Sailing with the spirits of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts on a new voyage of discovery around Baja California

The Log

The Pacific Coast: Monterey to Cabo San Lucas—
Eating our way through the ecosystem

Friday, March 26, 2004

Today was the big day. We're actually going to cast off. It seems we have a window of 15 hours in between a cold front from the south and strong winds from the north. And everyone is ready, more or less.

In the morning the wharf was thronged with people and vehicles bringing gear and supplies. Many friends and well-wishers came down to help us load the boat and see us off, including Jaeden Braselton, 11, a sixth-grade marine biologist at Los Arboles Middle School in Marina, California. Here he is with our zoologist, Chuck Baxter, who showed Jaeden around the Gus-D.

Captain Frank Donahue bossed the loading and comings and goings but had some time as the day wore on for interviews too.

By the end of the afternoon, friends and family were still there for the farewell. We'll miss you. And we'll carry you with us in our hearts.

As we pulled away from Monterey it was with a sweet mixture of the sadness of leaving loved ones behind and the gladness of the wind blowing in our faces as we faced the open ocean.

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Saturday, March 27, 2004

It was rough going last night, rocking and rolling through the swells that greeted us as soon as we left Monterey Bay and turned south. Captain Frank kept watch all through the night. I took my first watch at dawn as we passed Diablo Canyon and then Vandenberg Air Force Base. Frank got some sleep and then was back up to see us around Pt. Arguello to Pt. Conception.

Chuck Baxter went to the bow to see the landmark. And everyone gathered on deck as we passed from northern California to southern California, around the point that Frank said is known as the "Cape Horn" of California because the turn in the continent generates wind, current and waves. There were smiles all around as we reached this milestone on our way to Baja California. The sun foretold of warmer climes ahead, but Nancy Burnett was still appropriately bundled for the cold sea breeze.

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Sunday, March 28, 2004

White-sided dolphins accompanied us for the day, into and then back out of San Diego, playing and jumping in our bow wave. We stopped in San Diego to take on fuel for the long journey ahead and to pick up our two lead scientists: Bill Gilly, who flew down from Monterey to join up with us; and Exequiel Ezcurra, who flew up from Mexico City to come aboard for the Pacific leg of our journey. Exequiel is the president of the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia, the top environmental research agency in the Mexican government, and our chief collaborator on this binational expedition.

The first thing Chuck Baxter asked Exequiel about was the latest edition of A New Island Biogeography of the Sea of Cortés. When the book was first published nearly 20 years ago, the authors of the papers all hailed from the United States and they were all men. After Exequiel got done editing the new edition, more than half of the papers had Mexican authors and many were women. This new edition more fulsomely reflects the reality of science in the region today.

Jay Vavra, a science teacher at High Tech High School in San Diego, came down to the fuel dock to visit with us. Jay once took a course on community ecology with Chuck at Hopkins Marine Station. Now he's teaching an 11th grade collaborative course with a humanities teacher. The students are working on a guide to a boat channel in the San Diego Bay that is modelled on Between Pacific Tides by Ed Ricketts. It will combine science and all the senses. And judging by the probing questions that the students sent to us (see below and more to come), they will leave no rock unturned in trying to figure out how this landscape of nature and human use fits together.

Back out at sea, we turned south again, and dolphins picked us up again. At sunset we passed the border between the United States and Mexico, a bright line visible on the land, where a fence separates the two countries. But out on the water, there were no border lines, just the simple camaraderie of a shared journey with dolphins accompanying us.

It being Sunday, we followed a tradition set by Sparky Enea on the Western Flyer. Sue made spaghetti with a meatball sauce made for us from Sparky's own recipe by his nephew Bob Enea. It was delicious! Thank you, Bob.

