WHOI Waypoints: Charles Davis Hollister

A life as big as all outdoors

Friends and colleagues called him “the cowboy oceanographer”—not simply because his ways were sometimes unorthodox, but because his passion, energy, daring, and vision—even his smile—seemed to be as big as the ranch he grew up on, the seafloor that he explored, and the mountains that he climbed.

Charles Davis Hollister, Senior Scientist at WHOI, former Dean of the MIT/WHOI Joint Graduate Program, and Vice President of the Corporation, died Aug. 23 in a hiking accident while on vacation with his family in Wyoming. He was 63.

“Charley had a love for life and enjoyed it to the fullest,” WHOI Director Bob Gagosian said of his longtime colleague and close friend. “He was not afraid to take risks in whatever he pursued, knowing the rewards success would bring and the lessons failure would teach.

“As a scientist he pioneered the field of deep-sea sediment dynamics and challenged our thinking about the role of the oceans in the management of hazardous wastes,” Gagosian continued. “As Dean of the Graduate Program for a decade he inspired a generation of students to enjoy research and exploration—hopefully half as much as he did. In recent years as Vice President of the Corporation, Charley was intent on helping us raise funds to secure the future of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and he opened many doors we would never have found. His good nature, love of people, passion for life, and dedication to this Institution and to the entire field of oceanography will be deeply missed.”

Hollister grew up on his family’s ranch in Santa Barbara, California, which once covered 40,000 acres and was one of the largest cattle ranches in the state, and never lost his love for the outdoors. He was an avid horseman, hunter, fly fisherman, and skier.

He received his B.S. degree from Oregon State University and his Ph.D. degree in geology in 1967 from Columbia University. His advisor was the pioneering seafloor explorer and mapper Bruce Heezen, with whom Hollister wrote The Face of the Deep. Published in 1971, it was the first illustrated natural history of a seafloor that until then was “virgin and unseen” and “existed mostly in the imagination,” as they wrote.

Joining WHOI in 1967, Hollister continued his lifelong interest in the deep. He was among the first oceanographers to document that large areas of the seafloor —long thought to be tranquil—are swept by strong currents, or benthic storms. At the same time, he found that many areas beneath the seafloor were well-suited for disposing hazardous waste, and he launched an uphill effort to promote this as a viable and safe alternative. He also helped develop a giant piston coring system, dubbed “Super Straw,” that pushed the boundaries of seafloor sampling and took a 100-foot- long core, containing the longest continuous record, 65 million years, of ocean basin history. Over his career, he sailed on some 27 research cruises, 21 as chief scientist, and spent months doing research aboard nuclear submarines in several oceans.

Hollister’s explorations took him to the heights as well as the depths. In his youth, he climbed Mount Rainier, the Cascades, and the Sierras, and in 1962 he participated in the first ascent of the southeast side of Mount McKinley—a month-long expedition that was featured in Look magazine and The New York Times. He was a member of a mountaineering expedition that made the first ascents of Antarctica’s highest mountains, including its highest peak, Vinson Massif. The team earned the John Oliver La Gorce Medal from the National Geographic Society. Later, he climbed peaks in Europe and Asia, including the Himalayas, and served as President of the American Alpine Club.

“Ocean research is a lot like climbing a new route to the top of a mountain,” he once said. “Every time you go out to sea there’s something new. I enjoy that aspect of both—the unpredictability of the mountains and the bottom of the sea. Besides, neither place is very crowded.”

Originally published: October 1, 1999