Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

Ocean Life, Planet Health

Charles S. Yentsch Obituary


Visionary Ocean Scientist Charles S. Yentsch Dies at 85


September 19, 2012

Charlie was honored as a leader and innovator. Yet he will be remembered as a “beloved maverick” by those who knew him best. Learning about the seasons, cycles, and ever-changing dynamics of the ocean was Charlie’s life-long passion. Creating a positive and equitable learning environment shipboard, in the laboratory, and at home was his commitment. Compassion was his hallmark.

Since childhood, Charlie was a student of the seas. As a kid in Kentucky, he was fascinated with fossils of marine organisms in the limestone. As a California teenager, he studied waves from his post as a lifeguard and experienced waves as a surfer. He set up a business to free-dive for and market abalone. The diving triggered his fascination of sunlight interacting with water. As an adult, he turned his father’s and uncles’ mechanical skills with trucks toward the measurement of light in the sea and the tiny marine organisms dependent on sunlight. He held a reverence for all life and found the simplest forms most compelling. Always non-hierarchical in his belief of human potential, he put every person and every idea on a par to be tested. He cherished skeptically-minded colleagues.  

He served in the U.S. Navy during WWII as a fire-fighting instructor in San Diego (1944-1946). The GI Bill and no job prospects encouraged his formal education at the University of Louisville (B. S. 1950), Florida State University in Tallahassee (M.S. 1953), and the University of Washington in Seattle. Employment included the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA (1956-1967); Nova University Oceanographic Center in Fort Lauderdale, FL (1967-1970); and the University of Massachusetts Marine Station, Gloucester (1970-1974). In July of 1974, Charlie and wife Clarice founded the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in West Boothbay Harbor, ME. Within a few years, this institution had become a world-class laboratory attracting innovative scientists from around the world, and today it is a leading employer in the State of Maine.

Charlie was regarded as one of the great pioneers of modern oceanography, and one of the first to conceive of and advise NASA on the potential of satellite observations of ocean biology. In 1985 he received a Ph.D. Honoris causa from Long Island University, Southampton, NY. The American Association of Limnology and Oceanography presented Charlie with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. In 2010, The Oceanographic Society bestowed the honor of the Nils Gunnar Jerlov Award and also named him a Fellow of The Oceanography Society.

Charlie had a deep sense of time, space, and place. He enjoyed going to sea and world travel, with his family accompanying him when possible (despite a quote on his office door that read “Traveling with children is like traveling third class in Bulgaria”). Yet he was most fond of being home, defined by a wood fire, kids and pets, “tea” time, humor, a well-prepared meal fresh from the sea, and then the evening topped off with a puff on a Partagas and a good read.

His descendents are three sons and two granddaughters. Charlie was proud that each one of the five is now an astute naturalist. Tim Yentsch lives in West Falmouth MA. Colin Yentsch, wife Sara and daughters Ella and Sadie live in Boothbay Harbor, ME. Carlton Yentsch with friend Sandy Barry live in Boothbay Harbor ME. Charlie’s wife Clarice will continue to call Fort Lauderdale FL home.

At the request of the deceased, there will be no public service. Any gift may be sent to the Yentsch Scholarship Fund, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, 60 Bigelow Drive, East Boothbay, ME 04544 or Hospice-by-the-Sea, 1200 East Las Olas Blvd, Suite 202, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301.

If you are so inclined, the next time you set sail, see sunlight reflecting off the ocean, dance the swing, listen to Dixieland, or sing Spirituals – raise a toast to Charlie.

Photo courtesy of Robert Mitchell.