Marine Museum Mentor Riding a 50-Year Wave

Times Staff Writer

John Olguin parked his car one afternoon on a busy Newport Beach street, trusting nobody would notice that it was sticking slightly into a red zone.

As Olguin slipped away, a stern-looking police officer spotted the car. The officer cocked his citation book as if to write a ticket, when suddenly he spotted Olguin and began wriggling his body and twisting his arms and hands.

“Dance like a jellyfish! Dance like a jellyfish!” the policeman shouted, as he pranced around the sidewalk pretending to be one of the tentacled marine animals. “Dance like a jellyfish!”


Olguin, never one to turn down a jellyfish dance, joined in. He never got the ticket.

So goes one of the many tales about Olguin, the charmed and charming co-director of the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro who over the last five decades has brought the ocean alive for hundreds of thousands of school children (some of whom evidently have grown up to be police officers) by teaching them to dance like jellyfish, hatch the eggs of spawning grunion and spot the spouts of whales passing by Los Angeles.

“He has such a funny and engaging way of teaching kids, that it stays with them for the rest of their lives,” said Susanne Lawrenz-Miller, who has run the city-owned museum with Olguin since 1976. “It is impossible to go to lunch with John without having a half dozen people come up and say, ‘I remember you!’ ”

Olguin, who first began working for the City of Los Angeles 50 years ago as a lifeguard at Cabrillo Beach, called it quits Saturday, saying he was retiring from the city and the museum to do the things he loves most: bumming around the beach and rowing his 15-foot row boat with his wife in waters around the world.

Just Passing Through

“I am born, I live, and I die like everybody else,” said Olguin, who sleeps outside with his wife, Muriel, on the porch of their San Pedro home because he doesn’t want to waste time inside. “I realize that I am only passing through. I am not permanent. And I have other things I want to do.”

The 66-year-old Olguin, whose grandfather was a whaler and who has always been captivated by the ocean, first worked at the museum as a volunteer in 1937 collecting shells, a time when locals disparagingly referred to it as the Cabrillo Mayonnaise Jar Museum because its meager displays were stuffed in old jars. The museum actually started at Venice Beach in 1934 when a lifeguard set up a display outside his tower, but it was moved to the Cabrillo bathhouse a year later.

Today, Olguin leaves behind a widely respected instructional museum housed in a $3-million facility, 24 full- and part-time employees, 500 volunteers and a $337,000 annual budget. Last year, 213,000 people visited the museum, including 90,000 school children, some coming from as far away as Arizona.


Olguin also leaves a personal legacy that over the years has made his name synonymous with the museum. Officials of the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks, which operates the museum, said Olguin’s 50 years with the department is a record.

A One-Man Job

“He built that museum up practically as a one-man operation,” said Al Goldfarb, spokesman for the department, who has worked with Olguin promoting the museum for nearly 25 years. “He has popularized marine life.”

Margaret Buchanan, a volunteer from Long Beach who has helped him raise money for the museum, said Olguin has attracted volunteers from throughout the Los Angeles area because of his dedication, energy and occasional outlandishness.

“I have dubbed him the John Wayne of San Pedro because John Wayne was bigger than life, and so is John Olguin,” Buchanan said. “He has a very special gift. When you are with him, you feel like the most important person there is.”

More than 500 people, including Buchanan, crowded on to a whale-watching boat Saturday morning to join Olguin on his last excursion to sea as museum director. The tribute was a particularly fitting farewell because Olguin is credited with fathering the California whale-watching industry when he persuaded San Pedro fishermen 16 years ago to use their sportfishing boats during the off-season to take school children and other museum visitors to sea.

Olguin, wearing white trousers and his red museum director’s shirt, was his usual entertaining self, flooding the boat’s public address system with clicking and hissing noises meant to sound like whales and enchanting tales about encounters with the mysterious creatures.


Plenty of Surprises

“It is always surprising to be with him,” Muriel Olguin said earlier. “John is either on or off. When he is off, he is asleep.”

At stops at three local lighthouses, the gray-bearded museum director was greeted by cannon fire, a Fire Department water show and, at one point, four biplanes that skimmed across the ocean in salute.

“Isn’t this fun?” an excited Olguin said. “What a way to go!”

Some of those aboard, including Olguin’s longtime friend Bill Olesen, said no one really believes that Olguin is going anywhere.

“We consider it all a big joke,” said Olesen, who works at the nearby Los Angeles Maritime Museum. “He will be busier than ever.”

Olguin, who can have a deceptively carefree way about him, acknowledged that he has a few projects in the works, including a book, plans to restore the Point Fermin lighthouse, and a current bid for honorary mayor of San Pedro--a ceremonial post given to the candidate who raises the most money for charity.