After dinner, Exequiel read us his favorite passage from The Log from the Sea of Cortez. It is from the moment just after they departed Monterey:

We sat on a crate of oranges and thought what good men most biologists are, the tenors of the scientific world—tempermental, moody, lecherous, loud-laughing, and healthy. Once in a while one comes on the other kind—what used in the university to be called a "dry-ball"—but such men are not really biologists. They are the embalmers of the field, the picklers who see only the preserved form of life without any of its principle. Out of their own crusted minds they create a world wrinkled with formaldehyde. The true biologist deals with life, with teeming boisterous life, and learns something from it, learns that the first rule of life is living. The dry-balls cannot possibly learn a thing every starfish knows in the core of his sole and in the vesicles between his rays. He must, so know the starfish and the student biologist who sits at the feet of living things, proliferate in all directions. Having certain tendencies, he must move along their lines to the limit of their potentialities. And we have known biologists who did proliferate in all directions: one or two have had a little trouble about it. Your true biologist will sing youi a song as loud and off-key as will a blacksmith, for he knows that morals are too often diagnostic of prostatitis and stomach ulcers. Sometimes he may proliferate a little too much in all directions, but he is as easy to kill as any other organism, and meanwhile he is very good company, and at least he does not confuse a low hormone productivity with moral ethics.*

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Monday, March 29, 2004

A fulmar and its double circled around the boat this morning. Nancy got them on film.

Bill conducted a HAM radio test and talked to K0YOI, an 85-year-old man in Rolla, Missouri. Bill will be on the radio every day at 1730 PST (5:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time) around 14.279 MHz. His call sign is WA3EGM maritime mobile. Calling all HAMS. Do you read me?

And I'm sending in the latest from the log via a satellite phone and a laptop. We've come a long way from the first "ship's log."

Exequiel explained the origins of the word "log" to me this morning. Sailors used to throw a log overboard at the bow, he said, and count how long it took to reach the stern, thus measuring the speed of the boat. They recorded this in the ship's "log." In order to avoid losing all of their wood, they soon tied a rope to the log. Then instead of throwing the log from the bow, they threw it from the stern and let a length of rope play out. They tied knots in the rope at regular intervals to measure their speed. That is the origin of the nautical "knot," which evolved into the nautical mile, later standardized as one minute of longitude. It is the only truly globally universal measurement of distance, Exequiel said.

It seems only natural that it evolved on the borderless sea.

Posted by Jon Christensen with photos by Nancy Burnett.
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Tuesday, March 30, 2004

We arrived at Cedros, our first port of call early this morning, showered and shaved, put on clean shirts and waited for the port captain. He arrived on a motorcycle and reviewed our papers and welcomed us to Mexico. We talked with the fishermen from the local cooperative that controls the fisheries around the island. They gave us some mackerel. We wandered around the small town and bought fresh tortillas and machaca.

As we were preparing to leave the Navy paid us a visit too and wanted to take down the facts of our voyage and inspect the boat. We welcomed them aboard for a visit. After the proper exchange of formalities and pleasantries, they bid us adios and we departed for Bahia del Sur, our first research site on the southwestern corner of Isla Cedros.

Even here, anchored in a lee cove, our fishing boat attracted attention. The local fishermen are very vigilant. Throughout the afternoon they came over in their pangas—long narrow skiffs with big outboard motors—and asked what we were fishing for. When we told them we were engaged in a scientific and educational expedition of two months along the Pacific Coast and into the Gulf of California studying the small creatures of the intertidal they looked puzzled, shook their heads and sighed, "That's a long time."

They come out to this remote fishing camp for two week shifts and then go back to their families in Cedros for two weeks. In addition to fishing and diving for snails (they gave us a bucket of them for ceviche), they are here to protect their lucrative abalone fishery from poachers. There are about 120 men in the cooperative, with another 20 or so younger men working as "extras" for now. After four or five years, they too will become full associates.

With all the requisite socializing we were a bit late to the intertidal today. But that was OK. This is really a reconaissance stop to begin to get familiar with the fauna that we will be studying as we move down the Pacific and into the Sea of Cortez. Today we just moseyed through the tide pools and Chuck Baxter showed us some of the species we will be looking for in the days to come, such as Acanthina lugubris, a predatory snail, on the left, and the famously evasive Sally Lightfoot (Grapsus grapsus), curiously still on the right, posing patiently for a picture.

More to come as we move down the coast to Bahia Tortuga or Turtle Bay. We have yet to see any turtles in these waters, but we hope to see some very soon.

Posted by Jon Christensen with photos by Nancy Burnett.
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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Bahia Tortugas—Turtle Bay—has no turtles this time of year, unfortunately. Turtles are in trouble throughout the region. But we hope to see some along the way. In a few days we will be in Magdalena Bay, where Steinbeck and Ricketts reported seeing their first turtles.

