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Stanford Report, December 3, 2003

Voyage will retrace Steinbeck-Ricketts trip to Sea of Cortez


March 11 will mark the 64th anniversary of one of the most celebrated expeditions in the history of American letters. On that day in 1940, a boat carrying novelist John Steinbeck; his wife, Carol; and marine biologist Ed "Doc" Ricketts left the chilly waters of Monterey, Calif., and headed south to explore the relatively isolated coast of Mexico's Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. The trip, which lasted six weeks and covered 4,000 miles, was part scientific fieldwork and part adventure -- an unforgettable journey that Steinbeck and Ricketts documented in their 1941 book, Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research.

The sun sets on another day of squid tagging for Stanford scientists recently working in the Sea of Cortez. An upcoming expedition will follow the course traveled by author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts along Mexico’s Gulf of California. The 1940 expedition resulted in the book Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Now, more than six decades later, a team of scientists and scholars is planning to retrace that legendary voyage. The Sea of Cortez Expedition and Education Project, led by researchers from Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, will embark from Monterey on March 11, 2004, in the Gus D, a 73-foot wooden commercial fishing boat that bears a striking resemblance to the 76-foot sardine boat, Western Flyer, chartered by Ricketts and Steinbeck. When the Gus D returns to Monterey in the first week of May, it will have stopped at many of the same villages, beaches and remote intertidal habitats that the Western Flyer visited in 1940.

"The purpose of the new trip is to see how things have changed," says William F. Gilly, a professor of biological sciences at Hopkins Marine Station and director of the Sea of Cortez project. He says that a major goal of the 2004 expedition will be to raise international awareness about the impact of tourism, commercial fishing and farming on a region that Ricketts and Steinbeck said was "fairly untouched" and "ferocious with life" in 1940.

"I spend a lot of time down there, and I've seen only one or two places that I suspect haven't changed at all -- places where there are no roads and that you can only get to by boat," Gilly explains. "I'd really like to see those areas up close before they're reached by bigger outboard motors. When that happens, that will be the end of what's left of the 'untouched' coast."


The abundance of life here gives one an exuberance, a feeling of fullness and richness. The playing porpoises, the turtles, the great schools of fish which ruffle the water surface like a quick breeze, make for excitement.

--from Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts (1941)


Like many marine scientists, Gilly has long dreamed of retracing the path of the Western Flyer. His dream finally became a reality a few months ago when he met Frank Donahue, a semi-retired commercial fisherman and captain of the Gus D, who offered to pilot his boat for the entire six-week cruise at cost. Soon afterward, Gilly recruited three other members to the expedition, all of whom plan to make the entire roundtrip voyage:

  • Chuck Baxter, a lecturer emeritus in biological sciences at Stanford;
  • Nancy Burnett, a marine biologist and photographer who serves as science director and executive producer of the Sea Studios Foundation in Monterey; and
  • Jon Christensen, an environmental journalist and Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University.

In November, the project became fully bi-national when Exequiel Ezcurra, president of the Instituto Nacional de Ecología -- one of the leading government environmental research institutions in Mexico -- agreed to serve as co-principal investigator. Other researchers from Mexico, Stanford, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and several conservation groups working in the Gulf also may join the expedition as it winds its way around the Baja Peninsula. "There's a lot of great research going on in Mexico, and bringing those scientists on board for a week at a time, or a leg at a time, and exchanging ideas with them is going to be really exciting," Gilly says.

"When Gilly invited me to come along, he told me he wanted to keep the expedition as close to the spirit of the original as possible," recalls Christensen, a freelance reporter who covers conservation issues for the New York Times and other publications. "It will be a low-cost, bare bones, leisurely voyage of research and discovery."

Christensen plans to write articles and a book about the trip, and produce audio segments for radio and for the expedition website,"In all of these efforts, we will bring attention to conservation crises in Baja and the Sea of Cortez and connect people to the existing groups working to create a sustainable future there," he says. "On the surface, the Sea of Cortez remains the same, timeless. But underneath, it has changed, like all the oceans of the world."

One of the reasons we gave ourselves for this trip -- and when we used this reason, we called the trip an expedition -- was to observe the distribution of invertebrates, to see and to record their kinds and numbers. ... That plan was simple, straight-forward and only part of the truth. But we did tell the truth to ourselves. We were curious. ... We wanted to see everything our eyes would accommodate.

