He had a grander plan in mind, though it didn’t occur to him right away.
It was fate, one of those star-crossed relationships meant to be: community activist Mary Coakley from La Jolla and Scripps oceanographer Walter Munk sharing, among other things in common, the sea.
Theirs was a match made by Neptune.
Coakley-Munk had worked on two community projects — The Map, a physical representation of underwater life at La Jolla Shores, and J.J., a sculpture of the orphaned whale rescued and released by SeaWorld, now a Kellogg Park attraction.
The 95-year-old Munk, often referred to as the world’s “greatest living oceanographer,” is re-nowned for his pioneering and fundamental contributions to the understanding of ocean circulation, tides and waves and their role in the Earth’s dynamics. A professor emeritus of geophysics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Munk has been with the organization since 1939 when, he said, “it had 15 employees, including the director and the gardener.” Today, Scripps has about 1,500 employees worldwide.
Munk has numerous things named in his honor, including a library aboard a Japanese research vessel and a species of manta ray. Still, as impressive as his resume is, he couldn’t help but be im-pressed by Coakley-Munk’s boldness.
“Mary is very noticeable,” Munk said about what initially drew him to her. “She’s not exactly the silent, fleeting type.”
Coakley-Munk, meanwhile, was drawn in by Munk’s subtle ap-proach.
“The first time I met Walter was at a particularly contentious meeting at the (La Jolla) rec center,” said Coakley-Munk, a mainstay on the La Jolla civic scene for years. “Somehow or other we ended up with friends over at Karl Strauss (pub/restaurant) and closed the place, which I since found out is Walter’s M.O.”
During an interview at the couple’s oceanfront home that Munk built with first wife Judith and has lived in since 1953, he reflected on his courting method with a twinkle in his eye.
“When I was young (90) I did that a little better,” he said. “I get sleepy now.”
At the time they met, Munk was a widower. His first wife, an architect who influenced Scripps campus planning, had died in 2006 at age 81. Coakley-Munk, single for 28 years, had four grown children from a previous relationship in Minnesota.
When the couple met, introduced over dinner by a mutual friend, Coakley-Munk had been caring for her mother, who died at 103.
They became fast friends. Munk, still working daily, had stopped driving at night. Coakley-Munk volunteered to chauffer him when her schedule allowed.
The relationship — which few people knew about for the first couple of years — grew from there.
“We started enjoying each other and then decided to get married,” Munk said.
But when the time came to get hitched there was a hitch: Munk had been hospitalized with a heart ailment.
“Walter can’t stand wasting long weekends, so we got married while he was in the hospital,” said Coakley-Munk. “His doctor was the best man.”
Completely recovered, the Scripps scientist and the community activist have ever since been taking care of business while at home, and traipsing across the globe when they’re not, with Munk consulting with colleagues and receiving awards honoring his lifetime of achievement.
Despite all of his accolades, Munk remains humble about his work.
“He says oceanography is just a big word for being a plumber,” said Coakley-Munk, who, ironically, has been — and continues to be — involved with improving restroom facilities at La Jolla Shores.
Munk is a firm believer in global warming. When asked why some still doubt the widely held theory that fossil-fuel emissions are causing the world’s climate to warm and polar ice caps to melt, he replied, “That fraction of people is diminishing. The evidence is pretty convincing to most people. You’re entitled to your own opinions — but not to your own facts. And the facts, to me at least, are pretty convincing that there have been some changes.”
An optimist, Munk believes humanity will adapt to rising sea levels and whatever other climatic alterations global warming brings.
“We’ll have to learn to adapt to them (changes), move out of certain coastal areas during the next 50 years,” he said, joking, “If all the Arctic ice melts, I have a beach cottage.”
On a more serious note, Munk concluded, “We’ll solve the problems. People will survive. Meeting those challenges may be positive, help the economy, put people to work.”
And at 95, Munk has no plans to leave himself out of those challenges. He still works seven days a week and feels there’s a lot left for him to do.
“I have done some work on ocean waves many years ago, and there’s a new development that I find interesting,” he said. “I’d love to do some work on ice sheets melting. That’s got some interesting problems.
“I enjoy my work. I’d like to keep going as long as possible.”
Indeed, Coakley-Munk agreed, she couldn’t stop him from working if she tried.
“He doesn’t know how to do it any other way,” she said. “He flunked retirement.”
So does Munk believe mankind understands the ocean?
“Of course not,” he said. “But I think every generation understands more than the last one. I don’t think we’ve come to a point where we say there’s nothing more to learn.”
Coakley-Munk is anticipating that she and her husband will have more to learn in the future.
“I’m counting on 10 more years,” she said. “It’s been a wild ride.”