A New Log From The Sea of Cortez
Science and adventure in the spirit of Steinbeck and Ricketts.
Thursday, May 13, 2004
In the late afternoon, a school of jack mackerel swims past the Gus D, reflecting sunlight through the ultramarine water like so many silver medallions. The weathered boat is anchored a comfortable distance from the marina. Members of the crew, conditioned by weeks in the tropics, are kicking back wherever they can find deck space.
After leaving Monterey in late March, the 2004 Sea of Cortez Expedition is on a three-day stop in La Paz, a town of 180,000 near the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. The stop is part of a two-month voyage retracing a 1940 expedition by author John Steinbeck and his best friend, marine biologist Ed “Doc” Ricketts. The original voyage, immortalized in the book Log from the Sea of Cortez , was an epic journey, a voyage of discovery and one of the all-time great scientific and literary adventures ever undertaken.
Now, a close-knit dream team of world-renowned scientists and a top notch environmental writer are retracing the voyage.
Heading the crew is intertidal marine biologist Chuck Baxter, a retired Stanford lecturer who abandoned a career in engineering after reading Rickett’s Between Pacific Tides as an undergraduate. After a decade of retirement, Baxter now returns to the seashore for what he realizes may be his last great exploration.
Accompanying Baxter are two of his closest and most accomplished students—Nancy Burnett, a co-founder of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Raphael Sagarin, a preeminent young scientist studying global warming.
Burnett, daughter of Silicon Valley visionary David Packard, had been introduced to biology as a student of Baxter’s at Stanford. What is now a state-of-the-art aquarium began as an idea that Burnett and Baxter first tossed around a kitchen table over a bottle of tequila.
Sagarin worked with Baxter in 1991 on a climate change study at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. Seven years later, Sagarin’s landmark study made national news when he gave President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore an hour-long tour of his study site, and laid out one of the most convincing arguments on global warming to date. Sagarin is midway through a two-week run with the expedition.
What started as a six person crew has swollen to a party twice the size in La Paz. In addition to Sagarin, a rotating pool of Mexican biologists is also logging two-week stints on board. Yesterday afternoon, a reporter, producer, and sound tech team from National Public Radio met up with the expedition and will spend the next couple days recording a segment. A photographer and reporter from Stanford have been onboard for a couple weeks and will leave the group here in La Paz. But for now, no one is going anywhere. Tomorrow’s low tide won’t hit till late morning; it’s time to drink.
“This is a magical kind of trip that happened in a spontaneous way,” Baxter says, sipping an Acme Ale. “There were no research proposals asking for big bucks, just an add hoc plan that has come together quite nicely. The stops have been both beautiful and ecologically fascinating which makes the occasional aches and pains worthwhile.”
Sitting next to Baxter is Bill Gilly, the crew’s chief scientist. Gilly, an invertebrate neurobiologist at Hopkins Marine Station, studies giant squid. While Baxter dreamed of retracing the Log for years, it was Gilly who, after a few beers with Baxter, made it happen.
When the group set out from Monterey, its goals, according to Gilly, were two-fold: see how much things have changed in the Sea of Cortez in the past 64 years, and stick to the spirit of the original voyage as much as possible.
Reading between the lines of the original Log, it’s clear that the original seven-person crew, including two virile Sicilian fishermen, spent as much time partying as they did in the intertidal.
If Gilly and crew were even aspiring to such feats, I had to see it.
When the expedition arrived in La Paz, I was the first to greet them, waiting several miles from town, in the middle of a bay, in a kayak.
While Steinbeck and Ricketts headed straight for the Sea of Cortez, the current expedition spent a couple of weeks exploring Baja’s Pacific coast. As the sun goes down, the crew talks about their trip.
“The outer coast was a true adventure,” says Burnett, sitting in a lawn chair on the back deck. “We had no idea where we could pull in, or what we would find. We were continuously checking our charts and keeping a close eye on the sonar. It had the same adventurous spirit as the original voyage.”
Clearly. The group left Monterey with 72 cases of beer—enough for each crew member to have a six pack every day for the trip’s two month duration. As far as I can tell, the main consumer of water on this trip seems to be the hot tub. In the middle of the main deck, the captain has installed a hot tub, complete with rubber ducky.
