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In Venice, fish gotta swim, man's gotta dream, and an Oceanarium may one day rise

In late June, a man in love with the sea sent me a tale of discovery, and he delivered it with a tone of urgency.

“I hope that you are as excited as we are by our new find,” Tim Rudnick, a 75-year-old beach-loving Los Angeles original, said in an email.

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He identified himself as director of the Venice Oceanarium, which he described as “a museum without walls.” For years, Rudnick has set up tables at the end of the Venice Pier, laid out all sorts of sea creatures, and educated visitors from two blocks away and two continents away. The retired building contractor throws an annual grunion party when the fish spawn on wet sand under a full moon, and he leads an annual public reading of “Moby Dick.”

And what was his “new find?”

It has to do with the wicked winter storm that battered the pier in 2005, sending the public bathroom structure plunging into the sea beyond the surf break. For many years, Rudnick suspected the bathrooms had become a sort of fish tank at the bottom of the sea, and recently, he couldn’t contain his curiosity. So he borrowed a crew and sent a remotely operated camera down there to have a look.

“We start to see lobster and we start to see Garibaldi. We saw an octopus and we saw a sea lion come by,” said Rudnick, who sent me photos and later a video.

“It turned me on,” he said. “I wrote to you and I told everybody I could tell. I was just thrilled because like I say, I felt like Jacques Cousteau discovering a new feature of the ocean and it’s right here in my hometown.”

One reason Rudnick is so excited is that for years, he’s had an unfulfilled dream. About 30 years ago, in a marine biology class at Santa Monica College, he drew up a design for what he would come to call his Oceanarium. In the decades that have followed, nothing — not lack of funds, nor excruciatingly slow progress — has made him any less optimistic. He still believes there will one day be a permanent structure with a touch tank, educational displays, and now, the main attraction:

A live projection from the just-discovered reef onto video monitors in the Oceanarium.

“You’d be standing here on the pier and you could see what’s under the water beneath your feet,” said Rudnick, his sea blue eyes filling with light.

It’s easy to see why L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin had this to say about Rudnick.

“I always think of him as a force of nature and a force for nature.”

There is a chance, Bonin said, that something resembling Rudnick’s vision could be incorporated into planned upgrades of the pier over the next couple of years.

But he couldn’t make any promises, and such a project would cost about $1 million, by Rudnick’s estimate, and require both city and Coastal Commission approval.

“His enthusiasm is infectious,” said Mike Schaadt, recently retired director of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. Schaadt told me Rudnick has sought his advice and won his support.

“You’re seeing the real thing with this guy. He’s excited about the ocean and he wants people to learn about it,” said Schaadt.

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Apryl Boyle, director of Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, joined me and Rudnick at the Venice Pier one day to hear his spiel.

“I love his passion,” said Boyle, who later viewed the video from the reef and sent me a list of what she saw in and around the bathroom reef.

Sargo, Garibaldi, surf perch, tree fish, mussels, decorator crab, anemones, gorgonian, blacksmith, rays, sea star, oyster, lobster, rockfish, halfmoon, rubberlip, acorn barnacles, clams “and several other invertebrates.”

Boyle said the artificial reef, though it may be teeming with life, is not unique in Santa Monica Bay, where water quality has been greatly improved over the years.

“Where you had sand before and now you have hard substrate, or concrete, animals attach to it and grow,” she explained, and those creatures, along with algae, attract more life forms.

“It would be great to do research on the counts over time and how they vary through seasons,” said Boyle.

For all his enthusiasm, Rudnick was struggling to figure out how to handle the potential negative consequences of his “discovery.” What if too many divers go down to have a look, or to hunt lobster, and spoil what, to him, is a fragile treasure?

“I haven’t figured that out yet,” Rudnick said with wince, as if he’d lost sleep over it.

One thing that might help is that the bathroom did not settle next to the pier. It was carried a short distance by storm currents, in a direction Rudnick doesn’t have to share with anyone.

Schaadt said he doesn’t think there will be a problem, partly because lobster divers already know where to find them. And he thinks the benefits of an Oceanarium will outweigh the negatives.

“People can live in Los Angeles their whole lives and not realize there’s this whole big beautiful ocean at their doorstep … and that everything they do in a day has an impact on it,” said Schaadt, who thinks a better appreciation of Santa Monica Bay will lead to more awareness of ways to control pollution and improve water quality.

One day I visited Rudnick at his home, several blocks from the beach, and we sat in his lab — a kind of Garagaquarium. It’s filled with hundreds of shells and other creatures he’s collected over the years.

Rudnick told me he went to art school, then became a builder to pay bills when the kids came along, and then he started visiting the beach while trying to work through a rough patch in his life. Swimming in Santa Monica Bay and walking along its shores became his daily baptism ritual. It awakened, healed and rejuvenated him.

“I had the sense of it being spiritual,” he said.

Through art, he said, he had a sense of what the truth of the ocean could be, but he wanted to know the scientific truths, as well. So he began taking marine biology courses at local colleges, and that continued for years. He said he has completed 60 or 70 units of marine and earth science courses, but he has no interest in a degree. He just wants to be closer to understanding, especially now, as health issues have made him all the more determined to realize his dream.

On Sunday, Rudnick was at the end of the pier, showing children how to draw fish, displaying his collection of shark jaws and explaining that the sand on the beach was once in rock form in the Santa Cruz mountains. His longtime helper Joe Stanford, another artist, was doing much of the same, and he told me there’s a new board now at veniceoceanarium.org, along with cooperation from the city and a new sense of what’s possible.

Sure, there’s already an aquarium at the Santa Monica Pier and the Manhattan Beach Pier, among other places, Rudnick said. But people flock every year to Venice Pier, by the thousands, and why waste an opportunity to open their eyes to all the wonders?

“We will get it up and running,” he said of his Oceanarium. “I promise you we will.”

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