Sea Change Since Era of Steinbeck

Times Staff Writer

As warm salt water lapped against his legs, Chuck Baxter took delight in the creatures clinging to rocks and skittering around the tidal shallows. His sunburned hands dipped beneath the shimmering surface for a closer examination of starfish, crabs and sponges forming a palette of red, orange, yellow and brown.

Out of this bustling seascape surfaced a question: Why does the marine life look so rich here, when 64 years earlier author John Steinbeck considered this same spot so devoid of life that it appeared “burned,” as if exposed to mild “radio-activity”?

That question also rolled around the rear deck of the Gus D., a shrimp trawler jury-rigged into a marine lab. Baxter, a retired Stanford University marine biology professor, and his mates from Monterey, were retracing the 1940 voyage of Steinbeck and his pal, marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts. Steinbeck made the 4,000-mile trip famous in his nonfiction book, “The Log From the Sea of Cortez.”


Using the book and Ricketts’ original field notes as a baseline, Baxter and his group spent two months seeing what has changed in this long finger of ocean that separates mainland Mexico from Baja California.

On tranquilo afternoons on the boat, with a balmy breeze and chocolate and cream hills drifting by, the group stumbled onto the reason the tide pools on Coronado Island impressed them as biologically rich, while Steinbeck considered them especially poor. It all depends on what you’re used to.

In Steinbeck’s day, the marine life on this tiny island near Loreto was meager compared with places that he and Ricketts found to be “ferocious with life,” such as Cabo San Lucas. Now Cabo has been picked nearly clean by fishing and shellfish harvesting, and tainted by polluted runoff from an urbanized coast.

By contrast, tiny uninhabited Isla Coronado just north of Loreto has remained a refuge for sea life, said Baxter, 76, who spent decades lecturing at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey. But overall, he said, “it’s not like it used to be.”

The Sea of Cortes, officially known as the Gulf of California, has experienced a stunning decline of sea life in the last few decades, as have many other places.

It’s rare to come across the once-plentiful goliath groupers that reached 500 pounds, the giant manta rays known to leap out of the water, the frenzied schools of yellowtail jacks chasing sardines to the shore, the circling columns of hammerhead sharks that once delighted fishermen and inspired the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau in 1986 to proclaim the Sea of Cortes the “aquarium of the world.”

Still, if you hadn’t been here in Steinbeck’s or Cousteau’s day, the sea wouldn’t seem empty, especially along undeveloped stretches where the desert meets the sea.

Motoring north of Isla Coronado, past other small islands that poke out of the aquamarine waters, the boat regularly encountered pods of dolphins, surfing on the bow wake before returning to gambol in the sea, feeding on bait fish. Pelicans glided by and then dropped like winged arrows to pluck fish from the ocean with their oversized beaks.

It wasn’t until the end of the trip that Jon Christensen, who helped organize the expedition and is writing a book about it, noted what he and his colleagues didn’t see: turtles, sharks, giant manta rays. Without the benefit of Steinbeck’s log or Ricketts notes, he said, it wouldn’t have occurred to him how empty the ocean had become.

Such is the universal human view of the natural world, said Jeremy Jackson, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who is studying overfishing. “Everybody thinks that ‘natural’ is the way the world was when they were a kid, and ‘unnatural’ is everything that happens afterward. That’s why older people are more depressing than younger people.”

Marine scientists also grapple with a phenomenon that Jackson and others call “shifting baseline.” Sea life, unlike wildlife on land, is not readily visible, and the relatively young field of marine ecology has scant historical information about what used to exist beneath the waves. Instead of figuring out a true baseline, when the world was in a more natural state, scientists measure changes from the point when they begin their studies, even if that doesn’t give a full picture.

Steinbeck’s book, the first biological survey, provided a crucial early marker for studying changes in the Sea of Cortes. This spring’s expedition was a rare opportunity to work from a rediscovered copy of Ricketts’ 1940 field notes, as well as the book that incorporated those notes and was polished by a writer who had just completed his most famous novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.”

The Sea of Cortes, of course, was far from its natural state when Steinbeck and Ricketts arrived. Most of the pearl oysters, which created an industry that the town of La Paz is founded on, already had been stripped from the sea in a massive treasure hunt. U.S. and Japanese fishing boats had begun pursuing tuna and shrimp, and sea lions for pet food, as well as sharks for their livers, to remedy iron-poor “tired blood.”

During his Baja adventure, Steinbeck boarded a Japanese shrimp trawler and was appalled that the weighted nets would tear up the ocean floor, and pull in nine pounds of fish that would be shoveled overboard dead for every pound of shrimp. He saw good men “caught in a large destructive machine,” which he accused of “committing a true crime against nature.”

These foreign fleets were long ago booted from Mexican waters, and replaced by a fleet of Mexican shrimp trawlers and tuna boats, and thousands and thousands of small skiffs, called pangas, which multiplied with government subsidies in the 1970s and ‘80s. Each panga spreads gill nets -- banned in many parts of the world -- which indiscriminately kill anything large enough to get snagged in their webbing.

Describing his voyage as a “makeshift expedition,” Steinbeck conceived the trip as a leisurely adventure of scientific exploration that would distract his friend Ricketts from a disastrous love affair and get him enthused about another project. Ricketts had just published “Between Pacific Tides,” his seminal book on intertidal marine biology, and seemed adrift. Steinbeck, too, was weary of his life and wanted to get away. He proclaimed he was done with writing novels and was taking up a hobby: marine biology.

