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

The Log

Cabo San Lucas to La Paz:
A coastline "ferocious with life"

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Cabo San Lucas is still ferocious with life, but not the kind that Steinbeck and Ricketts wrote about. There were party boats filled with dancers, jet skis zooming back and forth, and traffic jams of glass-bottom taxis. The partying went on into the night.

The intertidal, however, has fundamentally changed since Steinbeck and Ricketts visited the same rocky point we surveyed south of the old cannery in Cabo. While they found many species, including three varieties of sea stars, we found far fewer species and no sea stars. The most common species was a worm that forms sand tubes.

The reason for the change? What was once mostly a rocky shore is now mostly covered with sand, forming bigger beaches and smothering the rocky intertidal habitat. We do not when this change took place, but there is evidence that a survey in 1985 already detected the change. It might have occured when the harbor was dredged to make room for yachts and cruise ships.

If anyone has any information—such as historic photos of the area around the cannery—that might give a clue about when this change took place, please let us know.

Cabo San Lucas is a lively town, but for those with eyes only for the life among the rocks along the shore, it was rather dispiriting, especially with the words of Steinbeck and Ricketts echoing in our ears: "The exposed rocks had looked rich with life under the lowering tide, but they were more than that: they were ferocious with life."*

We were happy to weigh anchor and head farther north into the Sea of Cortez. As night fell, a fish hit one of the trolling lines, and I got the chance to reel in my first fish: the famous fighting Mexican sierra that Steinbeck and Ricketts wrote about in the introduction to The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Not being "dry-ball" scientists, we will not put it in formalin. Instead, tomorrow we will turn it ceviche.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Thursday, April 8, 2004

When Steinbeck and Ricketts visited Pulmo Reef a little canoe came out to meet them. In it were two men and a woman who held blankets over their noses and mouths to protect themselves from the visiting gringos, because so much disease had been brought to their ancestors by outsiders.

When we came into the area last night, the local people set up an alarm, said Alejandra Ochoa Lopes, the administrator of what is now a national park. A shrimp boat was coming into the park, they told her. She said not to worry it was the researchers they had heard were coming.

This morning Alejandra came out to visit the boat witih Dawn Pier, the technical director of Amigos Para la Conservacion de Cabo Pulmo (Friends for the Conservation of Cabo Pulmo). They told of us of the exciting research and conservation work that is going on in this area to monitor and protect the reefs and the fish that live here and the turtles that come to nest on the beaches.

As we were talking, a shout went up from the side of the boat. Look who has arrived! It was Rafe Sagarin. He missed the boat in Cabo San Lucas, but got a ride with friends down here this morning, then borrowed a kayak to get out to the boat!

In the afternoon we visited the nearby town of Cabo Pulmo and met with a group of kids that Dawn had brought together to talk with us about the research we are doing and all of the creatures that live along the reef, from the tiniest reef building corals, to the sea stars, to the tuna that one of the fishermen had brought in to the beach, with juvenile jumbo squid in its belly.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Friday, April 9, 2004

On Good Friday, what more appropriate place could we be than on Isla Espiritu Santo—Island of the Holy Spirit. Here is truly a land a violent rocks rising from a sea of changing blue and green. And here we found tide pools "ferocious with life," as John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts wrote about the Sea of Cortez.

At Punta Lobos, Rafe Sagarin and Arminda Mejia Rebollo, a master's student at CIBNOR, one of the Mexican universities that is collaborating on our expedition, turned over 24 rocks and counted every single species they found along a 12-meter transect. Under every rock until the very last one they found another different species to add to our list of anemones, snails, sponges, brittle stars, chitons, and on and on, like the planaria below. The list just kept growing longer and longer.

The planaria is a flatworm that flows elegantly over rocks. It looks something like a beautiful leaf with frilly edges. It is the first life form to have developed a body plan like our own, with a head and a tail and a body with bilateral symmetry. It is a distant relative. And one we were very happy to encounter on the rocky shore of Isla Espiritu Santo on a Good Friday.