Chronicling the expedition is Jon Christensen, a freelance writer for the New York Times . Christensen has covered environmental issues for the Times for years, though he’s also an experienced travel writer—in 1989, he and his wife spent a year driving across the Brazilian rainforest in an old Toyota Land Cruiser.
As the group headed south along Baja’s west coast, one of the major discoveries was the extent to which local efforts have worked to conserve the coastal fisheries.
“I’d heard about the Pacific Coast cooperatives and the vigilance of the fishermen,” Christensen says, “but I was still blown away by how protective they were of their resources. In each of these places they had people on shore with walkie-talkies keeping a lookout for poachers. As we approached, they would literally send out alarm calls.”
Much of the alarm had to do with the Gus D itself. Though the biologists arrive with only the best intentions—scientific discovery, conservation, the sharing of ideas—their boat, a shrimp trawler, was built for pillage, and local fishermen know that.
By dragging weighted nets across the sea floor, trawlers essentially clear-cut everything in their path. One swipe with the bottom-trawling nets once used by the Gus D, and local fisheries could be wiped out for generations.
“They would come out right away in their Pangas—these long narrow skiffs with big outboard motors—and ask what we were fishing for,” Christensen says. “We’d tell them we weren’t fishing for anything. It took awhile to convince them.”
While most of Mexico’s fisheries remain a free-for-all—an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 non-permitted boats troll the Gulf of California each year—Baja’s west coast is a longstanding model of sustainability. In the 1930s, a leftist Mexican government allocated exclusive management rights to fishing co-ops in the region for high-value species like abalone and lobster. By carefully limiting membership and maintaining tight surveillance (co-ops now employ radar systems and armed night patrols) area fisheries have maintained steady yields.
“Baja is one of the truly exceptional examples of conservation, not just for Mexico, but the entire world,” Christensen says.
“In the US, the historic model for conservation has been the federal government staking off an area and saying ‘you can’t do anything here.’ In Baja, local communities are asking the government to help them and are offering to do their own patrolling. It’s a way to get protection much more economically and with a lot more acceptance.”
Baxter is equally impressed with what he saw.
“It’s been very inspiring seeing the
here in Baja,” Baxter says. “In the US, fishermen have been
willing to overexploit the fisheries, because if they don’t,
others will. It’s the ‘tragedy of the commons.’ But it doesn’t
have to be that way. With limited entry, you have the
incentive to conserve your fishery for years out of your own
Pulling into the La Paz marina, the Gus D is hard to miss. Chugging past sleek yachts and polished cruisers, the aging trawler with rusted booms and stained, patchwork sides again draws attention. Gilly, who may get on great with squid but is definitely no charmer, describes the boat as “a middle aged woman without any makeup.”
“Officially this boat is still the Gus D , but for the rest of this trip it’s the Sardinia ,” ship captain Frank Donahue says with a smile as he welcomes me aboard the crowded boat. Not only is the Gus D well seasoned, but it’s far too small for the current crew. Tents cover the boat’s upper deck, crowding every opening like invading zebra mussels.
Donahue, a self-described commercial fishing refugee, can be a tough old salt. When an impatient yachtie nearly rams the Gus D , Donahue is on the verge of storming the offending sailboat. Still, when he talks about the expedition, he can’t hide his excitement.
“I was fascinated by it,” Donahue says of the Log. “It was like reading an instruction book on how to do this trip.”
Donahue has retrofitted the aging Gus D into one tricked-out expeditionary workhorse and party vessel. A newly installed 12,000-gallon diesel tank can take a crew all the way to Indonesia without refueling. A mini desalination plant provides 30 gallons of fresh water every hour. Not that anyone actually drinks it.
The sun sets over the Peninsula and a cool wind sends us searching for our sweaters. As Donahue lights the deck with flood lamps, expedition cook Sue Malinowski serves up chicken dumplings—a recipe passed down from the original Sea of Cortez voyage.
As inspiring as Baja’s west coast was, Cabo San Lucas, the Peninsula’s southern tip, left the group flat. Cabo was the first collecting site visited by Steinbeck and Ricketts. The intervening years have brought massive development with severe effects on the intertidal.
