Monterey marine biologists still head to Baja to study life along the shore, just like Steinbeck and Ricketts did 60 years ago.
Thursday, June 8, 2000
In the spring of 1940, as the Nazi war machine was rolling through Europe and U.S. isolationism was heading toward its inexorable demise, John Steinbeck and biologist Ed Ricketts chartered a sardine boat and sailed south from Monterey to the Gulf of California to study the distribution of marine invertebrates in the littoral. With a captain, engineer and two crew members, the friends spent six weeks along the Baja-side coast of the thin ribbon of ocean known as the Sea of Cortez, collecting hundreds of specimens, surveying marine habitats, living off fresh tuna and skipjack and consuming 2,160 cans of beer. The adventure inspired Steinbeck to write The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a poetic account of the journey that remains a classic of travel writing.
Sixty years later, the same love of adventure and quest for knowledge lure Monterey area biologists to Mexico''s Baja Peninsula. While Steinbeck cursed his cantankerous outboard motor, today''s researchers bemoan flat tires as they traverse Baja''s rock- and shell-riddled back roads in dusty pick-up trucks stuffed with dive gear, tents, kayaks and rations. Ricketts'' undiscovered towns are now marked by tourist stands and gringo bars. But undeniable similarities mark the two experiences: rising for the morning tide in the dark, wading through tide pools in rubber boots, sleeping in a place that aches of solitude, and enjoying the true kindness of the desert people.
As part of his doctoral dissertation, UC Santa Barbara marine biology student Rafe Sagarin voyages to Baja several times a year from his base at the Hopkins Marine Station to track lesser-known intertidal misfits that look just like part of the rock to most people. Working under the tutelage of local biologists George Somero and Chuck Baxter, Sagarin''s research on invertebrates such as chitons and anemones examines species'' ranges and densities to determine areas that are likely to see changes in animal counts due to global warming. While Baja''s arid desert landscape looks nothing like Monterey, the two regions do share a rocky coastline, and 90 percent of the creatures Sagarin studies on Baja''s Pacific coast also live in Monterey Bay.
On a recent trip south, Sagarin and his field assistants put 3,000 miles on his Mazda truck and blew out seven tires. During his five research missions to Baja since 1996, Sagarin has spent countless hours on winding back roads, guided by map books and locals'' tips about where to find rocky shore. The group carries in all its food and supplies, including spare gas and Coronas, relishing Baja''s handmade tortillas and cheap avocados, and camping on lonely public beaches.
The sight of students hunched over tide pools poking at animals and taking notes draws the attention of local fishermen''s cooperative groups called "vigilancias" that scour the coast to protect their livelihood by preventing the unlicensed collecting of abalone and lobster. "When they see the creatures I collect they are generally unimpressed," says Sagarin, "but they''re excited to see new faces and really interested in what we''re doing."
Moss Landing Marine Lab Professor Greg Caillet is working with the Mexican government to monitor similar cooperative fishing camps for sharks and rays in the Gulf of California, a project funded in part by the Packard Foundation. Working alongside two Mexican universities, Caillet''s student Joe Bizzarro explains, "We are helping compile baseline data on how much is being fished so the government can regulate the industry and make it sustainable."
Caillet''s group relies on participation from Baja''s fishing community, a link that took some time to develop. Traveling to Baja several times a year for four to six weeks at a time, the group''s first challenge was to take every road leading to the coast in order to identify and describe the camps, markets, and the number of boats.
At first, language was a barrier. "We were out in remote fishing camps with four to 100 fisherman," explains Bizzarro, "and we could see the catch and take measurements, but without Spanish we couldn''t figure out where they were fishing or for how long, or ask the locations of other camps." In time, the group began to pick up Spanish and extend conversations beyond fishing.
A year in La Paz and over 30 trips to Baja have helped acclimate Moss Landing Professor Mike Foster, who has worked extensively in the region since 1990. Now with several graduate students working in Baja and a handful of Mexican students pursuing degrees at Moss Landing, Foster is engaged in various projects, including examining 125,000-year-old fossilized algal beds to gauge the potential impact of global warming.
Steinbeck didn''t have a hard time securing the Mexican collecting license that he happily presented to port officials when they sidled alongside the Western Flyer, but today these licenses cost $750 and can take months to procure. Foster found it easier to work under the direct auspices of Mexican professors, who write letters of presentation in Spanish that serve in lieu of a formal license.
Foster regularly brings students to Baja for a joint biology and geology class that examines the ecology of the Gulf coast. After a bit of trial and error, he learned to pay for his tourist card at the border and ease the travel process by bringing chocolate chip cookies for the young soldiers that man Baja''s frequent firearm and drug-code enforcement military check-points.
"I like working down there better than in the U.S. because there''s no bureaucratic bullshit and hardly any rules," explains Foster. "Besides, it''s beautiful, has few people, the water''s warmer and the beer''s better. I can''t wait ''til my boys grow up and I can take them."
After returning 1,500 miles by sea to Monterey, Steinbeck expressed a similar attachment to Baja in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. "If it were lush and rich, one could understand the pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen," he ponders. "The stone mountains pile up to the sky and there is little fresh water. But we know we must go back if we live, and we don''t know why."