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Mr. Packard and the Deep Blue Sea : Using Cash and Family Ties, the Electronics Tycoon Is Bringing Underwater Mysteries to the Surface.

March 07, 1993|LEE DYE | Lee Dye, a contributing editor of this magazine and a former Times staff writer, specializes in stories about science. He splits his time between homes in Alaska and Arizona.

The long drive winds through 90 acres of apricot trees and up to the top of the hill where David Packard lives alone. Inside his house, which can barely be seen from the road, the great industrialist sits rigidly in a straight-backed chair, dressed in a tweed jacket and coordinated slacks.

He's a big man, a onetime three-sport athlete at Stanford. But he's 80 now, and as he shifts his 6-foot, 4-inch frame from one position to another, he moves cautiously. He gazes across the groves he has harvested in the Los Altos Hills, and he talks about the past. But he doesn't want to dwell on it. Packard has a new vision: He wants to explore the ocean deep. It is a passion he has come to late in his years, the culmination of a long, productive life.

Starting in a garage with less than $600 capital in the late 1930s, Packard and his partner, William R. Hewlett, built an electronics giant in Northern California. Hewlett was the innovative engineer, while Packard had a special talent for managing the firm and guiding it into prosperity. Even after it had grown into the world leader in the design and manufacture of electronic measuring equipment, Packard still roamed its halls, talking with his people, admonishing them to keep their objectives tightly focused.

Both Hewlett and Packard made fortunes. And the Packards--David and his late wife, Lucile--created a family foundation that funded a range of health, family-planning, conservation and educational programs. Yet, Packard wanted to create a unique legacy, one that would, as he said one recent morning, give something back to the engineers, scientists and others who had enabled his company to thrive. But what?

The foundation had put tens of millions of dollars into what he considered "everybody else's programs," and Packard wanted something that would bear the imprimatur of his own family. He asked his son and three daughters--among them Julie and Nancy, who shared their father's love of nature and had become marine biologists--to come up with ideas.

The answer came out of nowhere one evening in 1976. Nancy and her husband, Robin Burnett, were brainstorming at their Carmel Valley home with fellow biologists Steven Webster and Chuck Baxter. Margaritas in hand, they were trying to come up with a use for Knut Hovden's old cannery. The dilapidated structure stood on the Monterey waterfront between Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station, where the four young biologists were doing research, and historic Cannery Row. The university had purchased Hovden's place to serve as a buffer between its oceanographic laboratory and the tourist shops creeping along the stretch of old sardine-packing factories given fictional life by John Steinbeck.

No one seems to remember who thought of it first, but by the time the tequila was gone, the four had decided that the old cannery could be turned into a public aquarium. Monterey already had an aquarium, but the biologists wanted to create something different, a distinctive institution that would take dry-landers on a tour of the undersea world and the creatures and plants that live there. The idea was proposed to Packard, who at first showed little enthusiasm. "I didn't know anything about aquariums," he recalls. "They never interested me much."

Nevertheless, since the sea had become so important to members of their family, Packard and his wife took the proposal seriously. They visited almost every major aquarium in the country, concluding that most had been built with severely limited budgets. The trip convinced them that building an aquarium, if it was done properly, would be an ideal gift from a fortunate family to the public. And Packard's vision included a vital adjunct to the aquarium: a world-class research institute that would design technology to probe the oceans' secrets.

The package seemed the perfect choice for the spectacular shoreline at Monterey. No community on the West Coast is more closely identified with the sea. The sardine fleet is gone now, destroyed by exploitation, and Cannery Row, once stinking with fish and character, has joined the ranks of boutique villages. But the sea remains.

Monterey Bay and its rocky shoreline wraps around one of the nation's newest and most spectacular marine sanctuaries. In a too-rare stroke of wisdom, Congress last year designated the picturesque bay a federally protected area, prohibiting activities such as ocean-floor mining and oil drilling that could damage a region that hosts one of the richest aquatic communities in the world. Just yards from the shore, the ocean bottom begins to drop into an abyss the size of the Grand Canyon. Monterey Canyon provides a deep-sea habitat brimming with exotic creatures that are thriving in water as unpolluted as that along the coast of any industrialized country. It is a very special place.

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