Skip to content

MBARI mourns the passing of inaugural Director of Marine Operations Steve Etchemendy

Steve Etchemendy in a white collared shirt holding a microphone (left) and David Packard in a black blazer, striped shirt, and silver bolo tie (right), standing in front of a crowd of people outdoors on MBARI’s dock.
MBARI’s inaugural Director of Marine Operations, Steve Etchemendy (left), with MBARI Founder David Packard (right) at MBARI’s research facilities in Moss Landing, California. Image: © MBARI

MBARI mourns the passing of inaugural Director of Marine Operations Steve Etchemendy

MBARI’s inaugural Director of Marine Operations, Steve Etchemendy, passed away on December 24 at the age of 73. An active member of MBARI’s Management Team, he played a major role in shaping the institute throughout its rise to prominence.

Steve Etchemendy in maroon polo shirt and khaki pants (right) shaking hands with Vice President Al Gore in a navy polo shirt and beige pants, with Representative Sam Farr in a teal jacket, blue shirt, and black pants (background left) and Marcia McNutt in a white blazer, blue shirt, and blue pants (background right) outdoors on the deck of an MBARI research vessel.
Representative Sam Farr, Vice President Al Gore, MBARI President and CEO Marcia McNutt, and MBARI Director of Marine Operations Steve Etchemendy (right) during the vice president’s visit to MBARI in 1998 for the National Oceans Conference. Photo courtesy of the Etchemendy family

Etchemendy joined MBARI in 1989 as the operations engineering manager, a title that soon morphed into the director of marine operations. He held that position for the next 26 years. Etchemendy worked with MBARI Founder David Packard to structure and organize the Division of Marine Operations (DMO) along progressive yet practical lines. During his tenure, he supervised the design and construction of the R/V Western Flyer, managed the acquisition and conversion of the Zephyr and the Rachel Carson, and secured the addition of the Paragon to our fleet. He worked with MBARI’s engineers, scientists, and DMO’s pilots to develop and operate our remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) Ventana, Tiburon, and Doc Ricketts—as well as our growing fleet of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).

Etchemendy’s diverse background prepared him well to lead DMO. He grew up in an Army family stationed in Panama, Germany, Kansas, California, and Puerto Rico. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in a geology program at the University of Washington, finishing his degree in 1972. After college, he joined the Army, and as Captain Etchemendy, he commanded a company of M-60 tanks in Germany.

Following six years of Army service, Etchemendy went to work for Oceaneering International, a company that provides engineering and undersea operations support for the offshore oil industry. He started as a diver and welder and trained in hard-hat gear, but he transferred to crewed vehicles when that new technology came online. On oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, Etchemendy set two world records for the deepest solo working dives, one as the occupant of a JIM suit and one as pilot of the WASP submersible.

While working in the Gulf on the Zapata Concord, Etchemendy was abruptly helicoptered off the rig one day and flown to California to replace another supervisor who was wanted by the authorities in Brazil. The job was to train a group of scientists to become submersible pilots and oversee their research operations at sea. This connection led to another assignment in 1985, supervising research dives with the submersible Deep Rover in Monterey Bay—an event that helped to catalyze the creation of MBARI.

Etchemendy then became vice president and operations manager for Deep Ocean Engineering/Technology (DOE/T), the company that built the Deep Rover and several successful ROV systems. At DOE/T, he worked in marketing and sales, administration, product development, and operations, but he missed the challenge of scientific research. So in 1987, he joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and became a pilot for the deep submergence vehicle Alvin, making numerous dives in the Atlantic and Pacific.

When MBARI reached out, Etchemendy jumped at the chance to help build a new institution based on integrating scientific research and developing new technologies. His philosophy for DMO was simple—make our seagoing scientists and engineers successful. He accomplished this by building a remarkable team aboard our ships, overseeing operations of our vehicles and offshore facilities, and providing critical shoreside support. 

Upon his retirement in 2015, Etchemendy was the longest-serving member of the Management Team. “It was an honor and a privilege to serve alongside someone as talented and committed to MBARI’s mission as Steve,” said MBARI CEO and President Chris Scholin. “He will be missed, and his contributions to MBARI will never be forgotten.”

For additional information or images relating to this article, please contact