Today we came into Bahia Tortugas at around noon, just in time to prepare for surveying the tide pools at low tide at 1:30 p.m. We scouted out a nice rocky point with a nearby sandy beach landing where we could land a small skiff. All hands turned out to participate in the survey, except for the captain, who always stays with his boat.

After landing the skiffs in a mild surf, we laid out a tape measure parallel to the high tide mark along the rocky shore, and then ran tape measures down the slope to the water's edge at regular four meter intervals so that we had five parallel lines running vertically from the high tide mark down to the low tide. We then used a random number table to assign eight spots along each line where we placed a square made of white plastic pipe.

Then we counted all of the individuals of the dozen common creatures that we are interested in surveying, among them limpets, snails, anemones, barnacles and mussels. We didn't find any urchins or sea stars in this location, but we also be looking at them in the days to come.

We are interested in these "good, kind, sane animals," as Ricketts called them, because they represent a variety of species common to the Pacific Coast north of here, others common south of here, and some that are "cosmopolitan" or found all along the coast. The data that we gather from these surveys could help us and other scientists understand how the distribution and ranges of different species are affected by large scale forces such as global climate change. We will also be looking to see how these species, with which we are familiar from the northern Pacific faunal region, are replaced by southern species as we move farther into the Panamic faunal region. Finally, some of these species will also be the ones that we will use to compare our findings to what Steinbeck and Ricketts found when we get into the Gulf of California.

There is intriguing evidence that Ricketts and Steinbeck meant to stop along the Pacific Coast on their trip. The Monterey Herald ran a story the day they left naming some places they meant to survey. But they beat it on down to the Cabo San Lucas and into the Sea of Cortez. Althought it's still a little chilly from time to time, we're glad to be taking our time getting familiar with the critters and the landscape. And so far the weather and sea have been treating us kindly since we left San Diego.

Posted by Jon Christensen with photo by Nancy Burnett.
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Thursday, April 1, 2004

Today we stopped at Bahia Asuncion to sample another rocky point for intertidal animals and plants. As soon as we landed on the beach in our skiff, the "vigilancia" or watchman for the local cooperativa was there to greet us and ask us what we are up to. They keep a serious eye on their shoreline resources. Every place we have stopped along this part of the coast, members of the local cooperative have showed up, with walkie-talkies on their belts, to find out what we are doing. Pretty soon the news is all over the local area.

This time we were met upon landing by Francisco Javier Villegas. He is a fisherman with the Cooperativa California, but he is now on a two-year rotation as a coastal watchman. It is a sacrifice. The income is not as good as fishing and it's more work, he said, because you always have to be vigilant for poachers. But everyone has to put in a stint to protect the cooperative's resources. The cooperative controls a stretch of coast running between here and Bahia Tortugas. Abalone and lobster are their most lucrative fisheries. In our intertidal survey here we found a couple of juvenile abalone on the underside of rocks. Francisco says the abalone start out in the intertidal when they are young and move farther out to sea as they get bigger.

We also found lots of brittle stars like this one.

And Nancy collected a sampling of algae and brought it back to the boat to press it and preserve it.

The lobster fishing that these cooperatives do is one of only two community-based fisheries certified as sustainable in the entire world. It's interesting that they've done it by combining privatizing the resources (giving each cooperative a territory and ownership of the fisheries within it) and cooperation (each cooperative consists of a group of fishermen and is run like a union; and the cooperatives are associated in an federation that covers the entire Vizcaino peninsula in Baja).

Researchers are now working with the cooperative to see whether the abalone fishery is also sustainable. The fisherman say it is. And the careful watch they keep is pretty good evidence of how much they value this resource and the income it produces for their families.

We pulled up anchor around 4 p.m. local time (Mountain Standard Time) and headed for our next destination: Punta Abreojos and Bahia Ballenas. Ballenas are whales. And we hope to see some tomorrow!

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Friday, April 2, 2004

This morning over breakfast we were talking about the "tragedy of the commons," Garret Hardin's famous paper published 35 years ago in Science magazine. Hardin's view was that "common pool" resources—any resources that are shared by many people without any clear ownership—would inevitably be over exploited because individuals have an incentive to take as much as they can as fast as they can rather than waiting and possibly losing some of their share to someone else. The paper has arguably had as much influence on our thinking about population and the environment and economics as Malthus did in his day, centuries ago, when he predicted that population growth would inevitably outstrip food production.

