In The Pipeline: The outdoors is his classroom

About two years ago, I experienced my first grunion run — a late-night visit to the beach in the hopes of seeing mobs of the elusive fish, the grunion, appear to perform their mysterious spawning rituals.

I'd heard many stories of people trying for years to witness the spectacle, following the suggested nights when the moon and tides are just right. Of course there's no guarantee, but on the night we went, we scored big — tens of thousands of the fish appeared on the beach starting around midnight.

I wrote a column about the unique experience and, shortly after, received a note from Gerald J. Bakus, a professor of biology at USC. Bakus explained that he was working on a book, "Natural History of California," and asked if he might use one of my grunion photos, which was fine by me.

About a year later, last spring, I received a follow-up note from Bakus saying that his book was finished and that he was sending me a copy. When it arrived, neither my son nor I could put it down. Part of a series of "Natural History" titles he has created (which include Nevada, Oregon, Santa Catalina Island and, soon, New Mexico), the titles are all crammed with facts, histories and photos that, together, form the definitive natural histories of each region. The books are impressive not just in their scope, but in their crisp organization and simplicity — they are terrific.

Right around the time I received the book, we learned that our son Charlie would be attending USC, and this semester, he is very pleased to be taking Bakus' course on California's natural history. It's so funny how things work out sometimes.

Recently, the three of us had lunch together on campus, but before eating, Bakus took me through his lab, a wonderfully old-school space stocked with books, specimen jars and microscopes. I learned that not only was this going to be the professor's 50th year teaching biology at USC, but that he is approaching his 50th year as a Huntington Beach resident, as well.

That had never come up and I had no idea he had raised his family here, but I knew I'd want to write about him, given what an interesting member of the community he is.

Bakus completed his Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Washington, Seattle in 1962 and has field experience from the Aleutian Islands, Iceland, the Antarctic Peninsula and the Galapagos Islands to the tropics.

During the 1970s, Bakus participated in numerous oceanographic and marine biological studies in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and California. He also completed a study on walruses and their food resources in the Bering Sea. He conducted studies in Alaska on the impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on beaches in Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula. He completed numerous studies on coral reef ecology over a period of 35 years in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Over our lunch, Bakus talked about how much not just Huntington Beach has changed in five decades, but teaching, as well. An old-fashioned professor given more to handwritten notes and other low-tech forms of communication, he also leads students on field trips to Catalina Island, the Mojave Desert and local tide pools, among other places. Those are the true Bakus classrooms, the real-life, hands-on laboratories where students can truly begin to understand life's great pecking order.

He trudges across miles of coastlines, forests and deserts when he is not in the classroom, taking notes and photographs for his books, which, again, I highly recommend. His energy and love of the outdoors no doubt make him a wonderful teacher, but an exceptional learner, too, as his curiosity for natural history leads him all over the planet.

But he starts each day right here in Huntington Beach, where I'd like to congratulate him on his upcoming 50-year anniversary at USC. On a personal note, we're humbled by your accomplishments, Dr. Bakus, and feel privileged that our son has the good fortune to learn from you.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at

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