The following excerpt is from a story that originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. – Ed.

It was once called the fish roundabout. The folks at the Steinhart Aquarium still get asked about it, Bart Shepherd ’92 says. In the dark, 360 degrees of marine life darted and swirled all around in glowing tanks, with you at the center of it all. It was supposedly once one of San Francisco’s best date spots. Shepherd was just a volunteer back then. He was there to feed the yellowtail.

“It was amazing,” he says. “I would literally carry two 5-gallon buckets filled to the top with whitebait fish — smelt and capelin and things like that — up three flights of stairs.”

All those steps later, he met with a frenzy. The bait would be gone within 30 seconds. “They would go crazy, splash all around and eat it,” he says. “Then I’d carry the empty buckets back down.”

More than two decades later, the Fish Roundabout is no more. Today, there’s a panoramic fish tunnel and an amphitheater that overlooks a bustling coral reef. In fact, the entire Steinhart Aquarium has since been replaced and remade within the modern California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. But Bart Shepherd is still here. He’s been aquatic biologist, senior aquatic biologist and then curator before becoming director in 2011. And he’s not just feeding the fish anymore: He’s finding them, cataloguing them, planning exhibitions and protecting their coral reef habitats around the world.

Ever-bigger aquariums

Bart Shepherd grew up in the Little Neck area of Virginia Beach, a tiny peninsula embraced by branches of the formerly oyster-rich Lynnhaven River. His father would take him out fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, and he’d spend time kayaking the calm nearby waters. From age 6, he kept an aquarium in his bedroom and would fall asleep to the sounds of its bubbling filter.

“I had a tiger shovelnose catfish, which is a fish that gets to be many feet long,” he says. “I should not have had any business keeping that in a 20-gallon tank.”

When he was in the sixth grade, his family went snorkeling in the Caribbean and young Bart was immediately “blown away” by the elkhorn corals there. Today, those corals are nearly 95% extinct.

“But all throughout the Caribbean they used to form these barriers that waves would break over,” Shepherd remembers. Coral reefs can reduce the energy of ocean waves by as much as 97%. “I can remember being a kid and snorkeling out. When the waves went by, the branches stuck up out of the surface of the water. I knew there was amazing stuff on the other side of that, but I didn’t know how you could get there.”

At William & Mary, Shepherd kept increasingly larger aquariums in his dorm room and later in the Sigma Nu fraternity house. But he graduated with an art history and anthropology double major, thanks to what he describes as a “genetic” predisposition to art. Still, it didn’t turn out to be an exact fit.

“I thought, ‘I’m gonna end up working in a museum for the rest of my life.’ I couldn’t have that happen,” he says. “I told everyone I really wanted to be a rock ’n’ roll guitar player.”

Named after a Dr. Seuss book, his band On Beyond Zee played gigs around Virginia and North Carolina before recording an album together. But when the band didn’t take off further, Shepherd returned home to Virginia Beach and a job at the Virginia Marine Science Museum (VMSM) — today known as the Virginia Aquarium. “I sold out and became a marine biologist,” he jokes.

A quick study

So began an eventful few years that shaped his path as a scientist. Shepherd started out at the VMSM as an exhibits technician, maintaining the aquarium’s interactive displays for patrons. Before long, he switched over to the “live exhibits” side and spent a year learning about the hundreds of species of fish and coral on display there.

After a 1994 trip to the Galápagos Islands, he participated in an Earthwatch program: two weeks of diving and coral reef surveys along the shores of Maui. The program required no previous experience; a copy of the seminal “Corals of Australia and the Indo-Pacific” was there to help participants sort their organ pipes from their bottlebrush corals.

“I was flipping through and I could identify a lot of the corals just from knowing them from the aquarium world,” Shepherd says. The host professor from Earthwatch was surprised and asked ‘How do you know all these?’”

The aquarium experience and the trips to the Pacific gave him the confidence and motivation he needed to focus his career goals toward marine biology. It might not seem like a logical move for an art history major, but to Shepherd, it fit together perfectly.

“For an art history class, what do you memorize?” he asks. “There’s a painting, they put it up on a projector, and you need to know the title, the artist and the year it was painted. It’s the same thing for a fish. Give me a color picture of a fish: You need to know the genus, the species, the family, where it’s found, what it eats. It’s the same sort of visual reference system. That works in my brain.”

Shepherd trucked up to Poughkeepsie, New York, to begin pursuing a master’s degree in evolutionary biology at Vassar College. There, Shepherd dove into the locomotion of fish — and all the complex math and physics required to describe it. “It was a very intense period of time,” he says, but he remained focused on the ultimate goal: to get certified in the field where he knew he could succeed. He moved to San Francisco in 1996 with some friends to finish writing his thesis; after all, it’s halfway to Hawaii, where so much of the good coral action is.

The City by the Bay is also home to the California Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit founded in 1853 that today includes the popular Morrison Planetarium, the indoor Osher Rainforest, the Tusher African Hall and the Kimball Natural History Museum, among many other highlights. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums-accredited Steinhart Aquarium arrived in 1923 and celebrates its centennial this year.

“I had this sort of weird idea that I could get a job at Steinhart Aquarium,” he says. He connected with a former colleague from the VMSM who put him in touch with Steinhart’s then-curator. Before long, he was a volunteer carting smelt up to the Fish Roundabout.

He defended his thesis at Vassar the same week he was hired full-time at Steinhart — right around the time plans were being drawn up for a new California Academy of Sciences.

Read the rest of the story on the W&M Alumni Magazine website.

Editor’s note: Water is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.