But Hardin may have been as wrong as Malthus about the inevitability of this human and ecological tragedy, at least judging by what is happening here on the Pacific Coast of Baja California along the Vizcaino Peninsula. Individuals like Gabriel Arce, a member of the Punta Abreojos Cooperativa, have an incentive to manage the fisheries that they depend on—especially lobster and abalone—to ensure that they continue to produce a good livelihood for his daughter Cassandra, the good schools that she will go to, and yes, the upkeep on that nice bright Jeep Wagoneer.

The fishing cooperatives in this area offer one example of how community-based conservation efforts, coupled with community ownership and control of resources, can disprove Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" and perhaps show there is another way.

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Saturday, April 3, 2004

This morning the waters of Bahia San Juanico, also known as Scorpion Bay, were perfectly flat and calm. I saw a whale spout off in the distance. Frigate birds alighted on the rigging and began jostling for a perch.

They were magnificent and appreciated in all their glory until one took a dump on The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which Sue was trying to read at breakfast. Chuck said frigate birds are the pirates of seabirds, which is accurate since they steal food from other birds. We began to worry about insulting them, but it was abundantly evident from the droppings on deck that they did not have much concern for what we thought. So we shook the rigging and asked them to take to the skies again, where they looked much better in fact, with their bent back wings and forked tails against the blue above.

Later in the afternoon, the wind began to pick up and we began to see the breakers that make Scorpion Bay world famous among surfers. Soon enough there they were, riding the waves. The breakers presented a barrier for us to reach the intertidal in our little skiffs. But luckily a "panganista," as Frank has dubbed the local fishermen, came by and gave us a ride to shore. They power through the surf in their long, heavy pangas equipped with big outboard motors.

Onshore in a rocky volcanic outcropping running into the surf, we found a whole new community assemblage from what we saw just 50 miles away in Punta Abreojos. There were many predatory snails we hadn't seen much before, like this Thais biserialis, a carnivore that feeds on other molluscs and crustaceans. Chuck was especially excited to see the vermetid gastropods you can see in this picture below.

These snails live in tubes cemented to the rocks and other shells. They look like the homes of worms. And "vermetid" means worm-like. Their shell gives them away, but you have to look inside to see the difference. Worms have a simple shell made up of two layers that is dull inside. The snails have a shell made up of multiple layers and it is shiny inside just like the shells of other snails.

Why was Chuck so excited to see them? Because in Monterey, the proliferation of a vermetid gastropod was one of the signs of a change in the mix of species in the tide pools, a change that may be caused by climate change. All we know for sure here is that these worm-like snails are a sign of change in what we're seeing as we travel farther south. But change is always interesting.

Posted by Jon Christensen with photo by Nancy Burnett.
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Sunday, April 4, 2004

One of the great debates we've been having onboard is how best to conduct this investigation that we are on. Ricketts and Steinbeck were not the most rigorous of scientists. They were on a "leisurely voyage of research and discovery," as their book, The Sea of Cortez, was subtitled. It was a fairly indiscriminate collecting expedition. That it netted more than 550 species, including many new to science, and a wonderful book to boot, is testimony to the fact that Ricketts was a great observer, naturalist and collector, and Steinbeck was a great writer. It wasn't the result of a well thought out design. On the contrary, they let their whims dictate where they landed and what they explored.

How to replicate such a haphazard and makeshift, but nonetheless heroic effort in a way that could result in a meaningful comparison? That is the question we've been grappling with and are still struggling with. And there is no simple answer.

We've been experimenting with different approaches as we have moved down the Pacific Coast of Baja California. The answer we're moving toward is to try to combine the best of two worlds: natural history and hard science. So today in the lee of Punta Hughes on Isla Magdalena we laid out two transects on top of a rocky ledge and we counted every individual of every species that we could identify in half-meter square quadrats every two meters along lines running from the high water mark to the water. But we also did another transect where we turned over every rock in a line running from the surf up across a boulder field toward the cliffs in back of the beach.