“Cabo had drastic changes,” Baxter says, loading his plate with dumplings. “The species diversity was much lower. Some of the dominant species they observed weren’t even there, while other new species they didn’t even see had moved in.”
Though Baxter mourns the loss, he also sees some benefits.
“It’s a bustling economy that has brought a higher standard of living,” he says. “People can get nostalgic, but I’d rather look ahead.”
Not everyone is so upbeat.
“Cabo was dispiriting,” Christensen says. “Steinbeck and Ricketts described the place as ferocious with life and now there is nothing there. They’ve dredged the harbors and the once rocky coastline has filled in with sand.”
“Steinbeck was just warning of tourists from Los Angeles coming down here for the weekend,” he says of the Log . “The entire place is now covered with big-time resorts and golf courses, massive water use, swimming pools at the edge of the ocean, jet skiis and sewage dumping into the oceans. It’s a totally different world than when Steinbeck and Ricketts were there.”
In the morning, the moon tugs the ocean away from the shoreline and we head to a rocky bench a few miles east of town to probe its nooks and crannies.
Rereading the Log as I prepared for this trip, I came across a wealth of exotic creatures—purple pendent gorgonians, naked mollusks, plumularian hydroids—plucked from this very site. As the biologists start walking the littoral, the intervening years melt away with each new discovery.
“My God!” Baxter shouts, sounding just like Sean Connery.
“This is a giant, a truly heroic specimen,” he says of a vermetid, or worm snail, he finds clinging to the rocks. “It’s nearly twice the size of any I’ve ever seen before.”
A few minutes later, Gilly finds a Nemertea, or ribbon worm, tightly coiled underneath a submerged rock. The worm is bright orange and reaches more than six feet in length as it hangs from Gilly’s outstretched arms. Though harmless to humans, Nemertea are fierce intertidal predators that shoot piercing barbs loaded with toxins into other worms and shellfish.
While Gilly has his hands full, Sagarin and Burnett uncover a pair of sea hares. As they pick them up, the soft bodied creatures squirt a stream of bright purple ink staining the surrounding water.
“We’re really seeing the same kind of diversity that Ricketts saw here,” Baxter says. “It’s very encouraging to see a site so close to a built-up area so diverse.”
Below him, a dozen hermit crabs attack a snail three times their size, like the stray dogs of La Paz tearing at a metal garbage can.
A three-ring media circus surrounds each new discovery. I take a picture that sums up the scene. At the center of the image, a core group of biologists discuss some new find. Hovering directly over them is the NPR team: reporter, producer, and sound tech. A few steps back, Stanford’s press office jockeys for images. Careful to stay off mic and out of picture, I toe a distant outer ring.
The hierarchy quickly breaks, however, when Gilly makes the most telling discovery of the day.
“No way! Check this out!” he screams like a child discovering his first starfish.
We gather around Gilly as he pulls up an argonaut, a small female octopus that lives inside a paper-thin shell. Argonauts, named after ancient mariners of Greek mythology, can be found drifting in tropical waters the world over but are rarely seen along the shore.
While argonauts are rare and interesting—the male is a dwarf that lives inside the female’s egg sac—these facts only partly explain Gilly’s excitement.
Throughout this trip, Gilly, Sagarin, and even Baxter seem to be measuring themselves against Ricketts, a man whose discoveries in the intertidal are legendary. Ricketts’ book Between Pacific Tides is still considered the bible for its subject. The Monterey Bay Aquarium—literally built around Ricketts’ lab—and MBARI, its sister research institute—are nothing if not shrines to Ricketts’ once radical idea of ecologic holism.
Yet, for all he saw, Ricketts never found an argonaut.
Clutching the octopus tightly, Gilly beams.
The discoveries of unusual organisms are merely exclamation points in a comprehensive census the group is conducting of the intertidal. The work is tedious and often dull, but is already leading to some interesting conclusions.
Walking to the water’s edge, Christensen and Baxter lay down a 50 meter measuring tape over the rocks and pools. Starting at one end of the tape, they set down a small square of PCV pipe and proceed to record everything they see inside the square.
Baxter, down on his hands and knees, dictates what he sees to Christensen, who tabulates the results in a notebook.
“40 percent barnacle cover, 15 percent dead, 10 percent algae cover, five red-footed hermit crabs, 15 urchins, six black cucumbers,” Baxter says.
