Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Florida

He devoted his life to understanding Florida’s coral reefs

Walter Jaap’s curiosity about the world drove him. He died at 80.
Walter Jaap in his element.
Walter Jaap in his element.
Published Jun. 14
Updated Jun. 14

Walter Jaap lived his life with curiosity, both on land and underwater.

He studied and monitored coral reefs around the world. He helped launch a program for young people to discover wonders of the ocean. He grew and gave away orchids. His two-car garage was always loaded with woodworking projects. He brewed dark beer in his St. Petersburg home. He served with his church. He rescued birds. And, for 41 years, he cared for a parrot named Siegfried, who survives him.

Mr. Jaap, who retired from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “never stopped,” said Karilyn Jaap, his wife of 47 years. “He was the most energetic person I’ve ever met.”

He was “always into something,” said Pam Muller, a friend and University of South Florida College of Marine Science professor. “He didn’t sit around and think about things, he jumped in and did them.”

Mr. Jaap died after a neurological episode caused a heart attack while he was riding his bike. He was 80.

Walter Jaap was born in Duluth, Minn.
Walter Jaap was born in Duluth, Minn. [ Courtesy Karilyn Jaap ]

Mr. Jaap’s first passion was cars. He grew up in Minnesota, served in the U.S. Army as a diesel mechanic in Germany and later studied marine biology at the University of Miami.

It was a natural, if not clear, fit.

“If you’re gonna work on the water, you have to have some talent or some interest in getting yourself out of bad situations, especially mechanical breakdowns,” Muller said. “Being a diesel mechanic meant he could handle it.”

Mr. Jaap met his future wife at the University of South Florida, where she got a job in the library at the Marine Research Institute, and a colleague introduced them. She moved to Florida to scuba dive, and Mr. Jaap was the institute’s master diver.

After they married, they dove together for years.

Walter Jaap officially worked for 35 years in coral reef ecology but devoted most of his life to studying and protecting coral reefs.
Walter Jaap officially worked for 35 years in coral reef ecology but devoted most of his life to studying and protecting coral reefs. [ Courtesy Karilyn Jaap ]

In 1976, the National Park Service brought a group of scientists to the Dry Tortugas to reestablish the study of the coral reefs. That was when Mr. Jaap met Eugene Shinn.

The two worked together for more than 40 years.

“We were the two coral people that did not have PhDs,” said Shinn, who retired from the U.S. Geological Survey and is a adjunct professor at USF’s College of Marine Science.

In 1979, Mr. Jaap wrote a paper about a major coral bleaching on the Florida Reef Tract that had taken place years before. It was one of the first papers on the event, said colleague Muller, and among the first to connect the bleaching with an El Niño weather pattern.

“He made this discovery,” she said.

The trip to the Dry Tortugas in 1976 brought a group of scientists together to relaunch study of the coral reefs.
The trip to the Dry Tortugas in 1976 brought a group of scientists together to relaunch study of the coral reefs. [ Courtesy Karilyn Jaap ]

Mr. Jaap led reef monitoring at Biscayne National Park and in the Florida Keys for years, taking students and young scientists out into the water.

“Their data were absolutely essential to subsequent studies,” Muller said.

In 1983, his testimony helped convince a federal judge to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from dumping dredge spoil off Egmont Key.

Walter Jaap got to travel the world with his work. He's pictured here in Australia.
Walter Jaap got to travel the world with his work. He's pictured here in Australia. [ Courtesy Karilyn Jaap ]

In 1984, Mr. Jaap wrote a compendium of Florida’s coral reefs.

“It was very famous, and we all used that when we needed information,” Shinn said, laughing. “I plagiarized from it many times.”

In 1996, Mr. Jaap was one of the leaders of the Florida Keys Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring program. It still operates today.

Walter and Karilyn Jaap were married for 47 years. The couple traveled all over the world with Mr. Jaap's work.
Walter and Karilyn Jaap were married for 47 years. The couple traveled all over the world with Mr. Jaap's work. [ Courtesy Karilyn Jaap ]

Mr. Jaap studied and wrote about the ecology of coral reefs in Florida, Nicaragua, Belize and the Bahamas. He documented restoration efforts, tracked disease and mapped changes.

He also helped set up markers to monitor reefs in South Florida.

Walter Jaap was always kind, colleague Eugene Shinn said. "He never said anything bad about anyone."
Walter Jaap was always kind, colleague Eugene Shinn said. "He never said anything bad about anyone." [ Courtesy Karilyn Jaap ]

In 2001, Mr. Jaap was present for the founding of the Scuba Scouts, now known as ScubaNauts, to connect teens interested in marine sciences. It now has four chapters in Tampa Bay.

In 2005, Mr. Jaap retired, but later, he created Lithophyte Research to monitor and protect coral reefs. He led cleanup efforts of Coffee Pot Bayou. He volunteered with bird rescues.

“Everything interested him,” his wife said.

Walter Jaap, pictured here in Alaska, officially retired in 2005, but he never slowed down.
Walter Jaap, pictured here in Alaska, officially retired in 2005, but he never slowed down. [ Courtesy Karilyn Jaap ]

He spoke up again and again when human progress threatened life under water.

“The coral are a good indicator species for our environment,” he told the Times in 2008 in a piece about underwater drilling. “We are in a semi-crisis situation now.”

The Jaaps lived in St. Petersburg.
The Jaaps lived in St. Petersburg. [ Courtesy Karilyn Jaap ]

Mr. Jaap gave the orchids he grew to the people he met, like waitresses and his dental hygienist. He drove a Meals on Wheels route for years. He built an altar and benches for a child-sized chapel at his church.

“The thing I didn’t realize is he had a whole different life, very different from the science that he did,” Shinn said. “I didn’t really realize that until we went to the funeral and us coral people, we were just a small group.”

But Mr. Jaap’s efforts to monitor and understand Florida’s coral reefs were pioneering, Muller said, and he mentored a generation of people now studying life beneath the water.

“He made a huge difference in the world,” she said.

In the Florida Keys, there’s a spot that’s one of many where scientists monitor the health of our corals.

It’s called Jaap Reef.

The reef named for Walter Jaap is in the Florida Keys.
The reef named for Walter Jaap is in the Florida Keys. [ Courtesy Karilyn Jaap ]

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Sign up for Kristen Hare’s newsletter and learn the stories behind our obituaries

Our weekly newsletter, How They Lived, is a place to remember the friends, neighbors and Tampa Bay community members we’ve lost. It’s free. Just click on the link to sign up. Know of someone we should feature? Please email Kristen at khare@poynter.org.

Read other Epilogues:

USF polymer pioneer dies at 71. Here’s how she made life better.

Tampa pastor ‘actually lived what he preached’

He spent much of his life hoping to save an essential piece of Tampa history