Bt in 1975
Fall 1975, The year I started Cal Poly and lived in the dorms. Surfing was my Life.
It all boils down to one emotion: passion. That’s how I became a successful marine biologist. I was passionate as a surfer and I translated my passion for surfing and love for the ocean into marine biology. It wasn’t planned, it was actually quite serendipitous, and I have never regretted it. And it all started while hitchhiking.

It was the fall of 1976 and I was hitchhiking home from classes at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where I was a sophomore journalism major, to Shell Beach where I had moved that summer after my first year in the dorms. I remember that moment well for it changed my life: a small sports car came tearing up the on-ramp to US 101 and stopped. I hopped in and said hi to one of Cal Poly’s most iconic professors: Dr. Fred Clogston. He was replete with professorial charm and decor: gray hair and beard, a tweed jacket, leather gloves, and smoking a large pipe. We hit it off immediately and then came the inevitable ice breaker:

“What’s your major? he said.
“Photojournalism.” I replied. “What do you teach?”
“Marine biology” My interest was immediately piqued.
“Wow, that’s great.” I said ” I was planning on taking the marine biology class at Poly but it’s junior level and requires a ton of science prerequisites.” Then he said the words that changed my life forever.
Just take it and I’m sure you’ll do fine.

By the time he dropped me off in Shell Beach my heart was racing I was so excited. And so I took his class the next quarter, got a “B”, changed my major and never looked back. Life officially altered. Ocean passion effectively channeled. Future dreams clicked in. The world changed. I was going to be a marine biologist!

Fred Clogston (left) working with a student in 1967 at Cal Poly. Photo: El Rodeo Yearbook.
Although that’s what got me started there were at least three others things that were also key to my transition.

First, I was not terribly excited about my current major. I declared Journalism because it was the best fit to my interests at the time. However, once I had taken all of the “Photo” classes, which I loved, I was left with the “Journalism” classes, which didn’t really excite me. Thus, I was looking for a new major — even though I didn’t know it — and had taken a few biology general education classes, which I liked.

Brian 24
The Shell Beach shoreline: where my search for abalone started my career in marine biology. 1976. Photo: Brian Tissot
Two, after surfing in Shell Beach I would hang out at the beach and my curiosity drove me to explore the nooks and crannies for marine life, which eventually lead to my discovery of black abalone. I was truly captivated by them and as I “chased the abalone” first to eat, then to learn about, I gradually started wading into the water at low tide and finally snorkeling along the shore down to 30ft. to find them. It was in this phase of my life that my water skills from surfing served me well.

Map I made of the reefs off Shell Beach, CA while snorkeling, 1977.
Third, one year after that fateful day in 1976 my parents moved to the Philippines and my experiences there sealed the deal. I went out for Christmas and took winter quarter off so I had three solid months overseas. The snorkeling around Subic Bay was unbelievable with 100+ visibility common on the pristine coral reefs teeming with marine life. I became SCUBA certified and traveled to Bali for a three-week visit. Unbelievable surf, incredibly diverse coral reefs, a trip I have never forgotten. And I came back totally committed to a life of marine biology.

Snorkeling in Subic Bay, Philippines, 1977. Photo: Gene Tissot.
From there things just kept moving and eventually I became a college professor 15 years later. However, despite all my dedication and hard work, key to my success were my family, friends and an amazing number of mentors that each contributed in their own way to who I am. Now I take great pleasure in mentoring my students — many not all that different from that 19-year-old kid Dr. Clogston picked up hitchhiking in 1976 — and watching them go out into the world and make a difference. To follow their passion and become whoever they want to be. I love it.

And I wanted people to know this story. To see, that at least for me, passion about something helped to facilitate a transition to a college degree that was key to establishing a career. And although I was half-way into another degree it wasn’t too late to change. It reality, as long as you are alive it is never too late. So take your passion and do something with it! Be flexible, creative and when you find something you love latch on and never give up. There will always be bumps along the way, and there may be huge bumps, seemingly insurmountable bumps, but remember that nothing worthwhile in life is ever easy. Nor should it be.

Further Reading:

13 responses to “How I Became a Marine Biologist: My Transition from Surfing”

  1. Love your posts…must have met you when we all lived in San Diego and our dads flew F8s…I lived in La Jolla for many years and dove for abs with my late husband, Peter Charlton, who helped build the original shack at Windensea…

    • Hi Suzanne, Nice to hear from you and yes we must have met at some point through Naval events. I really loved that area and it was so hard to move away but glad you got to stay there and enjoy abalone and Windansea!

  2. […] it was a natural progression to surfing when I lived in San Diego and eventually into a career in marine biology. In junior high I became very interested in film-making and took movies of many of my early surf […]

  3. I just bumped into your page. I found it because I was searching for information concerning Dr. Clogston because I am writing a book and my time with Dr. Clogston at Cal Poly (I also became a marine biologist) is central to the book. I would love to chat with you.

  4. I am one of Dr. Clogston’s daughters. I found this post while doing a random search for information on my father. It is nice to know that he left this type of legacy and was an inspiration to his students. As a teenager, I once tagged along with my dad when he took his students out for their Marine Biology “final”. They dragged Port San Luis with a plankton net and then made a meal from what they caught. I could tell from the stories his students told, that my dad’s class was a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing this story!

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