The work is slow-going.
“I have to remind myself sometimes that I’m still having fun,” Baxter says as he moves half a meter to take his next reading.
Burnett joins in the readings but the line, known as a transect, still takes close to an hour to complete. When they finish the line they use a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receiver to record the exact location. Moving five meters inland, they lay down fresh tape and start their next transect.
Though Ricketts’ primary interest was the study of entire ecosystems, the original voyage focused more on collecting individuals than surveying the environment from which they came. The 1940 expedition brought back hundreds of species, including 50 previously unknown invertebrates. They took detailed notes on where the animals came from but they didn’t record such basics as water temperature, wind speed, or salinity. They also made no attempt at a systematic census.
As a result, it’s difficult for the current expedition to make exact then-and-now comparisons. Still, if a species is mentioned as being very abundant at a site 64 years ago and now is nowhere to be found, the group has a pretty good idea that things have changed.
The census figures that the current expedition now takes will lay down a baseline for future studies. It also helps the group notice patterns.
“Coming down the Pacific Coast, I was really struck by how you could see transitions in the fauna as you go south 50-60 miles each day,” Baxter says. “As we enter warmer waters, we see a transition from northern species to the more southern fauna.”
The locations of some species, however, aren’t matching up with the textbooks.
“We’re picking up southern urchins and sponges further north than their listed geographic ranges,” Baxter says. “It may be previous studies had inadequate data, or, it may signal a shift due to climate change.”
What Baxter is suggesting—that tide pool organisms are moving further north as a result of global warming—makes urchin and sponge movement a lot more interesting.
If the shifts are a result of a changing climate, it wouldn’t be the first time Baxter has seen it.
In 1993, Sagarin came across a 1930s transect study conducted in the intertidal directly outside the doors of the Hopkins Marine Station. After searching for a few days, he was able to locate brass bolts that, like today’s GPS receiver, mark the transect’s exact location. For the next three years, Sagarin and others studied a total of 125,590 individual organisms. Of all the species studies, Sagarin found population increases in eight of 10 southern species and decreases in four of five northern species.
Malibu had moved to Monterey. In 60 years, the intertidal community of Pacific Grove had been uprooted and replaced by invaders from Southern California.
The cause of the invasion was warming water. Since the 1930s, the study site has warmed by 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit during summers and by an average of two degrees year-round. This was (and is) hard evidence of global warming.
While the temperature shift is alarming, Sagarin acknowledges that migrating crustaceans won’t bother most people. Still, he’s quick to note, “If mosquitoes carrying malaria or encephalitis undergo similar shifts, we’re in a lot of trouble.”
“We’re calling it ‘the grand day for science, literature, and adventure in the Sea of Cortez,’” shouts Dolores Monterrubio as we motor across the narrow strait of La Paz.
Monterrubio is the academic director for a bi-national environmental education program funded by the San Diego Museum of Natural History. Monterrubio recently flew in for a week-long workshop with local middle schoolers. One hundred students were selected from area schools to study marine life and read up on the Steinbeck-Ricketts expedition. After writing essays and giving oral presentations, 20 top students were invited to the “grand day” with the crew.
“If you get to spend time seeing and studying ocean life, you get to know it and respect it,” Monterrubio says.
The students spend the morning touring the Gus D . Burnett leads groups through a selection of shells and algae while Gilly shows off yesterday’s argonaut and sea hares in an onboard aquarium. Baxter and Sagarin demonstrate how they preserve the varied creatures they collect. The biggest hits, however, are Donahue’s tour of the wheelhouse and a cake, freshly baked, by Malinowski.
The students are then ferried across a narrow strait from La Paz, where a muddy spit covered in mangroves juts into the Bay of Peace. When the original expedition visited this site, Steinbeck was deeply unsettled by what he saw.
We sat quietly and watched the moving life in the forests of the roots, and it seemed to us that there was stealthy murder everywhere. On the surf swept rocks it was a fierce and hungry and joyous killing, committed with energy and ferocity. But here it was like stalking, quiet murder. The roots gave off clicking sounds, and the odor was disgusting. We felt we were watching something horrible. No one likes the mangroves…In La Paz, no one loved them at all.