--from the Introduction, Sea of Cortez


By the time Steinbeck and Ricketts started planning for the Sea of Cortez trip in 1940, they had known each other for 10 years. There were many reasons why these two close friends decided to journey to Mexico -- including the desire to get away. The year 1939 had been a very hectic one; both men saw the publication of what turned out to be their most celebrated works: Ricketts' marine science field book, Between Pacific Tides, which he coauthored with his friend, writer Jack Calvin; and Steinbeck's Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Between Pacific Tides established Ricketts' reputation as a leader in the emerging field of marine ecology. Now in its fifth edition, the book is one of the best-selling titles ever published by Stanford University Press and is still used in classrooms today. The Grapes of Wrath became a highly popular novel and was quickly adapted into a film that was released just a few days after the Western Flyer left Monterey. The Grapes of Wrath would earn Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1940, and was a major factor in the Royal Swedish Academy's decision to award him the 1962 Nobel Prize in literature.

"John Steinbeck had just got through with writing The Grapes of Wrath, and he wanted a break," says Ed Ricketts Jr., now 80. "In fact, Steinbeck wanted to get out of the novel-writing business completely. He wanted to do something that was fun, and of course Dad liked the idea [of going to Mexico]. There was money rolling in for John. Dad didn't have any money at all, so it worked out well with him. He wanted to travel anyway. He always wanted to travel."



We sat on a crate of oranges and thought what good men most biologists are, the tenors of the scientific world -- temperamental, moody, lecherous, loud-laughing, and healthy.

--from Sea of Cortez


The 18-year friendship between Steinbeck and Ricketts has become the stuff of legend. Ricketts' philosophical theories and scientific insights strongly influenced Steinbeck's worldview, and Ricketts' colorful personality served as the inspiration for several of Steinbeck's best-known fictional characters -- including Doc Burton from In Dubious Battle (1936), Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Doctor Winter in The Moon is Down (1942) and Doc in Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954).

"Ed had more fun than nearly anyone I have ever known, and he had deep sorrows also," Steinbeck wrote in 1951. "Everyone who knew him was influenced by him, deeply and permanently."

Steinbeck and Ricketts first met in 1930 after Steinbeck and his wife, Carol, moved to the Monterey Peninsula. Ricketts was living and working in a small commercial laboratory that he owned and operated on Monterey's Cannery Row, just a few blocks from Hopkins Marine Station. Born in Chicago in 1897, Ricketts came to California in 1923 after dropping out of the University of Chicago. His lab served as his principal business from 1923 until his death in 1948, at age 50.

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, Calif., in 1902 and attended Stanford intermittently from 1919 to 1925. His decision to enroll in a zoology course at Hopkins in 1923 demonstrated an early interest in marine biology, according to some scholars. But like Ricketts, Steinbeck did not finish college and never earned a degree. Steinbeck was a frequent visitor to Ricketts' lab in the 1930s, and both men had at least one mutual friend at Hopkins -- Professor Rolf Bolin, who was on the faculty from 1929 to 1966.

"We would come up here sometimes to visit these people," recalled Ricketts' oldest child, Ed Ricketts Jr., during a rare visit to Hopkins last October. "Because I'm the son, I'm following along with Daddy. Also, there were a bunch of students here, young people. Dad's lab was a good place for them to hang around. I think the only undesirable relationship was with [Professor Walter K.] Fisher. Dad thought he was kind of an old fogey, 'old jingle ballicks.'"

Fisher was Hopkins' first resident director -- a position he held from 1917 to 1943. In the early 1930s, Stanford University Press asked him to review an early version of Between Pacific Tides. "Fisher wrote back and said, 'Don't publish this,' so Stanford took a long time, and it was a hard uphill battle to finally get it published," says Ricketts scholar Katharine A. Rodger, editor of Renaissance Man of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts.

"Fisher finally conceded it was a good book, but he couched that by saying, 'Well, Ricketts is a good collector.' His attitude was very anti the non-PhD down the block," she adds.

Ricketts had many passions, according to Steinbeck, including a love of philosophy, baroque music, alcohol and, above all, women. Ricketts and his wife, Anna, separated in the mid-1930s, and by 1940, Steinbeck's own marriage was on the rocks. One reason that Carol Steinbeck accompanied her husband on the Western Flyer was the couple's belief that a cruise to Baja could save their marriage, but within a year they separated. Their divorce became final in 1943, and Steinbeck remarried and moved to New York City. Five years later, Ricketts was critically injured when his car collided with a train near his Monterey lab. Steinbeck returned to Monterey but arrived too late to see his friend before he died.

"After his death I had to go through [Ricketts'] notebooks before turning them over to Hopkins Marine Station, a branch of Stanford University, as Ed's will directed," Steinbeck wrote in 1951. "I was sorry I had to remove a number, a great number, of the entries from the notebooks. I did not do this because they lacked interest, but it occurred to me that a student delving into Ed's notes for information on invertebratology could emerge with blackmail information about half the female population of Monterey."

Steinbeck ended up destroying numerous documents, including dozens of letters he had written to Ricketts over the years. Steinbeck died in New York in 1968. He was 66.



We have concluded that all collecting trips to fairly unknown regions should be made twice; once to make mistakes and once to correct them.

