Donald W. Wilkie, 84, founded Birch Aquarium at Scripps
Published - 10/21/15 - 02:22 PM | 11998 views | 0 0 comments | 643 643 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Donald Walter Wilkie, director of the Scripps Aquarium-Museum from 1965 to 1993 and founding director of the Stephen Birch Aquarium-Museum (now known as Birch Aquarium at Scripps), died on Oct. 5 in San Diego. He was 84.

Wilkie oversaw the transformation of what started as a few marine exhibits near the beach in La Jolla into a leading aquarium and educational facility that today sees more than 420,000 visitors a year.

“Don helped many young professionals grow into their fields,” said Harry Helling, newly named executive director at Birch. “I worked with him early in my career, and his kind advice helped to guide me onto a long pathway of successful contributions to the field of informal science education. Indeed, we are all grateful for Don’s service as a leader in the renaissance of informal science centers and for his vision for today’s Birch Aquarium at Scripps as a world-class ocean interpretive center.”

Wilkie was born on June 20, 1931 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He earned his bachelor’s degree in zoology at the University of British Columbia in 1960 and master of science in ichthyology (the study of fish) from University of British Columbia in 1966. Following graduation, he spent a year working for the British Columbia Fish and Game Department studying the ecology of coho salmon and steelhead trout and then spent two years as assistant curator at the Vancouver Aquarium.

At the Vancouver Aquarium, he conducted the first year-round sampling program of shore fish in British Columbia, which included several fish previously thought to be rare in British Columbia waters. Wilkie also spent two years as curator of mammals and fishes at the Philadelphia Aquarium. In 1965, he became director of the Scripps Aquarium-Museum, at the time located on the Scripps Institution of Oceanography campus.

Under Wilkie’s leadership, the aquarium was revitalized and a new education curriculum was developed. His duties included general administration, planning and designing exhibits, collecting aquarium specimens and developing education programs for schools and the public.

Wilkie was instrumental in the planning, fundraising and building of the Birch aquarium-museum, which opened in September of 1992. The new facility, which now sits on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is four times larger than the Scripps Aquarium was.

Wilkie was a seasoned diver — his favorite spots included ice floes in Alaska, a South Seas dive spot in Palau, the Great Barrier Reef, Espiritu Santo in Baja California Sur, Mexico and more.

Wilkie is survived by his wife Pat, his brother Gordon Wilkie, his children Linda Hauck, Doug Wilkie and Susanne Fitzpatrick and stepson Jeff Bennett, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions in memory of Don Wilkie can be made to the Birch Aquarium Endowment Fund and the Price Philanthropies Ocean Science Education Fund. In particular, the Wilkie family wishes to support the postdoctoral fellowship component of the program, which prepares Scripps oceanography graduates to assume leadership roles in STEM education.

For more information on giving, please contact Michele Bart at (858) 534-2999 or

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