Wal­ter Munk, ‘Ein­stein of the Oceans,’ dies at 101


San Diego — Wal­ter Munk, the high-spir­ited sci­en­tist-ex­plorer whose in­sights on the na­ture of winds, waves and cur­rents earned him the nick­name the “Ein­stein of the Oceans,” died Fri­day. He was 101.

Munk died of pneu­mo­nia at Se­iche, his sea­side home near the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego, a cam­pus he helped make fa­mous through decades of work at the Scripps In­sti­tu­tion of Oceanog­ra­phy.

His death was an­nounced by his wife, Mary Munk. “We thought he would live for­ever,” she said. “His legacy will be his pas­sion for the ocean, which was end­less.”

Munk was al­ways in or around wa­ter, try­ing to fig­ure out how waves broke, where cur­rents moved and why changes in the ocean’s makeup af­fected Earth’s cli­mate.

He greatly im­proved surf fore­cast­ing, help­ing Amer­i­can troops land more safely dur­ing the D-Day in­va­sion in World War II. He mon­i­tored a hy­dro­gen bomb blast from a tiny raft in the early 1950s and was show­ered with ra­dioac­tive fall­out.

And he was among the first wave of sci­en­tists to pull on scuba gear and ex­plore won­drous and wicked oceans.

Munk also was end­lessly cu­ri­ous about marine life, es­pe­cially fish — and he even­tu­ally had a weird one named af­ter him. It was a species of devil ray that has an ex­traor­di­nar­ily abil­ity to leap out of the wa­ter — giv­ing the im­pres­sion that it can fly.

He went in search of the devil ray a few years ago dur­ing a trip that was filmed for a doc­u­men­tary. The film shows Munk in a fa­mil­iar set­ting, stand­ing at the rail of the boat, the wind ruf­fling his whitish-gray locks as he stared into the sea in joy and amaze­ment.

“Wal­ter was the most bril­liant sci­en­tist I have ever known,” said Pradeep Khosla, UC San Diego’s chan­cel­lor. “I stand in awe at the im­pact (he) had on UC San Diego, from his count­less dis­cov­er­ies that put the uni­ver­sity on the map as a great re­search in­sti­tu­tion, to his global lead­er­ship on the great sci­en­tific is­sues of our time.”

Mar­garet Leinen, di­rec­tor of Scripps Oceanog­ra­phy, said: “Wal­ter Munk has been a world trea­sure for ocean sci­ence and geo­physics. He has been a guid­ing force, a stim­u­lat­ing force, a provoca­tive force in sci­ence for 80 years. While one of the most dis­tin­guished and hon­ored sci­en­tists in the world, Wal­ter never rested on his ac­com­plish­ments. He was al­ways in­ter­ested in spark­ing a dis­cus­sion about what’s com­ing next.”

Munk was born on Oct. 19, 1917, and grew up in Aus­tria, where he shrugged off stud­ies dur­ing his high school years to indulge his great pas­sion — ski­ing.

His par­ents later sent him to Columbia Uni­ver­sity, hop­ing that he’d straighten out. He did, but in his own way. He im­mersed him­self in study­ing when he wasn’t run­ning the uni­ver­sity’s ski club.

Munk’s at­ten­tion drifted to the West Coast. He fell in love with Pasadena and came to a turn­ing point.

“My mother gave me a tidy amount of money and said, ‘Do what you want,’” Munk said in a 2016 in­ter­view.

“I bought a DeSoto con­vert­ible, drove to Pasadena and showed up at Cal­tech. The dean said, ‘Let me pull your file.’ I said there was no file. I was so naive I thought you could go to col­lege wher­ever you wanted.

“I was told that I could take an en­trance exam in a month. I took a room at the cor­ner of Lake and Cal­i­for­nia and, for the first time in my life, re­ally be­gan study­ing. By some mir­a­cle, I passed the exam and be­came a stu­dent at Cal­tech.”

He later be­came smit­ten with a girl and fol­lowed her to La Jolla, where he de­vel­oped the deep­est pas­sion of his life, the sea.

Shortly be­fore World War II, he be­came a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Scripps In­sti­tu­tion of Oceanog­ra­phy, where he be­gan study­ing surf fore­cast­ing. He was soon work­ing for the Navy at a re­search lab on Point Loma, study­ing anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare and wave pre­dic­tion.

He re­fined those pre­dic­tions, work that Al­lied forces widely used in World War II to put troops ashore. Munk’s re­search later helped other sci­en­tists do such things as find­ing bet­ter ways to guide ships in the open sea and telling week­end surfers ex­actly where the waves would break.

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