--from Sea of Cortez


During their expedition, Ricketts and Steinbeck, with the help of Carol and the crew of the Western Flyer, collected several hundred marine species -- including approximately 50 previously unidentified invertebrates -- from 21 collecting sites along both shores of the southern half of the Gulf of California and on several islands. "We wanted a picture as nearly whole of the Gulf as possible," the authors wrote, so they collected as many invertebrate species as they could find, including snails, sea stars, sea cucumbers, crabs, urchins and sponges.

However, no attempt was made to conduct an accurate census of these creatures or collect much physical data, such as water temperature, wind speed or salinity. As a result, it will be difficult to make quantitative comparisons between the gulf in 1940 and today, cautions Chuck Baxter, an authority on intertidal ecology who taught at Hopkins Marine Station from 1974 to 1993.

"It will be hard to convince anyone what the differences are in the intertidal fauna, because there weren't any real ecological studies done in 1940 -- no counts in specified quadrates, no sampling or anything like that," he says. "But if there are species that they mentioned as being very abundant and now you don't see them, you have a pretty good idea that the reason is because the fauna has changed."

During the 2004 expedition, Baxter and his colleagues plan to make several stops along Baja California's west coast, which faces the open ocean -- an area ignored by Steinbeck and Ricketts. While there, Baxter will join one of his former undergraduates, Rafe Sagarin, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California-Los Angeles. As part of an ongoing field study on climate change, Sagarin has installed metal bolts at several intertidal locations on Baja's west coast. These permanent makers allow him to make accurate counts of the different invertebrate species that inhabit each site and will permit future scientists to observe whether these populations change over time as a result of global warming or other environmental factors.



We in the United States have done so much to destroy our own resources, our timber, our land, our fishes, that we should be taken as a horrible example and our methods avoided by any government and people enlightened enough to envision a continuing economy.

--from Sea of Cortez


On matters of conservation, Ricketts and Steinbeck were years ahead of their time. One example was their concern about the industrialization of the shrimp fishery in the Sea of Cortez. "Among other things," they wrote, "a careful study of this area should be undertaken so that its potential could be understood and the catch maintained in balance with the supply. Then there might be shrimps available indefinitely. If this is not done, a very short time will see the end of the shrimp industry in Mexico."

Indeed, by the 1980s, commercial shrimping throughout the gulf was in sharp decline, largely because of overfishing. Gilly and his Mexican counterparts worry that a similar problem could lead to the collapse of the jumbo Humboldt squid population -- now the third largest fishery in Mexico by tonnage, behind tuna and sardines, and fourth in value.

Gilly, Baxter and their colleagues also hope to visit Baja's Viscaino Bay -- one of only two sustainable lobster fishing communities in the world -- where they plan to meet with Fiorenza Micheli, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Hopkins, who has been collaborating with local leaders and conservationists involved in protecting the lobster fishery.

"I also look forward to working with Nancy [Burnett] to get some good photographic images we can use for an illustrated field guide of the fauna of the region -- specifically along the west coast of southern Baja," Baxter adds. "Not much has been done there, but it's become very popular with people who make car trips down the Baja Peninsula."

Ricketts and Steinbeck were keenly aware that tourism posed a serious threat to the traditional way of life in the Sea of Cortez. Cabo San Lucas, now a major coastal resort, was barely a town when they arrived there on March 17, 1940. Further up the coast in La Paz, a luxury hotel was under construction, which led the authors to make this ominous prediction: "Probably the airplanes will bring week-enders from Los Angeles before long, and the beautiful poor bedraggled old town will bloom with a Floridian ugliness."



Trying to remember the Gulf is like trying to re-create a dream. This is by no means a sentimental thing, it has little to do with beauty or even conscious liking. But the Gulf does draw one. ... We know we must go back if we live, and we don't know why.

--from Sea of Cortez


For some members of the 2004 expedition, the voyage to the Sea of Cortez will be a personal journey as much as a professional one. "Between Pacific Tides was the first biology book I'd ever owned," recalls Baxter. "I was an engineering student in Southern California, and I'd seen some incredible stuff in the kelp on a diving trip, so I bought the book to help me identify what I'd seen."

Coincidentally, Baxter also had been assigned to read Steinbeck's Cannery Row, and the more he read about the fictional and nonfictional Doc Ricketts, the more he was convinced to leave engineering and become a marine biologist.

"Ricketts and Steinbeck have been so important in stimulating the magical aspect of marine science, and certainly Ricketts is a guy I would really have enjoyed meeting and talking to and sharing a few beers with," Baxter says.

"A lot of people have been wanting to do this trip for years and it looks like this is the first time it really is going to be done," adds Ed Ricketts Jr. "So I think -- great!"


Ed "Doc" Ricketts