Skip to content
For WHOI personnel, vendors, and visitors: COVID-19 Guidelines

Robert Hessler

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death of former employee Robert Hessler on October 17 at a hospice care facility in Douglas, Ariz.  He was 87.

Bob was born in Chicago, IL., on November 22, 1932. He studied forestry at Colorado A&M College, Fort Collins, in 1950, and then attended the University of Chicago from 1951 to 1960, where he received an AB in liberal arts in 1953, and MS in zoology in 1955, and a Ph.D. in invertebrate paleontology in 1960.

Over a career of more than 40 years, Bob upended notions that the deep oceans were largely incapable of supporting rich marine life. He was among the first to identify previously unknown forms of life with the ability to survive in some of the harshest conditions on Earth.

Bob began his career at WHOI in 1960 as a research assistant in the Biology Department.  In 1965, he was promoted to associate scientist.  He left in 1968 but continued on as a guest investigator from 1992 to 1999. It was at WHOI that he engaged in pioneering research with colleague Howard Sanders, using seafloor-scraping sleds to document the abundance of life at depths up to 4,700 meters (15,400 feet).

In January 1969, he became an associate professor in the Biological Oceanography Curricular Group and Marine Biology Research Division at Scripps Oceanography. He was promoted to full professor of biological oceanography in 1974. He served as chairman of the Marine Biology Research Division from 1978 to 1983. He retired in 2001.

The author or co-author of more than 130 papers on marine biology and ecology, Bob’s research specialties included the study of marine arthropods (invertebrate animals with articulate bodies and limbs, such as insects, arachnids, and crustaceans) and the ecology of deep-sea bottom communities, including hydrothermal vents and areas targeted for deep-sea manganese nodule mining. His work contributed to knowledge of the systematics, evolution, and functional morphology of arthropods and a greater understanding of the ecology and biodiversity of deep-sea ecosystems.

Besides his work at the Galapagos Rift, Bob also explored life at other deep-ocean spreading centers including locations off Baja California, one in the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California, and the other at the East Pacific Rise. These spreading centers are active volcanic sites where new seafloor is being produced.

Bob’s studies of the ecology of deep-sea communities also included Scripps’s Eurydice Expedition to the Philippine Trench in 1975, when Bob’s group successfully photographed life at a depth of 9,600 meters (31,500 feet) with Scripps-developed free-vehicle cameras and took bottom samples with a box corer to obtain quantitative measurements of deep-sea animal communities.

Bob was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the San Diego Society of Natural History, and a member of a number of scientific organizations, including the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, the Western Society of Naturalists, the Danish Natural History Society. He was an elected member of the Royal Physiographical Society of Lund, Sweden, where he had also done research while on sabbatical at the University of Lund.

Bob is survived by wife Cecilia of San Diego and two cousins. His family plans no memorial service. At his request, his ashes will be commingled with those of his only child, son David, who was killed in 1995 at the age of 30. Those wishing to make gifts in Bob’s memory are encouraged to make them to Hope Hospice and Health Care.

Information for this obituary is from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography