Water is Life

Marine Biologist Kevin Lewand (left) working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The photo shows him assisting with a giant sea bass from the kelp forest exhibit, while receiving a freshwater bath and brief health checkup.

Everything about Kevin Lewand’s appearance is marked with sun. His blonde hair is messy and sun-bleached, his tan the kind that never goes away. Even his tiny Monterey house smells of ocean water and sand; dozens of cookbooks in the kitchen speak about his love for seafood. The first thing that strikes a visitor is the dream-like treehouse that Lewand built for his daughter in the front yard. She is a teenager now and the tree house stands mostly alone, but they both love to surf and often do it together. The second thing that strikes a visitor is the amount of surfboards around the house.

Originally from Santa Monica, Lewand, 52, is a California kid who has always been around water. Before he joined the Monterey Bay Aquarium 20 years ago as a collector, he went to school in Santa Barbara and San Diego and studied marine biology and hydrobiology. Now, he “takes stuff from the ocean” for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He gathers whatever they assign – mahi mahi, tuna, jellyfish, plankton. Most are samples for scientific research.

That was not always the plan. When Lewand was 19, he met a surfer guy in San Diego who said he was going to Bali and asked if Lewand wanted to go with. “Heck yeah” was the only logical answer. The guy was a medical doctor – exactly what Lewand wanted to do with his life back then. In Bali, he met some Australians and through them he picked up work on a boat that cruised between Java and Zimbabwe and that was his summer job through college.

Weekly: While being a marine biologist in Monterey is not a total rarity, it is a job kids often dream about, almost as much as being a football player. What’s your story?

Lewand: It was more of a serendipity. At that time, I just came out of college and I thought I was going to a medical school. For fun, I loved to surf and I love to be around the ocean, no question, but I didn’t really think I would be doing what I’m doing today. Never had a passion for aquariums. Some kids know right away and want to work with dolphins and whales, but I had no idea.

What brought you to Monterey?

For a few years, my plan was to join the Peace Corps and work in the fishery. They were going to take me to Africa, but eventually every place held out. A lot of work in college, at night time, bartending, waiting tables, trying to pay for school. I had a lot of student loans and I was looking for a part-time job. I also had a lot of scuba diving experience. So I started to work for the San Francisco aquarium and go under water. Some people say they like to be in the water, but it’s not true. It’s always been easy for me. I was swimming with white sharks near the Farallon Islands. Then I worked in San Diego, and then Monterey had a job opening.

What would happen if you stayed away from the ocean for a few days?

You want me to become crankypants? Don’t get me wrong, I like to see the world, I just prefer to see the world with the ocean next to it. It feels good to see the ocean every day. The funny thing is my parents are from Ohio; I can’t even imagine… I never took the ocean for granted and always went to cool spots around the world that are near the ocean. Covid has been a drag. I go to Bali every year during the full moon in May, but now it’s difficult. We were supposed to be in Madagascar this summer.

What did you do instead?

Went to vist some places in Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington. Did I like it? Yes. But I didn’t love it.

Are you able to identify the best place for surfing in the world?

Everybody has their beaches. There are a couple of places for me. There is the palace I was talking about in Bali. Actually, it’s on Java. They call it G-Land. You leave Bali on the boat and it takes forever because people, who take care of the surfers, stop to pray. Sometimes I go there during Ramadan, and it’s hard to watch people work. When you arrive, you are in the jungle. You sleep in a hut and there are monkeys all over the place. There are no supermarkets. It feels like you left your normal craziness of the world. Indonesian food is very good and some of the best beaches are there. Another place is Fiji, but that’s a bit more expensive for a surfer. But the waves are still great.

So what’s your favorite water activity?

Surfing, no question. I would surf until I die.

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