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  • Photo Credit: Robert Llewellyn, "Kenneth Norris in 1980,"

Dr. Kenneth S. Norris, the “Professor of Wonderment” 1924-1998


Kenneth Stafford Norris was born in Los Angeles, California on August 11, 1924 and spent his early life living in LA. Eventually, he and his family moved to San Fernando Valley, California. Ken’s childhood was abundant with exploration of the natural outdoors and is said to have fostered his love for the environment. He graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1942 and enrolled in the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Ken began his undergraduate degree as a geology major, but later after having served in the Navy ROTC through World War II, switched to a degree in zoology. After graduating, he returned to UCLA to receive his master’s degree also in zoology. Norris continued further with his education getting a doctorate degree from Scripps Institute of Oceanography in 1959.

A Career Worth Remembering

While studying for his doctorate, in 1953, Norris was hired as the founding curator at Marineland of the Pacific (the second oceanarium in the country at the time). It was during this time that Ken made discoveries that would change marine mammal science forever. After receiving his PhD., Norris returned to UCLA to teach herpetology and research desert reptiles. However, he was lured back to the ocean, in 1968 when he was offered a job as the founding scientific director for the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii. Ken Norris split his time between faculty member at UCLA and research director at Marineland of the Pacific from 1968-1971. He became the scientific advisor to the US Marine Mammal Commission. In 1972 Norris went to University California Santa Cruz (UCSC) to serve as the director of the Center for Coastal Marine Studies, professor of natural history, and chaired the environmental studies department at UCSC from 1977-1979. He served as the Society of Marine Mammalogy’s first president. Ken Norris retired in 1990, after 18 years of teaching.

Inventions, Developments, Creations, and Contributions

  • Designed (while in graduate school) the “ichthyothermaltaxation” (the fish-temperature-movement-machine).
  • In 1965 Norris began creating the University of California Natural Reserve System which by 1972 protected over 120,000 acres of natural land throughout the state of California.
  • Developed the UCSC Joseph M. Long Marine Laboratory.
  • Founded UCSC’s environmental field program which supports undergraduate research.
  • Helped write the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, the very first US ecological management law.
  • Assisted in establishing Hawaii’s Natural Land Reserve System.
  • Created the first underwater viewing vessel the SSSM (Semi-submersible seasick machine).
  • In the mid 1970’s he initiated the 1st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals and later took the steps to build the Society of Marine Mammalogy, which he was fittingly elected the first president by consensus.

Research and Major Findings

Dr. Norris made pioneering studies on marine mammals and his career truly blossomed with his work on dolphins and porpoises. While at Marineland he was the first to confirm the echolocation (or sonar) by which dolphins not only communicate, but also navigate and investigate their world. He confirmed that dolphins used sound transmission to see, by blindfolding them and conducting tests on the captive animals. This was an immense breakthrough at the time, giving scientists a glimpse into the complex nature of these animals.  Ken also initiated the research of spinner dolphins in the late 1960’s when he traveled to Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii to establish whether it was a worthy location for cetacean studies. He made observations from shore, as well as aerial surveys. Norris described the basic framework of spinner dolphin biology and found that the dolphins rest near-shore in sandy bottom bays during the day and travel offshore for night time feeding. He described in detail this 24-hour (circadian) activity and various aerial behaviors of the spinner dolphin. The animal in its environment was a central theme of Ken’s research, but at the time wild cetacean research was done primarily from cliff tops far above the animals. Ken wanted to study dolphins underwater in the wild and to do this he created the underwater viewing vessel the SSSM which enabled him to be the first to truly research underwater behaviors of dolphins in their natural habitat. Ken also became extremely concerned about dolphins, especially spinners caught and killed in tuna nets during his time in Hawaii. He gained great amounts of international recognition for the numerous ways he generated support for the environment, but especially with his leadership in the campaign to reduce the number of dolphins caught and killed in fisherman nets. Ultimately, Ken began what is now the longest running study of spinner dolphins in the world and one of the longest running studies of any dolphin species.


In 1966 he edited a book titled Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises which is based on the science of cetology. In 1976 he published the book The Porpoise Watcher. In 1991 Dr. Norris published the book Dolphin Days where he describes his earliest contact with spinner dolphins. Also in 19991 he published alongside Karen Pryor a book entitled Dolphin Societies based on both field and lab studies of dolphin behavior.


With Ken’s doctoral research he earned the Mercer Award from the Ecological Society of America for the best paper published by a young scientist. Norris was the recipient of the Academy of Sciences Fellows Medal in 1977 for his studies of marine mammals. In 1992 Dr. Norris received the John Burroughs Medal for his book Dolphin Days. In 1996 he was named “Man of the Year” by the American Cetacean Society.

His Passing

Ken Norris passed away at age 74 on August 16, 1998. He died peacefully near his home at the University of California Santa Cruz Medical Center, surrounded by his family. He had been ill for several months after he underwent heart surgery and never fully recovered. He was survived by his wife and four children.

His Legacy

Much of what we know about whales and dolphins, especially their echolocation abilities and social patterns comes from the groundbreaking investigations by Dr. Norris and his research teams. As a teacher Norris was legendary for his ability to inspire students, to which many of whom are professionals in the field now and are leaving their mark on the future of marine mammal science. Today he is credited with virtually creating the field of cetacean research.

 “You can’t study nature without nature to study”—Dr. Kenneth S. Norris

Doyle, W. & Geerumsey S. (1999). Kenneth S. Norris, Environmental Studies: Santa Cruz. University of California: In Memoriam, 1999. Retrieved from

Farr, S. (1998). Tribute to Professor Kenneth Norris. Capitol Words, a project of the sunlight foundation, 144(125). Retrieved from

Fountain, H. (1998, August 23). Kenneth Norris, 95, Pioneer in study of marine mammals. The New York Times. Retrieved from

History. Society for Marine Mammalogy. Retrieved from

Marineland of the Pacific Historical Society. Historical record of the famous oceanarium. Retrieved from

Stephens, T. (1998) Kenneth Norris, world-renowned expert on whales and dolphins, dies at 74. University of California Santa Cruz. Retrieved from

2001. Spinner Dolphin Research Project. Kula Nai’a Wild Dolphin Research Foundation. Retrieved from

Photo Credit: Robert Llewellyn, “Kenneth Norris in 1980,”

  1998  /  History, Science  /  Last Updated August 29, 2012 by Heather Heenehan  /