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

WELCOME to — home of the Sea of Cortez Expedition and Education Project—a collaboration between the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University in Monterey, California, and the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia in Mexico. From March 26 to May 26, 2004, we retraced a journey that John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts made to the Gulf of California in 1940.

BIENVENIDOS! Presiona aquí para version en Español: — hogar del Proyecto de Expedición y Educación del Mar de Cortés.

SHIP'S LOG: Click here to read a daily log of our expedition, written by Jon Christensen, a science writer and Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, currently a research fellow at the Center for Environmental Science and Policy and in the History Department at Stanford University.

TO SEND US AN E-MAIL: click here.

FOR A LIST OF OUR SPONSORS AND SUPPORTERS, click here. Thanks for your support! We couldn't have done this without you!

FOR A QUICK OVERVIEW OF OUR EXPEDITION, you can read the online version of a front-page story about our voyage from the Los Angeles Times with a slideshow and video documentary, listen to a two-part feature that aired on NPR's Radio Expeditions, and read stories the San Francisco Chronicle ran at the beginning and end of our trip, as well as this in-depth feature in the Stanford Report, with a short video here featuring Thom Steinbeck on our expedition retracing the journey of his father and his best friend Ed Ricketts.

IN THESE PAGES you will find lots of information about our expedition, crew and plans, such as our scientific research plan, as well as an evolving guide for teachers and students, and links to a wide range of Web sites featuring an astonishing variety of interesting information about science, the environment, people, and conservation efforts in the Sea of Cortez and Baja California. You can read chief scientist Bill Gilly's personal statement "Why I Am Going Back to the Sea of Cortez." And this piece from the Steinbeck Studies journal on the story behind our expedition....

Back to the Sea of Cortez:
Sailing with the Spirits of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts
On a New Journey of Discovery Around Baja California

By Jon Christensen
Steinbeck Fellow

San Jose State University

In the spring of 1940, John Steinbeck and his friend, marine biologist Edward Ricketts, embarked on a voyage they had long dreamed of making together, and not a season too soon. As the storms of war engulfed Europe and the Far East threatening to bring the United States into World War II, they sailed on the Western Flyer, a sardine fishing boat, from Monterey Bay south around Baja California to the Sea of Cortez.

Their goal was to collect samples of the creatures living in the intertidal zone along what was then a little explored coastline. But more than that they just wanted to be themselves, a writer and a scientist in search of a natural philosophy to guide them in a world about to come apart at the seams.

A year earlier, Ricketts had published his scientific masterpiece, Between Pacific Tides, a groundbreaking analysis of the community ecology of the intertidal zones, which is still the standard in the field, and Steinbeck had published The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck had known Ed Ricketts for ten years. Ricketts was the inspiration for "Doc" in Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954) as well as the model for wise characters in many other Steinbeck books. The long conversations they had in Ricketts's lab in Monterey deeply shaped Steinbeck's thinking and the themes in his work.

The trip to the Sea of Cortez was fated to be their only true collaboration. The book that resulted from the six-week adventure sailing 4,000 miles around Baja and back—Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research—was published a year later, the day before Pearl Harbor was bombed. A hybrid of natural history, taxonomic catalogue, and travelogue, it was quickly forgotten by all but diehard aficionados of Steinbeck and the marine biology of the Gulf of California. So few copies were printed that it now commands hundreds of dollars in the antiquarian book trade.

In 1951, Steinbeck published the narrative portion of the book as The Log from the Sea of Cortez. It remains in print today and is a popular and inspiring story of purposeful wanderlust. Like many readers, I put down the book thinking someday it would be neat to retrace their voyage to see how things have changed and what has remained the same. As a free-lance science writer for The New York Times and other publications, I have been following the dramatic changes in our coastal and ocean ecosystems. The web of life in our oceans is being pulled apart as top predators like tuna have crashed from overfishing; trawling for groundfish and scallops has scraped some areas of the ocean bottom clean like a parking lot; and pollution and nutrient-rich runoff have fed algae blooms and jellyfish population explosions, resulting in what one scientist calls "the sliming of the oceans."

I suspected that all of these trends could be seen in the Gulf of California. I have traveled the length of Baja on land. I have seen the results of the post-World War II boom in tourism, which has only accelerated in recent years, and the widespread availability of outboard motors, which had not arrived when Steinbeck and Ricketts brought their cantankerous "Sea Cow" down. I dove for scallops with locals during one Easter trip, the same time of year Steinbeck and Ricketts were there. The beaches were packed with vacationers when I was there, in stark contrast with the lonely shoreline and occasional primitive villages they encountered.