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

Saturday, April 10, 2004

This morning we attempted to take the Gus D to collect outside of La Paz at Punta Roca Caimancito. We should have walked like Steinbeck and Ricketts did. The wind was up and there was a big chop in the La Paz Bay. We couldn't get a skiff into the water. So we retreated to our anchorage close to town and spent the day shopping, updating the log, running errands, checking in with the port captain, and all the other duties of port.

Onboard the ship, the scientists got caught up with their work too.

In addition to identifying and pickling samples, Rafe has been taking detailed notes on all of the species we've seen and collected at each site since he joined us, along with line drawings in his notebook to help with future identifications.

Although we are in port, which has given us a chance to get off the boat and mix up our routine, onboard life has settled into a routine of surveying on the morning low tide, preserving specimens and organizing notes and other work during the rest of the day, then dinner, conversations, and the deep sleep of the weary. Tonight we dined on chicken and dumplings, a recipe handed down to us from the original crew of the Western Flyer.

Tomorrow we will get back to Punta Roca Caimancito, this time by land. Some of the crew may try to find the church that Steinbeck and Ricketts visited on Easter Sunday. For others among us, some kind of understanding and perhaps even faith in life can be found in the tide pools, reflecting our own searching faces as well as the stars above.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

A cactus wren chattered from the top of a cardon cactus that spread its arms on the hill above Punta Roca Caimancito where we walked in the footsteps of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts today in La Paz.

Bill Gilly read from The Log from the Sea of Cortez for John McChesney and Carlos Gomez of National Public Radio's "Radio Expeditions."

Families played on the nearby beach on this Easter Sunday and we thought about our families and friends and loved ones so far away but in our hearts here in La Paz, a port with a beautiful name. Would that our whole world could find that safe harbor.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Today was the day that kids from La Paz joined us in surveying El Mogote—the mangrove spit directly across from the town. First they came down to the boat and we talked about our research and writing and they talked about their research and writing. They had all written essays about the Sea of Cortez and they shared some of them with us. We hope to post some of their writings here soon.

They toured the boat and talked with all the scientists—Nancy with a selection of shells and algae, Bill with the tiny baby octopi he found yesterday, Chuck and Rafe with specimens from the tidepools—as as well as with the cook, Sue, about the galley and her herb garden, and of course, last but certainly not least, Captain Frank, who made a grand impression in the wheel house.

Tthen they boarded a panga piloted by Tim Means of Baja Expeditions, who has been a big help with everything we have done and needed done here in La Paz. Tim is at the way back of the picture below, but you'll be seeing more of him in the days to come as he will be joining us as our guide to the remote coast north of here between La Paz and Loreto, which he is working hard to help preserve.

In the front of the picture in the blue hat is Dolores Monterrubio, the organizer of this encounter with the kids of La Paz. She works with PROBEA, the binational environmental education project of the San Diego Natural History Museum. Just behind and to the right of her is Meriah Arias, a marine biologist who is on loan to us from the International Community Foundation, to help coordinate our educational work with students and teachers in some of the communities we will be visiting. So you'll see more of her too.

At El Mogote, the kids dug up sea cucumbers,worms and an secretive anemone that makes a tube for itself in the sand instead of sticking to a rock. There were also crabs scurrying among the mangrove roots, which were covered with barnacles, a species that can make its home in many environments, from the bottom of a boat to the barnacle-covered beer bottle the students found. As the kids walked along the sandy, muddy beach uncovered by the retreating tide they helped collect not just specimens for our research, but also human detritus left behind or carried here by wind and waves. Raul Hernandez and Carlos Green, below, found a rusty old fuse box to add to the collection.

At the end of the day, another student, Diego Vega Romero, had an interesting observation. Despite the fact that this mangrove spit is very close to town and heavily used and it collects a lot of contamination and garbage, it is still teeming with life, he said. Animals had even found refuge in some of the human trash, such as tires and bottles, he said. Still, think how much more room there would be for biodiversity, he added, if we cleaned up and took better care of this place.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Continue with us on our journey as we explore a remote roadless coast full of spirits.

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