—Log From the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck, 1941.
Not far from where we land, a brown pelican’s desiccated remains sit propped in the sand with wings outstretched; a morbid nod to Steinbeck’s ghosts.
Despite bad omens, the kids spend a couple hours with the biologists uncovering sea cucumbers, worms, anemones and crabs before being shuttled back to town.
The day ends with an open-air movie projected on a makeshift screen in the center of the town’s waterfront promenade. An IMAX film, Ocean Oasis , highlights the natural beauty of the Sea of Cortez. The students arrive wearing T-shirts given to them by members of the expedition. They bring their families. A handful of old men fill in the back rows.
On screen, divers swim with migrating whales and giant rays. Off screen, a tropical breeze sways palms and stirs up smells of sweet corn tortillas rising from waterfront taquerias.
After the movie, Christensen gives a short closing speech. It’s been a hot few days in La Paz. Most of the expedition members are already well into their drinks at a café several blocks away. As Christensen talks, the NPR crew eyes margaritas at a bar across the street.
Seated, we toast the expedition as Mariachi bands—old men with broken teeth and gilded guitars—drift through the crowd. Christensen requests a local tune and the Mariachis sing a mournful ballad called “La Paz, the Port of Illusion .” In the morning the Gus D will head north up the coastline and the rest of us will return home wondering if this all ever happened.
At the end of the night, I walk with Christensen as he heads back to his boat. He tries to make sense of the expedition.
“When Steinbeck and Ricketts came down here, war was looming over Europe,” he says. “When I hear bits and pieces from Iraq and think about the parallels, I have this feeling of dread. A chill comes over my body. I wonder, what the hell are we doing on this journey studying these kind, ‘sane, little animals,’ as Ricketts called them? The world is coming apart at the seams and here we are, spending the night in a port called Peace.”
I return to the marina in the morning but, like the
senorita in the Mariachi song, the
In Search of the Real Doc Ricketts
In John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row , “Doc,” the only slightly fictionalized Ricketts, a hard-drinking philosopher scientist, presides over Monterey’s population of “whores pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches.”
Today, a bust along the Rec Trail marks where the real-life Ricketts was killed by a train eight years after he returned from the Sea of Cortez. Fresh bouquets of flowers appear regularly in Ricketts’ hand.
Reading biographies, I learn of Ricketts, the Bohemian writer and philosopher who hung out with Henry Miller and visited the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti whenever he was in town. The books, however, verge on deification. They speak of Ricketts as a “Renaissance man” and “Merlin figure.”
I found Ricketts on my return from La Paz, on a visit to San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences. Located in the heart of Golden Gate Park, the Academy holds more than one million marine invertebrates, including several hundred collected by Ricketts and Steinbeck in the Sea of Cortez.
Senior collection manager Robert Van Syoc meets me at the museum’s entrance. In the Log , Steinbeck characterizes curators like Van Syoc as “dry-balls [inhabiting] a world wrinkled with formaldehyde” and “ picklers who see only the preserved form of life without any of its principle.”
Van Syoc, who keeps a copy of the Log in his office, seems principled enough. He talks of recent trips to Mexico and doesn’t smell the least bit like formaldehyde. Still, I keep my guard as he leads me through a maze of corridors to a subterranean hall where thousand of crustaceans sit neatly stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves.
Van Syoc pulls out one of the shelves and leaves me holding half a dozen sea stars collected by Ricketts and Steinbeck. Each star has an identification tag. They are the original tags; sun bleached, blotched with water spots, and scribbled by Ricketts himself.
“April 1940, Bahia de Los Angeles, Gulf of California,” reads one tag. “ Heliaster kubiniji Xantus [sea star], collector J. Steinbeck, E.F. Ricketts. Identified by E.F. Ricketts.”
I hold the little sea star close. For a fleeting moment, a short man wearing a wide brimmed hat and a well trimmed goatee, stands before me. He is bent over a rocky bench on a remote, tropical shore. The tide is out. Reaching into a pool, Ricketts pulls this very animal out of the water and hands it to me.
When I bring the sea star to my nose, however, there is no hint of the sea’s salty spray. No hint of the life and death struggles, the decay and rebirth that is the intertidal. All I smell is dust.