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Revisiting Steinbeck and The Sea of Cortez

Searching for signs of environmental change in the seemingly pristine waters.

By Anne Haas
Sep 21, 2004 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:43 AM


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Novelist John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts collaborated in 1940 to write The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, a travelogue of their six-week voyage along the Baja California peninsula and a serious investigation of the aquatic life of the adjacent Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California). Sixty-four years later, a group of marine biologists, a scientist-photographer, and a writer have retraced this journey. The new crew used the same kind of no-frills fishing boat as Steinbeck and Ricketts, but theirs was outfitted with state-of-the-art instruments and equipment; fittingly, their account appears not on paper but on the Internet.

The Sea of Cortez Web site tells the story both of this recent expedition and the one that inspired it. Using as a starting point the extensive catalog compiled by their predecessors, researchers from the Stanford University Hopkins Marine Station, led by biologist Bill Gilly, searched for signs of environmental change in the seemingly pristine waters. Their agenda was twofold: Retrace the path of Steinbeck and Ricketts to observe intertidal organisms and explore new areas (click on the site’s Scientific Research Plan for more details on search methods, equipment, and experiments, and go to the Log of the Expedition for day-to-day observations and photos). The team, which completed its investigation in late May, collected samples and took population counts of invertebrates and algae in the intertidal zones to establish a current list of the species in the Sea of Cortez. Their strategy was a departure from the 1940 outing, Gilly says, when Steinbeck and Ricketts “didn’t count things or do transects. They just got their hands on whatever there was.”

Gilly, who has studied squid for the last 20 years, was particularly struck by the absence of references to the creatures in The Sea of Cortez. He set out to plug the gap, specifically seeking evidence of a spawning ground of jumbo squid in the gulf. Not knowing what to expect, he was surprised by the “enormous population” of squid he and his crew encountered there. Plankton tows, a collection method using different degrees of fine mesh nets to capture organisms of various sizes, regularly brought up baby squid, some of which Gilly kept for study onboard the expedition’s boat, the Gus D. The team also tagged adult squid to investigate how these animals survive and behave at extreme depths, where oxygen levels are very low.

Along the shorelines, the researchers found both changes both subtle and marked compared to what Steinbeck and Ricketts observed. Areas with heavy tourism and extensive building showed obvious environmental injury. More surprising, Gilly and his colleagues discovered that relatively inaccessible habitats contained less biological diversity than expected. What these findings mean is not obvious, in part because this is the first time the area has received a rigorous scientific examination. “It’s not as simple as saying things are really bad or really good,” Gilly says. “We have to do a complex analysis.” Many factors can account for booms and busts in populations; hurricanes alone can cause a decade’s worth of change. “We don’t really know what happened between 1940 and 1970. The real value of what we’ve done is to bring awareness to these places. We set a baseline.”

For that baseline to be of value, monitoring of the Sea of Cortez must continue at least once every five years, Gilly says. He also urges the expansion of conservation efforts in the gulf, such as the cooperatives organized by villages to ensure sustainable fishing. (To find out more about this and similar environmental work, click on the site’s Annotated Links to Baja and the Sea of Cortez Online.)

The Sea of Cortez Web site will be maintained for at least another year and will feature regular updates on the results of the expedition. Writer and expedition participant Jon Christensen is also working on a book about the journey, to be published in the fall of 2005. Unfortunately, the original The Sea of Cortez is out of print, but The Log From the Sea of Cortez is available at bookstores. (For bibliographies as well as background on Steinbeck’s works, his life, and his friendship with Ricketts, readers can try the link to the Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.) The book captures a rare intellectual meshing of a novelist with a scientific bent and a writerly scientist. Steinbeck looked at the land and the people on it as one and wrote with a detached, observational style that pierced through niceties. Rickettsa model for Doc in Cannery Row and several other wise, clear-thinking Steinbeck charactersdeveloped ideas that shaped later studies of intertidal marine life. Their combined descriptive powers preserve a vision of an extraordinary ecosystem.

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