Why I Am Going Back to the Sea of Cortez
by Bill Gilly

Dear Ken,

A friend sent me this picture last night. He caught it fly-fishing north of La Paz last November. It reminded me of why I want to do this trip. Maybe I can explain it better here than on the phone when I have 15 things racing around in the imbroglio that I once thought of as my mind.

Steinbeck used this fish, the Sierra mackerel, as the example of what they hoped to see on their expedition — see page 2 of the Log. His reasoning goes something like this. Here you see a fish, certainly a handsome fish with lovely golden spots and a strong, streamlined shape. And if you go to a museum, you can see the same fish, but it will be colorless and bland, because it has been preserved in formalin. But you can always be sure that it IS the same fish, the Sierra, by counting the dorsal fin spines. That never changes, and this truth is what makes many of us, especially scientists, happy. Today of course, we can identify the Sierra from a few molecules of DNA. We no longer even have to see the fish, let alone count its spines to know the truth. This makes us dizzy as we feel the surge of fundamental reality pound our brain.

We seek truth, and are pleased when we think we see it. But truth has many faces. Who can know the truth about the Sierra unless you have seen that beach where it streaks through the water at sunrise, or sensed the jolt of it slashing your fly, or felt the razor sharp teeth slice into your finger while trying to release it? When your own blood or something of you mixes back with the sea, maybe only then is the circle of truth even close to being completed.

So that is why I am going — to find where living truth hides and try to meet it on its terms. Everything down there is mysterious and has many truths to reveal. I don't know exactly where to look, so I want to look everywhere, especially around that next rocky point. My instincts tell me that I should look where there are no people, no roads, no boats. After all, true places are never on any map. But they are out there, and there is much to learn in the journey to find them.

And what about the science? I see that as a job. It certainly is one that I love, and I look forward to the long hours examining the intertidal. But it essentially will be much like the research I carry out at home, doing electrophysiology experiments in the laboratory — only the place and methods will differ. There will be hypotheses to advance and protocols designed to test them. There will be carefully planned observations and serendipitous discoveries. There will be facts to report, knowledge to be added, publications to prepare.

But the biggest product will be all the new questions that will guide the next scientists who undertake their own journeys. That is the only real truth in science, and it doesn't matter how we get there.

Anyway, I gotta go set up the electronics teaching lab for later today.

Best to you,



Bill Gilly
Chief Scientist

Photo by L.A. Cicero

Stanford News Service