Documenting sea life, life at sea aboard the 'Gus D'

More than six decades after the historic Steinbeck-Ricketts trip, scientists set sail for the Sea of Cortez to visit storied coastline

Baja Map

Click on Video links at right to play videos corresponding to points on the map of the expedition.

In early April 2004, Stanford University photographer Linda Cicero and I joined the Sea of Cortez Expedition and Education Project in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, at the southern tip of Baja California. Our goal was to document life aboard the vessel Gus D as the crew retraced the legendary 1940 voyage to the Sea of Cortez by author John Steinbeck and marine scientist Edward Ricketts.

The expedition began on March 26 when the Gus D pulled out of the harbor in Monterey, Calif., and headed south to Baja. Two main objectives of the cruise were to see how the region had changed since the 1940 expedition and to create a solid baseline of biological data about the intertidal areas Steinbeck and Ricketts had visited.

The principal crew of the Gus D consisted of chief scientist William Gilly, professor of biological sciences at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station; zoologist Chuck Baxter, lecturer emeritus at Hopkins; Frank Donahue, owner and skipper of the Gus D; Jon Christensen, freelance journalist and cruise coordinator; Nancy Burnett, marine scientist, photographer and Stanford alumna; and Sue Malinowski, cook.

Linda and I first climbed aboard the Gus D in Cabo San Lucas on April 7, just 12 days after its departure from Monterey. The crew already had made several research stops along the west coast of Baja -- an area bypassed in the 1940 expedition.

Steinbeck and Ricketts described Cabo's virtually undeveloped shoreline as "ferocious with life." But the crew of the Gus D discovered that high-rise hotels and resorts had wiped out much of the once flourishing intertidal ecosystem.

Heading north on the afternoon of April 7, we entered the Sea of Cortez for the first time. The Cabo San Lucas skyline eventually gave way to a relatively undeveloped coast that had probably changed little since Steinbeck and Ricketts' day. That evening, as we motored past a rocky area known as Los Frailes, we were treated to a spectacular sunset punctuated by a remarkable sight -- a horizon filled with hundreds of young rays leaping from the water as if they were miniature stealth bombers.

We anchored at Los Frailes, and the next morning went ashore to observe Chuck Baxter and the crew conduct a transect -- a baseline census of the intertidal invertebrate population. In the afternoon, we headed a mile north to Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park -- site of one of the only living coral reefs in North America. The area was unprotected when Steinbeck and Ricketts visited there, and they removed large chunks of coral -- an unthinkable act today.

That evening, Capt. Frank Donahue motored north to Isla Espiritu Santo -- a protected island near the city of La Paz. The following morning we went ashore and discovered that the island had not changed since 1940: Gulls still nested near the beach, and the rocky intertidal still teemed with invertebrates -- especially the fleet-footed Sally Lightfoot crabs.

We spent the remainder of our trip, April 9-12, in and around La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. Steinbeck and Ricketts had predicted that this quaint town would eventually be overrun by tourism and development. But it turned out that, unlike Cabo San Lucas, the beaches of La Paz still provide a haven for a rich diversity of wild creatures.

This page features photographic and video highlights of our trip aboard the Gus D from April 7, when we arrived at Cabo San Lucas, through April 12, when we finally left La Paz. Click a number on the map to see a short video describing the events that took place at that location. Click the slideshow icon to view a series of still photos of the trip by Linda Cicero.

For more details about the eight-week cruise of the Gus D, visit