But I also knew there are vast stretches of the coastline that were still inaccessible except by boat. And I wanted to see them, before they too were inexorably changed.

Imagine my surprise then when I was visiting the Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey this spring and met Bill Gilly, a soft-spoken biologist who studies squid, octopus, and cuttlefish. Gilly was showing a group of us from the Knight Professional Journalism Fellowship at Stanford around the tide pools just outside his lab. He was affectionately describing the different critters in a way that really seemed to convey their character in the community, in much the same way Ricketts did, and I asked Gilly about the intelligence of these animals. He invited me back to his lab where he showed me his pet octopus, the cuttlefish that he is teaching to change colors to form Xs on their bodies in return for their favorite food, fresh crab, and a video of the giant Humboldt squid that he is studying in the Gulf of California. The video shows the squid flashing colors at each other in a synchronized fashion, as if they are communicating.

We talked a bit about what Steinbeck had learned from Ricketts, and how the people of Cannery Row are like the denizens of a tide pool, each with their own niche and character shaped by that environment. Then Gilly dropped a bombshell. He told me he was talking with Frank Donahue, captain of the fishing boat the Gus D, about retracing the voyage of the Western Flyer. Veteran marine biologist Chuck Baxter and photographer and video documentary maker Nancy Burnett, two of the founders of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and both longtime Baja hands, were also onboard. Baxter and Burnett have worked together for many years at Sea Studios, producing award-winning video documentaries in a former cannery between the aquarium and the old Ricketts lab on Cannery Row. Gilly invited me to come along. He told me he wants to keep the expedition as close to the spirit of the original as possible. It will be a low-cost, bare bones, leisurely voyage of research and discovery.

So in the spring of 2004, we will retrace the path of Steinbeck and Ricketts. We will explore the historic connections between research in Monterey Bay, exemplified by Ricketts, and embodied in the Hopkins Marine Station. And we will connect to exciting contemporary research of scientists from both sides of the border. We will explore what has changed. But we will be open to new discoveries as well.

On the surface, the Sea of Cortez remains the same, timeless. But underneath, it has changed, like all the oceans of the world. We will explore those changes through surveying species and scientific comparisons. We will talk about what they mean and what can be done here to bring us back from the brink. And we will meet with Mexican scientists, activists, and local residents who value the Sea of Cortez and represent the best hope for its future. Each week on the voyage, we will invite a Mexican scientist to travel with us, conduct research and share findings.

We will also explore changes in science and philosophy. On their trip, Doc Ricketts argued strongly for "non-teleological" thinking, a kind of "be here now" attitude before its time, seeing the world as non-purposeful, non-directed, full of actors acting and reacting in the moment. While it is still easy to slip into that frame of mind off the coast of Baja, Gilly's work on the intelligence of invertebrates is a window deeper into the soul of the living things that share our world. And we will talk about how changes in science are changing how we see the natural world on our voyage.

We know that many things have changed since Steinbeck and Ricketts set off to escape the hubbub of the world and find a space they could explore together. But others are eerily similar. They embarked on their voyage in a world on the brink of war into a time and place of tranquility about to be shattered. We travel from a world at war into a time and place of uneasy tranquility that has almost been destroyed. We go to find out what it is worth before it is too late.


photo by L.A. Cicero
Stanford News Service


•The Log from Our Expedition

E-mail the Crew

•Scientific Research Plan,
Crew and Collaborators

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

•Teacher's Guide

• Annotated Links to Baja &
the Sea of Cortez Online

• Ocean Oasis: A Film and Web site
about the Sea of Cortez
• Hopkins Marine Station
of Stanford University

• The Martha Heasley Cox Center
for Steinbeck Studies

• Steinbeck Fellows Program
at San Jose State University

• The National Steinbeck Center

Cruise Chart

Click on this link for our itinerary

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


The Western Flyer
photo courtesy Bob Enea


The Gus-D


Sea of Cortez:
A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research


The Log from the Sea of Cortez


William F. Gilly
Chief Scientist

Photo by L.A. Cicero
Stanford News Service

Exequiel Ezcurra
President, Instituto Nacional de Ecologia

Photo by Nancy Burnett