Steinbeck had a tough time finding a ship. There were plenty of sardine boats in Monterey in 1940, but they were busy supplying the packing houses of Cannery Row.

Many captains turned him down. Even the Sicilian American crew of the Western Flyer, a white sardine boat that eventually took them, revealed their disdain for Steinbeck’s mission.

“Aw, we’re going down in the Gulf to collect starfish and bugs and stuff like that,” crew member Sparky Enea radioed a friend on another boat that had just hauled aboard 15 tons of sardines.

To these hardened fishermen, Steinbeck realized, “we were obviously ridiculous.”

Lining up the Gus D. for this year’s trip was much easier, even though captain and owner Frank Donahue kept telling Mexican fishermen his passengers were loco scientists.

Still, Donahue was game for the trip. He doesn’t fish much anymore, he said. Too many rules and not enough fish to make it worth his while. So he volunteered his boat and his time, in exchange for money to rebuild the diesel engine and make other repairs. The total trip cost of about $90,000 was covered by anonymous donors.

This was no luxury cruise. Many of those aboard slept in tents pitched on the upper deck and clustered together like a cliff-side encampment of mountaineers. The 73-foot vessel is sturdy and seaworthy, but far from the sleek, polished boat that ferried Steinbeck. The Gus D., although about the same size and color as the Western Flyer, is easily distinguished by the plywood patches on the hull and rusting outrigger booms overhead.

When news of the expedition leaked, the organizers were besieged with offers from other idle commercial boat captains -- an indication of how the fishing has changed off the California coast.

This trip, like the first, was designed as a getaway adventure. It began as dreamy talk over some beers one afternoon at Hopkins Marine Station. William F. Gilly, a neurobiologist there, had been casting about for a new direction in his field of study.

He also wanted to design a last great adventure for his septuagenarian friend, Chuck Baxter. More than 50 years earlier, Baxter had been so inspired by a copy of Ricketts’ “Between Pacific Tides” that he abandoned his engineering studies at UCLA and switched to marine biology. He was besotted with the idea of literally following the footsteps of the man who changed the course of his life.

Baxter invited a former student, Nancy Packard Burnett. The two are among the co-founders of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

For Christensen, a freelance writer, the trip offered a subject for his first book about science and adventure. He kept a blog -- -- so that others could track the journey.

When they arrived in the Sea of Cortes, the difference that 60 years can make slowly became apparent.

Steinbeck wrote effusively about “schools of leaping tuna all about us, and whenever we crossed the path of a school, our lines jumped and snapped under the strikes, and we brought the beautiful fish in.” One day in 1940, the crew used a small net to scoop fish out of the sea and passed them directly through the galley window into a hot frying pan. “Probably no fresher fish were ever eaten,” Steinbeck wrote.

The Gus D. crew also set their lines, hoping to catch dinner. “We’ve only had luck fishing with pesos,” Baxter said. That is, buying fish at the market or off the dock.

This group worked hard to keep alive the spirit of the original voyage. They stopped at the same tidal shallows as their predecessors; they hunted for the same marine creatures that Ricketts had cataloged and collected in jars of formaldehyde.

The ship carried 70 cases of donated beer -- the first trip was a hard-drinking one -- and a tub of Sicilian pasta sauce, made by Bob Enea, a nephew of two original crew members that sailed from Monterey with Steinbeck and Ricketts.

They were treated to the sights of Steinbeck’s day, the stark beauty of cardon cactus forests in Bahia Concepcion, the fiery sunrises and sunsets, the ultramarine blue water, which according to Steinbeck’s log was called “tuna water” by the fishermen back then.

But there were no tuna to be seen on this spring’s trip. The visitors didn’t spot a single sea turtle. Nor were they entertained by leaping swordfish that, as Steinbeck reported, seemed “to play in pure joy or exhibitionism.”

In the tide pools, cobblestone beaches and mud flats, Baxter found many of the same creatures that Ricketts had cataloged. But some were missing.

“I haven’t seen a single pink murex,” he said more than halfway through the trip. He later saw the ornate white shells with spines and pink lips in curio shops, selling for $2 to $5. One of Steinbeck’s crew members, a crusty fisherman, was so enchanted by these shells that he filled a washtub with them to take back to his friends in Monterey.

The Gus D. did come upon one unusual marine creature that eluded the notice of Steinbeck and Ricketts -- jumbo Humboldt squid, which can weight up to 100 pounds and reach 7 feet in length.

Yet the very presence of the squid, which now make up a major fishery in the Sea of Cortes, appears to be an indication of what has been lost. Marine biologists suspect that the squid have flourished in recent decades because sharks, tuna and other predators are mostly gone.

Following the squid was one of the highlights of the trip, a time when this crew diverted from the path of Steinbeck and Ricketts. At one point near the Midriff Islands near the northern reaches of the gulf, the boat drifted in a swirling current blooming with plankton. The scientists used fine-meshed nets to scoop up the rich soup of tiny organisms that attract bait fish that, in turn, draw the squid.

“When we pulled up the nets and dumped the catch out, we looked into a basin with a thousand eyes looking back at us,” Christensen wrote in his blog, mingling his own observations with Steinbeck’s.

“Never before on this trip, even when we were walking directly in their footsteps and surveying the same tide pools, have we felt as close to the spirits of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. Here, instead of following them, we are doing what they did, exploring the Sea of Cortes and life in an open-ended leisurely fashion, letting the great force of the gulf carry us along.

“And here, in this watery gyre under a dome of stars and a full moon, we have come close to really feeling in our souls what Steinbeck and Ricketts did, ‘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.’ ”