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

The Log

Loreto to Santa Rosalia:
A new generation of conservationists

Monday, April 19, 2004

Today about 20 kids from Loreto came out to visit with us in Puerto Escondido. First they toured the boat guided by Meriah Arias and Gaston Bazzino Ferreri, a Uruguayan Ph.D. student from the Centro de Investigaciones Biologicas del Noroeste. Gaston has joined us for the next leg of our trip, taking the place of Arminda Mejia Rebollo. We will miss "Minda" and her constant smile and good eye for well hidden intertidal critters. But we're looking forward to catching and studying jumbo Humboldt squid with Gaston.

The students from Loreto talked with the researchers onboard as they toured the boat. Nancy Burnett showed them shells and and skeletons and pressed algae. Bill Gilly showed them the living animals in our onboard aquarium. Then Chuck Baxter showed them the sorting and preserving and identification station. Finally, they toured our cramped quarters and talked with captain Frank Donohue in the wheelhouse, then went up to the top deck to see his quarters. Their conclusion: they all wanted to be the captain!

Actually, three out of five of one group I talked with and a bunch of others said they want to be marine biologists. They threw themselves enthusiastically into counting barnacles and limpets and vermetid shells on the rocky intertidal near the dock. And they quickly grasped how to estimate a percentage of a quadrat covered by tiny barnacles and mussels, rather than having to count every single one. This rock, for instance, had living acorn barnacles covering 42 percent of the quadrat, and empty, dead barnacles covering 8 percent of the quadrat, for a total of half of the quadrat covered by barnacles, fairly typical of the upper intertidal zone here.

Puerto Escondido means "hidden port." The port is a large bay surrounded by hills and separated from the open sea by a narrow inlet. Like El Mogote, the intertidal mangrove area we studied with students in La Paz, this area has been altered.

Steinbeck and Ricketts described Puerto Escondido as "one of the richest" places they visited, "for it combined many kinds of environment in a very small area; sand bottom, stone shore, boulders, broken rock, coral, still, warm, shallow places and racing tide."* Now the inlet through which the tide races is a concrete channel. There still seem to be abundant intertidal creatures here, but less diversity overall, which is common of altered ecosystems. The students here drew a similar conclusion to the kids in La Paz. There is still a lot of richness even in this place that has been dramatically changed by people. This may be indicative of the whole of the Sea of Cortez, they said. The sea has been dramatically affected by people, but it could come back, the students said, if they, and their parents, and their children, and their grandchildren can find a way to take care of it.

As we prepared to leave this welcoming port, one of the teachers pulled me aside and thanked us for stopping and sharing our work with the children. Usually, he said, scientists come and study the Sea of Cortez but don't stop and take the time to share their work with the people who live here. It is good, he said, to share the research, but also to inspire students with a love of science and the environment.

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

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

This morning we were up at dawn exploring the shore of another island, Isla Coronado, that Steinbeck and Ricketts called "burned." Again, we were left to wonder if they weren't the ones who were "burned" or perhaps "burned out." Like at Cayo, the other island they found inhospitable, we found abundant life. Like them, we surveyed this area mainly by turning boulders and counting what we found under them. Again, even after looking under 19 boulders, we were still finding different chitons and crabs and sponges and tunicates and anemones we had not yet counted under previous boulders. In all, we found nearly 70 different species just under 20 rocks! "I don't know why they were so disappointed in this spot," said Chuck.

With more than 10 hours to run to get to our next site, deep inside Bahia Concepcíon, we weighed anchor promptly after returning to the boat. Frank charted the course.

Meriah and Sue spent much of the day preparing enchiladas for dinner with red and green sauce.

Bill scanned the horizon as we rounded Punta Concepcíon—nearly four weeks after we passed another Point Conception in California on our way south.

We're almost halfway on our journey! And with the town of Mulegé on the horizon, Gaston and Bill immediately tried their cell phones. They were able to call each other, and then eventually reach the outside world—Judy Thompson, our vital lifeline of support back home at Hopkins Marine Station—to send out a shout out that all is well on the Gus D in the Sea of Cortez.

