LEATHERWOOD, Steve

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Steve Leatherwood [middle], Santa Cruz Island mass, 1993
Steve Leatherwood, San Clemente Island
Steve Leatherwood with an island fox on
Santa Cruz Island, c. 1974
Steve in Samoa
Ever observant Steve
Steve in Anchorage, 1982

LEATHERWOOD, James Stephen (1943-1997), born October 12, 1943 in Osark, Alabama to insurance executive, Aubrey Leon Leatherwood, and his wife, Lillian Kathleen, a real estate broker. Steve received his B.S. degree in 1966 from California State University, Northridge. He did graduate work at San Diego State University (1969-1976), and in 1994 he received his Ph.D. from Texas A&M University.

Steve was a man of many hats: writer, scientist, educator, marine biologist and researcher, he taught mathematics and English; coached football, soccer and track at a military academy in Miami, Florida in 1967; and then worked at the marine mammal research unit of the U.S. Navy in San Diego, CA where he became an administrative officer in San Diego and at Point Mugu (1968-1970). From 1970-1978 Steve worked at Naval Ocean Systems Center, San Diego as a research biologist in the biomedical division; in 1978 he worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Seattle, WA and was coordinator of the Arctic Whale Research Task in 1978. Steve worked at Hubbs Sea World Research Institute, San Diego, as research scientist in San Diego and institute manager in Orlando, FL, 1979-1981; then at Hubbs Marine Research Center, San Diego, as senior staff scientist at Sea World Research Institute, 1982-1988.


During his global travels Steve was a lecturer in oceanography and marine biology for expeditions aboard the ships World Discoverer and Society Explorer, in South America, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, IndoAustralia, and Antarctica; for the Oceanic Society as a field instructor in the Bahamas, Baja California, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, the Seychelles, and East Africa; and as an instructor at Laverne College and University of California extension.

Steve also served as a consultant for the production of films and television documentaries, including:

  • A Whale Called Sunshine, Disney, 1972
  • The Great Whales, National Geographic Society, 1978
  • A Whale for the Killing, American Broadcasting Company, 1982
  • Where Have All the Dolphins Gone?, Public Broadcasting Service, 1989
  • Dolphins, Whales, and Us, Columbia Broadcasting System, 1990

He served as consultant to U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, National Fish and Wildlife Service, and the International Whaling Commission, and he was a Research Associate of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

The Sierra Club Handbook of Whales and Dolphins, by Leatherwood and Randall R. Reeves, covers more than seventy-five species of dolphins, whales, and porpoises. The book provides detailed information on topics such as physical characteristics and distinctive features, history, population distribution, and current status. Profusely illustrated with photographs and paintings, "what sets this book apart is its clear design as an identification guide," commented Susan Klimley in Library Journal. Many of the photographs show the animals in natural situations, Klimley noted, and the text helps clarify characteristics of animals that could easily be confused with others or misidentified. School Library Journal reviewer John Offen called the book a "fine introduction to the subject" of large marine mammals.


Steve Leatherwood = [1965] Melinda Weishaar (divorced in 1974)

  • 1. Stephen Keith Leatherwood
  • 2. Shannon Kathleen Leatherwood


Steve Leatherwood was Member #4 of the ALL EIGHT CLUB of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation.


  • 1984. Leatherwood, Stephen, Randall R. Reeves, Ann E. Bowles, Stewart, Brent and Kimberly R. Goodrich Distribution, Seasonal Movements and Abundance of Pacific White-Sided Dolphins in the Eastern North Pacific The Scientific Reports of the Whales Research Institute No. 35 (129-157), March 1984
[original in SCIF archives; reprint separate]



In the News~

February 7, 1997 [San Diego Union Tribune]: “Stephen Leatherwood; up close look at dolphin changed his life. In the late 1960s, while scuba diving off the coast of Florida, Stephen Leatherwood—then a high school English teacher and football coach—"came around a coral reef one day and was staring at a dolphin in the face," his sister Cheryl Leatherwood recalled. "It was love at first sight." That love summoned Dr. Leatherwood to distant parts of the world, introduced him to a vast variety of marine animals and beaconed him into a distinguished career as a scientist and conservationist. His adventures came to a close just before 1 p.m. on January 25 in a rented house in Del Mar. Dr. Leatherwood, 53, had been battling lymphatic cancer since April. He died peacefully, surrounded by family and friends. At the time he became ill, Dr. Leatherwood was well-known in his field and was director of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation and director of the Veterinary and Education Department at Ocean Park in Hong Kong. He returned to the United States in April for treatment. He owned a home in Mission Hills, but to be closer to the ocean, he rented the Del Mar house. Two weeks before he died, Dr. Leatherwood spotted, from Del Mar beach at sunset, dolphins at play and two migrating grey whales broke the surface of the water. Weak as he was, Cheryl Leatherwood said, he couldn't resist turning to the closest child in excitement and exclaiming, "Look! Do you see that?"