What did we learn? In the first two transects on top of the rocks, we saw that different snails—including some white and zebra striped littorines—are replacing snails we saw farther north. We are moving into the territory of the southern species. In the other transect, when we turned over the boulders, we found that was where many species, including some of the species we had seen farther north, like keyhole limpets, had gone to hide from the increasingly hot sun. The top side was for the rugged, well protected species with hard shells. Beneath the shelter of the rocks was a riot of more fragile forms of life, including anemones, brittle stars, sponges, and a sea hare, waving it's ear-shaped tentacles when it was brought out into the air.

Together, the two types of transects gave us a pretty good picture of this place and its inhabitants, as well as some numbers that might be useful in the bigger picture, as we gather more data on the Pacific Coast and in the Sea of Cortez.

Posted by Jon Christensen with photo by Nancy Burnett.
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Monday, April 5, 2004

"This side of the peninsula is beautiful!" says Exequiel Ezcurra. "It's so nice. And terribly underrated."

Most people sail right down the Pacific Coast of Baja California in a hurry to get to Cabo San Lucas and the Sea of Cortez, says Exequiel, the president of Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Ecologia. And then when they try to go back north, beating against the winds and waves and current, they're miserable and the Pacific Coast gets a bad rap.

The Instituto Nacional de Ecologia—or National Ecological Institute—is the research arm of the cabinet-level secretary of the environment in Mexico. From the beginning, Exequiel and his colleagues at the institute have been full collaborators in our expedition. We could not have done this without their support and help and great ideas.

Like many people, Exequiel has long thought of retracing the Steinbeck-Ricketts expedition. When he decided to join us in San Diego for the Pacific leg of the voyage, we were thrilled. So was Exequiel. He has explored the Gulf of California on research voyages many, many times. He has explored the Baja Peninsula from top to bottom on land. But he has never before ventured by sea along the Pacific Coast of the peninsula.

Exequiel is a terrestrial biologist and an expert on cacti. So it's not surprising that from time to time he wanders off from the intertidal to check out the endemic and rare plants found on some of the islands we have visited, such as this cactus on Isla Magdalena.

His most recent research explores the ties between the land and the sea. In Baja California, those links can be surprising. For example, during drought years that are tough on the land, the Sea of Cortez can flourish. And during El Niño years when the land gets lots of rain and blossoms, the ocean seems to suffer, with many fisheries declining. The ocean and the desert are intimately linked, but not in synch.

The land and the sea may not be in synch, but the people are increasingly in synch with their environment, says Exequiel. The community-based conservation efforts flourishing around the peninsula—where communities ask for protection of the environment in order to protect their resources and livelihood—are a leading example for the rest of Mexico, he says.

And for the world.

Posted by Jon Christensen with photo by Nancy Burnett.
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Our voyage down the Pacific Coast has been a gastronomic tour of eating through the ecosystem. We have had wavy-top-shell snail ceviche, limpet pasta, and chitons on the half shell. Gilly caught his first fish, a bonito, a few days ago, and considered it a good omen as that was the first fish caught on the Western Flyer.

Yesterday morning we were rounding Cabo Tosca when all four fishing lines trolling from the back of the boat went tense. A yell went up from the crew on deck and everyone rushed to the lines. We pulled in four yellowtail jacks.

We let one go figuring we couldn't eat all of them. The others became sashimi, sushi rolls, and Chuck Baxter made yellowtail Veracruzana.

The Pacific Coast has been an exciting and rich passage. Last night we traveled all night and came into Cabo San Lucas today. We are on the brink of entering the Sea of Cortez. Tomorrow a report on this "land's end" in transition.

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Continue with us on our journey as we round the cape and visit a coastline "ferocious with life" from Cabo San Lucas to La Paz.

Return to the index to The Log.

* From THE LOG FROM THE SEA OF CORTEZ by John Steinbeck, copyright 1941 by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts. Copyright renewed (c) 1969 by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, Jr. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


Baja California & The Sea of Cortez
Image provided by SeaWiFS Project
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center


The Western Flyer:
the fishing boat that John Steinbeck
and Ed Ricketts took to
the Sea of Cortez.
photo courtesy Bob Enea.


The Gus-D:
the fishing boat we will take
back to the Sea of Cortez.


Sea of Cortez:
A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research


The Log from the Sea of Cortez