days later I happened to watch a ship leave the Port and beside a wharf I saw a lump.  I immediately knew what it was—the whale and it was dead.  I immediately went to the Harbor Director as asked to take it away.  He was disturbed that it was there because of the expense if the Port had to remove it.  He agreed we could have it.


When the Voyage returned, we towed it to our property, borrowed a tractor from Leslie Salt and pulled it part way up on land, (Maybe a Leslie employee drove the tractor). By this time the word was on TV that we had a stranded whale.  A student from San Jose State, who had whale experience, came by and asked if could help us obtain the skeleton.  Since we didn’t know what we were doing we agreed.  This was a Tuesday.  The next day someone from Cal Academy and another from Berkley came by as they performed the official necropsy.  They also took a side of the baleen.  They determined the whale was fully involved with pneumonia.  A later review of the bones showed they were full of arthritis.  My layman’s opinion was that our whale died of pneumonia with complications of arthritis.  That afternoon two or three of our people and the San Jose fellow started to trim the blubber and dismantle the animal.


We had Leslie dig two trenches—a large one for the skeleton and a smaller one for the blubber.  The fellows worked all day and all night getting it ready to be buried.  The next day that whale began to stink.  There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that smells worse than a decaying whale.  A teacher from Hoover School in Redwood City and her class walked from the school to MSI to see the whale.  The smell didn’t seem to bother the kids.  Carolyn and I went down to see it that night and to bring the workers hot chocolate.  Whew!  The next day the Leslie people came over to say they couldn’t stand the smell and were going to cover it up—ready or not!  Fortunately, we were ready.


About six months later we dug up the skeleton.  Almost all of the flesh had been removed by the little bugs.  Amazing!  Then, what to do about it?  I had seen two whale skeletons in Hawaii.  The one on Maui is just a whale on a stick—just a straight skeleton on a rod sticking straight out.  Uninteresting, unimaginative, and just plain dull.  Then there is a very nice skeleton on Oahu that is hanging in a nice and attractive position.  But that would be too expensive for us, at least for now.  We just built a frame to hold the bones.  I am afraid our security for the bones hasn’t been very good as several bones have disappeared.


Jeff Rutherford was interested in how the baleen could be retained in a nice pliable way?  His investigation indicated that if it were kept in ethylene glycol for an unknown time it might. He then sealed it in a barrel full of ethylene glycol.  I have often wondered if it worked.

Words of Wisdom

Q: What would I say to a budding entrepreneur?

                B:If you want to try and do a project, try it.  Then, you will learn what has been said to me on more than one occasion.  “Now you know why there are so few entrepreneurs, and why most of them do it but once.”  To that, I say, “Amen!”


Q: Who were my greatest heroes?

                 Three:  My Dad, Charles Lindbergh, and Winston Churchill.  All three took on big challenges—for them, and saw them through.


Q: What are my favorite quotes?

                 B: I don’t have many.  Yet, two came to me as I built the Institute:  “If going to be, it’s going to have to be me.”    I also used to say, “If the world would only stand still, I could do my job.”  Then I realized that this changing world is the normal way of things.  Learn to live with it!

Robert and Jeff Rutherford and Marilou Seiff.jpg

Three generations of Executives Directors

from left to right: Jeff Rutherford (1996 - 2003), Marilou Seiff (2003 - present), Robert "Bob" Rutherford (1970 - 1996)

Share your memories, stories, and images here. 
Comments Secton
bottom of page