Dr. Leatherwood was born Oct. 12, 1943, in the small south Alabama town of Ozark, about 90 minutes drive inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Early on he took a keen interest in the natural world. His sister remembered how, when she was a child growing up in the family home, there were always frogs and birds about the place, thanks to the future naturalist. And she said, "Thunderstorms were a passion of his. We would run through thunderstorms to get soaked to the skin and to feel the reverberations of the thunder." Their father, a Greyhound bus driver, took a group of Boy Scouts to a jamboree in California and fell for the state. He moved his family to the San Fernando Valley when Dr. Leatherwood was about 9, and they stayed until after his junior year in high school.The family then moved back to Alabama, where he spent his senior year and graduated. Through all his travels and for the rest of his life, Dr. Leatherwood never left behind the Southern expression "y'all." He played football and was a pole vaulter in high school, but he also learned to love classical music. He plated no musical instruments. Cheryl Leatherwood recalled hearing him say many times over the years that music was a language he understood but did not speak.

Dr. Leatherwood earned an undergraduate degree in English literature at California State University Northridge. A job teaching English at Miami Military Academy took him to Florida, where he ran into the dolphin that changed the course of his life. He got a civil service job in Ventura writing technical reports for the Navy on the training of dolphins. He began writing procedures and proposals and applications for grants. Then he wrote up the research and the results of the research. "This was a long time ago," his sister noted, "before there were programs in universities for studying whales and dolphins." Inevitably, Dr. Leatherwood began doing research himself. "It wasn't until later he got his Ph.D.," she said. He earned a doctorate in fisheries and wildlife science at Texas A & M University. Dr. Leatherwood studies whales in the Arctic and Antarctic and dolphins, whales and sea cows in the tropical seas and in the large rivers of South America and Asia. He led research projects in Florida, California, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, the Philippines, Peru, the Antarctic and China. As a naturalist, he led tours to Africa, Asia, the Antarctic and South America. He was co-author and/or author of a children's book on dolphins, technical books on bottlenose dolphins, gray whales and other topics and many articles in scientific and popular journals. Dr. Leatherwood wrote highly respected field guides to marine mammals, The "Leatherwood Guides." They have been described as being "to marine mammals what the famous Peterson Guides are to bird-watching."

He worked from December 1978 until January 1989 at Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute. In 1991, as chairman of the Cetacean Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union, he oversaw a worldwide network of scientists working to prevent extinction of the animals. He was a voracious reader and wrote poetry. Dr. Leatherwood was buried Jan. 30 at Asbury Methodist Church outside Ozark, Ala. He lies next to his grandmother, whom he called his "guide and conscience." He is survived by his parents, Aubrey and Kathleen, of Ozark, Ala.; a brother, Tom, of Santa Fe, N.M.; his sister, Cheryl of Huntsville, Ala.; his daughter, Shannon, and son, Keith, of Ventura. Friends are invited to contribute anecdotes and remembrances of Dr. Leatherwood that will be collected into a book for the family and read at a memorial tribute from 1 to 2:15 p.m. Feb. 15. The memorial will be held at Sumner Auditorium on the grounds of Scripps Institution of Oceanography.”


April 2, 1997 [Cetacean Society]: “The cetacean conservation community suffered an enormous blow when Steve Leatherwood died after a long illness in January 1997. Steve was the chairman of the Cetacean Specialist Group and worked with many different individuals and organizations to secure a better future for whales and dolphins. In recent years, Steve is probably best known for his efforts to help Asia's beleaguered cetaceans and particularly for spearheading the work to save the baiji, the rarest dolphin in the world, from extinction. Even during the last few weeks of his life, Steve was eager to continue to play his part in this fight. For those of us lucky enough to have worked with Steve we have lost an inspirational colleague and precious friend. He touched so many people's lives and was dearly loved and respected. My memories of working with Steve are all very happy ones. He specialized in tackling seemingly impossible challenges with an unfailing enthusiasm and an infectious sense of humor. During a river dolphin survey in Nepal, one of our rafts hit a submerged tree and tipped over - all four occupants including Steve ended up in the river. As we laid everybody's wet clothes out to dry and assessed the damaged equipment, everyone, including the Nepalese field workers, seemed a bit depressed. However, Steve announced that the incident was far from being a disaster, since everyone was uninjured and the equipment was replaceable, we should not feel upset but look at the funny side of it and then get on with looking for Nepal's surviving river dolphins! That evening we sat around a camp fire surrounded by our wet steaming gear, eating vegetable curry for the fourteenth time in a row and laughed solidly for hours. Steve had an amazing ability to inject happiness into the lives of people around him. Steve's optimism and positiveness was one of his most appealing qualities - he had a knack of turning situations around for the better which made him a fantastic person to work with and a gifted leader. No hurdle or obstacle was too great for him - he moved ahead, carrying people with him, making progress and never losing sight of the important goals he set out to achieve. Steve reached out to people he worked with and offered them honesty and friendship - it didn't matter whether he was working with fishermen on a remote whalers island in the Philippines or negotiating delicate conservation agreements across a conference table with Chinese Government officials. Steve has left us with a legacy of important whale and dolphin conservation initiatives which he set up and believed in wholeheartedly. Our commitment to him, and to the cetaceans he cared so much about, is to devote our energies to ensuring the success of these initiatives, both now and into the next millennium. Alison Smith, Conservation Director, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).”