As chief executive officer of the National Aquarium, John Racanelli leads a team of 600 full and part-time employees and 1,000 volunteers in pursuing the Aquarium’s mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. The Aquarium welcomes 1.3 million guests annually at its campus on Baltimore’s famous Inner Harbor, while touching millions more through its conservation education and engagement programs, social media platforms and conservation action initiatives.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was 8, my two best friends and I wrote down what we wanted to be when we grew up. My dream was to be a deep-sea diver and travel the world teaching people about the ocean, like my hero Capt. Jacques Cousteau. I got certified as a SCUBA diver at the earliest age then allowed (15), and by 17 I’d found a job as a diver at a marine park on the San Francisco Bay. I never really contemplated any kind of profession that didn’t involve the ocean and conservation.
What did you study in school?
I attended two University of California campuses—San Diego and Santa Cruz—and majored first in Biology and then in Environmental Studies. Ultimately, I earned a BS in Strategic Management from the School of Business at Dominican University of California, which combined my love of science with my interests in leadership and communications.
How did you get started in your field of work?
While I was in college, I kept taking leaves of absence to go on adventures. These included sailing as navigator aboard a tall ship on a 6000-mile voyage from California to New York via the Panama Canal and a year spent fishing for King Crabs in Alaska’s Bering Sea. After returning from one of these escapades, I got a job as a diver/aquarist at Marine World, near San Francisco. Eventually, this led in 1984 to my being hired as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s first director of marketing. I was employee #17.
At the Aquarium
How long have you been at the Aquarium?
I love what I do because...
The ocean gives life to everything on earth…it’s our life support system. And most of it is a vast wilderness, about which we humans know precious little. I care deeply about the ocean, and I feel a compelling urge to share that love with as many people as possible. This complex life support system of ours can’t sustain us if we don’t take better care of it. There’s never been a more crucial—nor, I might add, hopeful—time as now for the future of our relationship with the sea, and all things aquatic.
Most memorable moment at the Aquarium
I have to say it was many years before I came here to be the Aquarium’s CEO. In 1984, newly hired at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I came to Baltimore to visit the “mecca” of new American aquariums. In a strange twist of fate, I shared my first behind-the-scenes tour of the Aquarium with Liberace and his escort. Needless to say, I was the least noticeable member of that tour group.
If you could have any other job at the Aquarium for one day, what job would it be and why?
I’m actually working on trying out every job we have here, once a month. So far, I’ve been a conservation tech, guest ambassador, diver and ticket taker. I have a long way to go.
Sunnyvale, California, in what’s now called Silicon Valley.
Dolphins; I have always marveled at their exquisite adaptation to the aquatic world.
Three things you never leave home without?
- My trusty notebook, which now also includes an iPad
- My favorite National Aquarium water bottle
- A belief that today is the best day yet to inspire people to care for the ocean that gives us life
If you could have lunch with anyone (alive or dead), who would it be?
President Obama, so I can inspire him to increase the size of our National Marine Sanctuary system by at least 100%, and to fund it adequately to be a true network of marine protected areas that’s a model for the rest of the world.
One lesson you wish you'd learned earlier in life?
As the saying goes, we really do become what we think about most; and to have a belief in a great vision is the surest way to reach it.
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