Hedge-fund manager Michael Tennenbaum showed a photograph of his encounter with an eagle ray with a 15-foot tail while discussing the $10 million gift he and his wife, Suzanne, have made to the Smithsonian Institution.
The donation, which the institute is announcing today, will launch the Smithsonian’s Tennenbaum Marine Observatories initiative. The project aims to create the first global database for scientists studying the ocean’s coastal ecosystems and their impact on the planet’s health.
Sporting a bowtie and blue-framed eyeglasses, the 77-year-old Tennenbaum paged through a photo book of his underwater adventures that showed him also frolicking with reef sharks and kissing dolphins.
“The engineering part in me admires efficiency. Sharks and dolphins are hugely efficient,” said Tennenbaum in an interview in the Smithsonian Castle in Washington earlier this week.
A certified diver for 25 years, these days Tennenbaum mostly sticks to his pool in Malibu, California. The $10 million gift will help scientists do the diving.
The project will measure the volume and diversity of marine organisms initially in waters off Panama, Maryland, Florida and Belize. A Smithsonian spokesman said the goal is to add 10 more research sites in the next decade.
Tennenbaum, a member of the Smithsonian’s National Board, and the institution’s secretary, G. Wayne Clough, discussed the project while sitting beneath a 1907 seascape by Frederick Waugh titled “Southwesterly Gale, St. Ives.”
The two Southern-bred, Georgia Tech alumni have been friends for almost 20 years, fishing and hunting together often. In 2004, when Clough was Georgia Tech’s president, Tennenbaum gave the Atlanta university $5 million to establish a multidisciplinary institute.
Clough (pronounced “cluff”) is “the biggest shakedown artist I’ve ever met,” Tennenbaum joked, clutching a cup of coffee from the Smithsonian’s cafe.
Tennenbaum for decades trolled the financial markets. In 1996, after 32 years at Bear Stearns, he founded the Santa Monica, California-based hedge fund Tennenbaum Capital Partners LLC, where he’s a senior managing partner.
Both he and Clough have a passion for reversing climate change and helping the state of the oceans.
“The oceans are in a danger zone; they’re victims of rapid change,” Clough said, noting that 50 percent of the ocean’s reefs are gone.
He estimates that the Marine Observatories initiative will cost $40 million in the long term. The federally funded Smithsonian has made an initial $500,000 allocation.
“I’m giving 20 times what the federal government is giving,” Tennenbaum said, joking about himself as being part of “that nasty 1 percent.”
(Stephanie Green is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
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