Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

024: Sea of Cortez Revisited, Part II

A week ago I told the story of my last trip to the Sea of Cortez. This week I thought I'd talk about a much more famous trip to those waters by my icon, marine biologist Edward F. "Doc" Ricketts, and his friend, novelist John Steinbeck, who made "Doc" and Monterey's Cannery Row famous in his book of that name and the sequel, Sweet Thursday. Their collecting trip in 1940 was documented by Ricketts and Steinbeck in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. This book originally included a scientific acount of the marine specimens by Ricketts and an entertaining and philosophical narrative portion attributed to Steinbeck, but actually based largely on Rickett's own log since John did not keep one during the voyage. Following Ed's death in 1948, John wrote a tribute entitled "About Ed Ricketts" included as a preface to this work in subsequent editions.

Although Cannery Row was not written until 1945, Ricketts was already known as a marine biologist because of the biological supply company he operated on Cannery Row, and the ground-breaking Between Pacific Tides. This book was one of the first to look at marine biology from an ecological view rather than by groups of related species. I first encountered this classic book while a marine biology student at Harvard, and later used it while teaching and conducting research at Toyon. Ricketts and Steinbeck reportedly met in a dentist's office and became close friends due to their common interests in marine biology and, er, alcohol! The parties Ed threw in his Cannery Row home were legendary and attracted everyone from the future famous like Steinbeck and mythologist Joseph Campbell to the local "bums." For almost 25 years around his birthday in May I try to rival those parties with my own beer milkshake celebration in Ed's honor. So far I have yet to attract the local police to shut one down (as Ed did... many times).

"Doc" was very serious about his partying, but also about his marine biological work. While he might be a few hours late for a dinner party, he was always on time to collect specimens during a good low tide. Speaking of collecting, Ed could wade deep in the water to catch an important specimen but wore a hat even in the shower so his head didn't get wet! In addition to his biological work, "Doc" was a very deep thinker, writing a number of essays on various philosophical subjects including his idea of "breaking through," partially based on a work by my favorite poet, Robinson Jeffers, who also lived in Carmel (but didn't attend Ed's parties!). Steinbeck and Ricketts often talked late into the night and John used Ed's philosophy and character in many of his other novels as well.

"Doc" had previously taken a trip to Alaska with Joseph Campbell and others to collect marine life there. In 1940 Ricketts and Steinbeck planned another collecting trip, this time to Mexican waters. Between March 14 and April 18th they traveled the Pacific coast of Baja and throughout the Sea of Cortez on a Monterey sardine boat, the Western Flyer. When they left port, the boat was packed with scientific collecting supplies... and beer! While the former supplies lasted throughout the trip, the latter were soon depleted. That's when Ed discovered the many fine Mexican beers like Carta Blanca and Bohemia (no mention of Corona that I remember in their accounts). Some time back I wrote that marine biologists are often individuals whose primary interests include two of the major preoccupations of any species: food... and, er, sex. Both were very important to Ed as well, but we'd have to add alcohol (toxic of course to marine organisms and only used to preserve them) to that list. "Doc" was truly an intelligent, and interesting, character. Too bad Ed couldn't SCUBA dive and record the underwater world of 1940 like I can today.

This 1940 collecting trip has proven important in providing some baseline information about the ecology of the Sea of Cortez, considered one of the most biologically diverse seas in the world. Its fairly recent formation due to the San Andreas Fault occurred at a time when species from the Caribbean were still crossing into the Pacific through the unclosed region of the Panama Canal. Although still a fantastic diving and fishing destination, this sea is no longer as it was earlier. Even in 1940 over-fishing was becoming a problem, primarily due to larger foreign fishing vessels rather than the local fishermen. The Mexican government is initiating conservation efforts aimed at restoring the regions diversity.

When I last visited the Sea of Cortez in 1973, I made The Log from the Sea of Cortez required reading for my students. Many of them actually read, and more important enjoyed, it. It is also on the suggested reading list for the Lindblad Expeditions cruises. You may enjoy it too. There is much philosophical meat and wonderful thought in this work, written very beautifully by Steinbeck. I have also read Ed's original log from the trip and other writings in a collection called The Outer Shores. Although I think Ed was the brighter and deeper thinker of the two, it definitely requires Steinbeck's writing style to make the ideas attractive to most readers! A good example of symbiosis?

I've always wanted to retrace the route "Doc" and John took on this trip. My time on the Lindblad Expeditions cruise ships will cover the portion from just north of La Paz to Magdalena Bay to see the gray whales. However, while I will be doing "collecting" (largely via underwater video) and alcohol will be available on this trip, I expect it to be a bit more "conservative" than that enjoyed by Ricketts and Steinbeck (but still a lot of fun). Maybe next time!

© 2003 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Image caption: Edward F. "Doc" Rocketts as drawn by former island resident Mike Peterson

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia