Sea of Cortez Expedition

In March of 1940, marine ecology in the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) was born with the pioneering expedition of Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck aboard the Western Flyer, a sardine seiner out of Monterey, California.  Although earlier biologists had visited the area, none had done so using an ecological, or “holistic” approach and none had attempted to undertake a faunal survey nor describe littoral communities.  The voyage is eloquently chronicled in the 1941 book by Steinbeck and Ricketts, Sea of Cortez. A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (Viking Press).  The book is an essay on the then-emerging field of ecology, as well as a travelogue, an adventure story, and a philosophical inquiry.  In their six-week voyage, Steinbeck and Ricketts made 24 discrete collections from 21 localities.  Thousands of specimens and over 560 species of marine invertebrates were captured, and the Synoptic Catalog in Sea of Cortez was the first-ever compendium of the invertebrate fauna of the Gulf of California.  Only 484 species of invertebrates are listed in the book’s Phyletic Catalog, but many more were collected and later identified by specialists from around the world.  About 40 new, undescribed species were also taken on the journey, most of which have since been named.

 

The landmark voyage and book had a profound impact on Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck, and ultimately on the American environmental consciousness.  The book was the first public call for conservation in the region, and it brought an awareness of the Gulf of California (and Baja California) to both the public and the scientific world.  The expedition and book have inspired hundreds, perhaps thousands of young biologists to devote their careers to marine biology and field biology.

 

In 1923, Ed Ricketts and his wife Anna (Nan) Maker moved from Chicago to Monterey (California), where Ed and his partner Albert Galigher started the Pacific Biological Laboratory, which supplied biological specimens to schools and laboratories around the country.  "Environmentalism" as we know it today did not exist in the 1920s and 1930s, and the field of ecology itself was still a fairly obscure scientific discipline.  But as Ricketts traveled up and down the Pacific coast, from Alaska to Mexico, collecting tidepool animals for his business, an emerging sense of community ecology began to permeate his thinking.  Ricketts's observations and ideas grew into his 1939 book, Between Pacific Tides (Stanford University Press), one of the most pivotal books ever written about ecology and marine biology (now in its 5th edition).  The book applied emerging ecological principles, and it described how environmental conditions could be used to predict the presence of species and how communities of organisms function as wholes.  He wrote with an understanding of food webs that was new to most biologists of the time.  Ricketts was thus an American pioneer of the concept of community ecology.  And, although he did not “discover” the phenomenon of intertidal zonation, Ricketts was the first person to codify the concept for a broad region (the Pacific coast of North America) and to integrate it with a modern view of community ecology.

 

John Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley of California.  Like Ricketts, Steinbeck never finished college, both men preferring a more unstructured and experiential approach to learning.  But he developed a strong fascination with the sea that drove him, in part, to move to Pacific Grove in 1929, where he planned to sit out the Great Depression in his father’s cottage—thus setting the stage for his meeting with Ed Ricketts in 1930.  Steinbeck was 28, Ricketts 33, when they struck up a friendship based on their shared passion with marine biology, literature, and philosophy.

 

Published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath, perhaps John Steinbeck’s greatest book, ignited a storm of controversy.  Despite the fact that the literary world hailed it as a grand achievement and called Steinbeck “America's greatest living writer,” California’s powerful and conservative agricultural community reacted violently.  They condemned Steinbeck for his harsh (though realistic) portrayal of agribusiness farms and the bad living conditions of migrant farmers.  They branded him a communist.  Steinbeck received death threats, he was accused of being a “drug fiend,” and conservatives burned copies of his book across the nation.  J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI began investigating him.  This public reaction struck Steinbeck deeply and by the spring of 1939, on the brink of despair, he declared an end to his career as a novelist.  Ed Ricketts and the Sea of Cortez provided a path for Steinbeck to remove himself physically and intellectually from the conflicts that had come to haunt him as a novelist.  Of course, Steinbeck continued to write novels and eventually went on to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Nobel Prize.  Some people view The Grapes of Wrath as the finest American novel ever written, and the book is imbued with holistic views from Steinbeck that were strongly nurtured by Ricketts.  In fact, Ricketts served as models for characters in at least eight of Steinbeck’s novels.

 

For years, Ricketts had hoped to make a serious collecting trip to the subtropical Gulf of California, to prepare a companion volume to his book on the temperate Pacific shores of the U.S.  Using funds from the 1939 publication of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck and Ricketts chartered the Western Flyer for their trip to the Gulf of California.  Members of the expedition were Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck, Carol Henning Steinbeck (Steinbeck’s first of three wives), Anthony [Tony] Berry (Captain), Sparky Enea (seaman and Cpt. Berry's brother-in-law), Tiny Colleto (seaman), and Hall [Tex] Travis (engineer).

 

In the opening chapter of Sea of Cortez they write, “Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region.  We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too.  And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance.  We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world.  And that isn't terribly important to the tide pool.  Fifty miles away the Japanese shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region.  That isn't very important in the world.  And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby.  None of it is important or all of it is.”  A profound statement of the book’s ecological scope.

 

On April 9, 1940, in the Sea of Cortez, the Western Flyer came upon a fleet of 11 Japanese trawlers and a factory ship working the seafloor for shrimp, near Guaymas.  Steinbeck and Ricketts observed those destructive fishing practices closely, noting, “they were doing a very systematic job, not only of taking every shrimp from the bottom, but every other living thing as well.  They cruised slowly along in echelon with overlapping dredges, literally scraping the bottom clean.”  And, “The waste  . . . was appalling.”  Of course, the highly successful Japanese shrimp fishery in the Gulf quickly led to the Mexican government kicking out the Japanese ships and ramping up their own shrimp fishing fleets, expanding the destruction of the Sea of Cortez seafloor.

 

Today, destructive bottom trawling continues for shrimp in the Gulf, though with decreasing intensity as shrimp farms are now undercutting the wholesale price of this shellfish.  However, the scraping of the sea floor continues and proposals are now afloat to begin dredging for finfish.  The ratio of shrimp-to-bycatch ranges from 1:10 to as high as 1:40.  Shrimp trawling continues to be the most ecologically damaging and wasteful form of fishing on Earth.

 

The goal of the Ricketts-Steinbeck expedition was clearly not to see how many species they could find, nor how many undescribed species they might discover (though they discovered many).  It was for something larger—to attain an overall sense of the fauna, its ecological relationships to other regions, and a view of a whole interconnected ecosystem of the Sea of Cortez.  Thus, they focused their efforts on the common and abundant species in order attain of a baseline—a beginning for understanding community ecology in the Gulf, the way Ricketts had previously done for the Pacific Coast of the U.S.  As Steinbeck put it in 1951 (The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Viking Penguin Books), the “project had been to lay the basis for a new faunal geography.”  But, beyond the science and the geography, the expedition nourished a holistic view of the world that came to steer the writings of both men.  As they noted,  “ . . . all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea, and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time.  It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

 

Richard C. Brusca

Research Scientist, University of Arizona, Tucson

and

Emeritus Executive Director, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

 

 

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Sea of Cortez Expedition
Sea of Cortez Expedition
Sea of Cortez Expedition
Sea of Cortez Expedition