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

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

This morning we searched for the site along the eastern shore of Bahia Concepcion where Steinbeck and Ricketts described wild doves "calling among the hills with their song of homesickness."* I walked into the desert and heard the doves and felt the call of home and missed my wife and daughters dearly. I wanted to keep walking deeper into the desert. I am a landlover. Walking through the desert, I found six ancient Carta Blanca beer bottles, the species favored by Steinbeck and Ricketts, under a shade tree. I thought perhaps it was a sign that this might be the place we were looking for.

This Steinbeck and Ricketts collecting site has given us headaches since we began planning this expedition. We had some sketchy notes to go by, describing a shoreline that looked much like the entire eastern shoreline of Bahia Concepcion: "sandy and dry and covered with cactus and thick brush. And behind that, the rising dry hills."* To further confuse matters, Ricketts put two lattitude coordinates in his diary—separated by five miles. And his drawing of the site had no scale and could have been from a number of sites, because as Bill Gilly pointed out, "the coastline has a fractal quality about it." Larger scalloped forms of bays and headlines are repeated on scales ranging from miles to yards and feet and even smaller levels if you look closely.

The low tide was early in the morning and we were a little late in turning out. So much of our surveying involved looking under rocks under water. Under one rock I saw a striped brittlestar, Opheonerius, trying to escape as I lifted a rock. I reached for it, violating the first rule of collectors, adopted even by Tiny in the original voyage: "never putting the hands where one hasn't looked first."* I came up with the brittlestar but wrapped up with it was a pink, furry Eurythoë, the notorious fire worm. I recognized it immediately and dropped it as fast as I could, but not before it left bristles in my fingers and thumb like fine hairy cactus thorns. I pulled the bristles out but the burn began almost immediately and the tips of my fingers slowly went numb and felt strange and sore throughout the day. The strange feeling persists even as I type this entry. I am reminded that one often has to learn some lessons for oneself, the hard way, before the lessons from books really sink in.

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

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Today was another day spent sharing our work with kids. This has become one of the most rewarding and gratifying parts of our trip for us. These kids have worked really hard to take part in our expedition. They competed in a regional environmental science competition by writing essays. So they feel good to be chosen. We get the sense that they feel important and that feeling feeds back to us and gives us energy to know that what we are doing is important in the eyes of a younger generation here in Baja California.

The 26 students who joined us today were super inquisitive and keep us on our toes, asking probing questions all day long. Felipe Marguez, for example, wondered all day about mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, and symbiosis, and how all of those modes of living together could be seen in the intertidal—sometimes under one rock! After surveying the tidal mud and sand flats in San Lucas Cove, we brought the Gus D into port in Santa Rosalia, and the kids met us in a schoolbus and toured the boat.

In town, the organizers of this day of education put on a party for the kids and us in town. More students and teachers and families crowded into a local community hall. The band Los Gitanos played Latin folk music and got students Anahi Aguilar from Palo Verde and Anai Suarez from Santa Rosalia to join them on stage. The kids had come from towns all around Santa Rosalia and as far south as Mulegé. The day was organized by Dolores Monterrubio, on the right below, who works for the bioregional environmental education program, PROBEA, and by Gaby Saul, on the left, and Julieta Medina, in the middle, both from Yo Soy Mulegé, a new regional organization.

They said that Yo Soy Mulegé, which means "I Am Mulegé," was able to use this meeting with our expedition as the centerpiece of a day of science and culture and celebration to jumpstart their organizing with an exciting, interesting and fun day of events. They hope this will help attract more people to their ongoing work. Their goals include more environmental education, cultural events, and improving the infrastructure, such as garbage collection in the municipio or county of Mulegé, which stretches from the town of Mulegé in Bahia Concepción north to Santa Rosalia and west all the way to Laguna San Ignacio on the Pacific Coast.

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

Continue with us on our journey as we encounter the jumbo squid: a new top predator in the Sea of Cortez.

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