64 Years Later, A Trip in Steinbeck's Wake
Courtesy Special Collections Stanford University Libraries
BON VOYAGE: Steinbeck, second from right, and crew.
A lot of people imitate John Steinbeck. But they aren’t usually marine biologists.
Then again, most people aren’t trying to retrace a boat voyage the celebrated novelist took in 1940.
Steinbeck, who attended Stanford on and off from 1919 to 1925, his wife, Carol, and his friend, marine biologist Ed “Doc” Ricketts, set off from Monterey, Calif., for the Gulf of California on a 76-foot sardine boat. Part fieldwork expedition, part adventure, their trip is chronicled in Steinbeck and Ricketts’s 1941 book Sea of Cortez.
On March 11th, the 64th anniversary of the original excursion, a team of scientists and researchers led by Stanford biological sciences professor William Gilly will embark on a parallel voyage. They’ll travel aboard the Gus D, a 73-foot wooden fishing boat, and plan to stop at many of the same villages, beaches and remote intertidal habitats that Steinbeck’s Western Flyer visited.
“The purpose of the new trip is to see how things have changed,” says Gilly, who is based at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif. “I spend a lot of time down there, and I’ve seen only one or two places that I suspect haven’t changed at all.”
It will be difficult to make precise then-and-now comparisons. Although Ricketts and Steinbeck collected several hundred marine species on their journey, including about 50 previously unidentified invertebrates, they did not attempt to conduct an accurate census of marine life or measure environmental factors such as water temperature, wind speed or salinity, as their contemporary counterparts will. But their observations will still prove valuable, says lecturer emeritus and voyager Chuck Baxter. “If there are species that they mentioned as being very abundant and now you don’t see them, you have a pretty good idea that the reason is because the fauna has changed.”
Three others will join Gilly and Baxter for the entire expedition: boat captain Frank Donahue, marine biologist and photographer Nancy Packard Burnett, ’65, and Jon Christensen, a journalist and Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State who plans to chronicle the trip. Seems only appropriate to have a writer on board.
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