Thursday, March 25, 2004
In 1940, John Steinbeck and his best friend, marine biologist Ed “Doc” Ricketts, chartered a sardine boat from Monterey to take them around Mexico’s Baja California peninsula to the Sea of Cortez. The six-week scientific and literary adventure was later immortalized in their book The Log From the Sea of Cortez. This week, 64 years later, researchers and an environmental writer will take a two-month, 4,000-mile voyage that will retrace Steinbeck and Ricketts’ route.
After a two-week setback due to winter storms, the group departs from Monterey Thursday aboard the Gus D, a 73-foot wooden shrimp trawler.
As the Gus D pulls out of Monterey, the group will pass a bust of Ricketts that stands not far from the water along the Rec Trail in New Monterey, at the spot where Ricketts was killed by a train eight years after his trip to the Sea of Cortez. Ricketts was by then a local celebrity, made famous by the character Doc in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
Whenever I bike past the memorial there is always a fresh bouquet of flowers in Ricketts’ hand. I’ve often wondered how a marine biologist could continue to have such an endearing hold on this community more than half a century after his death.
Standing on the commercial Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey overlooking the Gus D, trip coordinator Jon Christensen, a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, said he is looking forward to departure.
“A lot of people have dreamed about doing this for years,” he said. “We’re going to find out what its like to be in tight quarters with a group of interesting people exploring a relatively unpopulated coastline. We’ll also be exploring some really interesting scientific questions, and seeing how things have changed in a lifetime. Still, I can’t tell you what we’ll find.”
Joining Christensen are scientists William Gilly, a marine biology professor at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, and retired Stanford professor Chuck Baxter. Nancy Burnett, an executive producer at Monterey’s Sea Studios Foundation and co-founder of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Frank Donahue, captain of the Gus D, will also be on board.
Like Steinbeck and Rickets, they will be traveling in an old fishing boat. “We’re also going in the same spirit of open-ended adventure tempered by serious scientific inquiries,” Christensen says.
In the intervening 64 years, commercial fishing and coastal development have most likely hurt the Gulf of California. One of the group’s main goals will be to record these changes and to draw attention to conservation issues in the region.
Reading the Log From the Sea of Cortez you get a sense that the original voyage was both a serious collecting trip as well as a light-hearted adventure. The 1940 trip brought back several hundred marine species, including 50 that were previously unidentified. Steinbeck, however, also notes that their collections included “2,160 individuals of two species of beer.”
The current expedition will be remain true to the original. The North Coast Brewing Company has donated more than 50 cases of beer for the two-month trip.
“They went with very serious intentions and disguised it as a lark,” Chirstensen says of the original voyage. “Reading Ricketts’ letters from the time, you realize how important this trip was to him.”
Christensen believes the original trip was also a journey into ideas of nature and philosophy.
“Steinbeck had just written this really radical book [The Grapes of Wrath] on America and Ricketts was trying to go beyond traditional philosophy to come to an understanding of life based on what he knew about biology.”
As we sit on the wharf overlooking the Gus D, Christensen gets a faraway look in his eyes as he talks about the original expedition.
“It’s a story of two men who were best friends who had their hands on the live wires of science, literature, and philosophy who were going on a journey of discovery,” Christensen says. “What more could you ask for?”
To follow the Sea of Cortez Expedition trip log, go to www.seaofcortez.org.