FEATURE — Fall 2004

Alumnus William Gilly, Stanford University professor of biology, rides a skiff to a selected shallow spot in the Gulf.

Retracing the Voyage of Steinbeck and Ricketts

Marine biologist William Gilly, Ph.D. '78, and a small crew sailed the Gulf of California for two months researching organisms, much as John Steinbeck and Edward Ricketts did more than 60 years ago.

by Gary Libman

On a typical day in the Gulf of California this spring, Professor William F. Gilly arose before dawn on a wooden, 73-foot former commercial fishing boat and looked for shelf-like arrangements of rocks emerging from the shallow waters along the shore.

Once he found a site, Gilly, Ph.D. '78, and a small party carefully examined and counted invertebrate organisms in specific spots for four or five hours before returning to the boat. There they bagged and labeled samples and then enjoyed an afternoon beer to recover from the backbreaking work.

Gilly, a Stanford University professor of biology, was observing, counting, and collecting specimens to see how the Gulf of California had changed since a celebrated six-week ecological expedition there conducted by author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts in 1940.

Steinbeck, who had just finished writing The Grapes of Wrath and wanted a break, took off with his best friend, Ricketts, from Monterey Bay on March 11, 1940, before returning on April 20.

The pair listed more than 550 species of marine life and used the alternative name of the Gulf of California in publishing Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, their 1941 account of the expedition.

Gilly (left), and Chuck Baxter examine and count marine invertebrates to determine how the Gulf of California has changed since Steinbeck and Rickett's celebrated ecological expedition in 1940. Gilly and his crew spent two months researching various locations.

For more than 60 years, people have dreamed of retracing the voyage. But no one had done so until a five-person crew assembled by Gilly left Monterey on March 26, 2004, and returned in late May after an approximately 4,000-mile voyage.

Gilly says that it's difficult to compare the Gulf today with the waters that Steinbeck and Ricketts explored because many variables—including hurricanes, climate, pollution, and other types of human impact—have caused changes of varying permanence.

Despite the changes, Gilly reached at least one optimistic conclusion: Although he found depleted waters around tourist centers at Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Escondido, the Stanford biologist concluded that marine life in the shallows of the Gulf remains vibrant.

"I think the general feeling is that the population is immense and that the place is still really rich and worth monitoring and worrying about …," Gilly says by phone from his lab near Stanford in Pacific Grove, California.

"[The Gulf is] rich in diversity and in the number of animals, but primarily diversity is the good sign of health. It's a complicated ecosystem, and a lot of things are living there in balance."

Although Gilly and his crew focused on retracing the Steinbeck-Ricketts voyage along the shore, they added two weeks of stops and may have made a major discovery in deep water regarding a species not mentioned by Ricketts and Steinbeck.

Scholarly literature suggests that the jumbo Humboldt squid breeds around the equator, but Gilly believes he found proof that it also breeds in the Gulf of California. Working in heavy fog near the island of San Pedro Martir in the middle of the Gulf, Gilly's group netted jumbo Humboldt squid that were only two millimeters long and transparent.

"We were trying to find the very smallest jumbo Humboldt squid we could," Gilly says. "If we could find the smallest of them, it would mean they were breeding in that area. And we found some. We're fairly sure these are juveniles of the big squid."

Gilly's hypothesis was to be confirmed or denied in July as his lab started tests comparing the DNA of the babies with the DNA of two adult species in the area.

Also during the voyage, Gilly became convinced that the Gulf's current squid population isn't threatened by commercial fishing.

"I don't believe it will be fished out," he says. "Basically, current Mexican law says that no mechanized fishing for squid is allowed, so only relatively small boats, hand lines, and big lures are used. If they were to go in with mechanized fishing gear, then it might be a different story."

Like-minded adventurers

Gilly had thought about duplicating the Steinbeck-Ricketts trip for years, but the voyage did not begin to materialize until two years ago when he left his lab to do squid field research in Baja California.

On his way, he stopped in Santa Barbara, California, where thousands of squid had beached themselves and died.

"A friend who works in the California Fish and Game Department there said, 'You've got to meet Frank Donahue.' So I met him. He was this guy with a boat who was tired of commercial fishing and wanted an adventure.

"I was kind of angling to go to the South Pacific, but I thought we could [definitely] go to the Sea of Cortez," Gilly says. "I had a copy of the book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which was the narrative portion of Steinbeck and Ricketts' 1941 book, and I left it with Frank. By the time I came back through, he had read it—and he was all excited. It wasn't as if there was a selection process [to the trip]. It just happened."

Professor Gilly and his crew sailed on pilot Frank Donahue's 73-foot commercial shrimp trawler, the Gus D, which resembled the 76-foot sardine boat Steinbeck and Ricketts had used.

Donahue agreed to pilot his commercial shrimp trawler, which resembled the 76-foot sardine boat Steinbeck and Ricketts had used. To accompany Gilly and Donahue on the voyage, Gilly recruited another marine scientist, a writer, and a photographer. Donahue worked for his expenses running the boat, and donations covered trip costs of approximately $100,000.

By the time the crew departed on Donahue's boat, the Gus D, Gilly had been conducting research on squid for 20 years, focusing on electrical communication in the squid's nervous system.

Gilly says he was well prepared for his research career after earning his doctorate in physiology and biophysics at the Washington University School of Medicine.

"I thought the medical school—and the [Hilltop] Campus as well—was a wonderful academic environment, one as good as I've been to," he says, "including additional training I've had at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, and my undergraduate training at Princeton."

During years of research, Gilly developed a deep appreciation for the jumbo squid, which he says "is probably equal in stature and strength to a sixth-grade kid. Squid can weigh close to 100 pounds and have a body that's almost three and a half feet long, with body muscle three inches thick."

While its strength is unusual, the jumbo Humboldt also changes colors from deep red to white, its body flashing three or four times a second during the transition.

"The flashing is almost certainly a communication system because other squid use it between themselves," Gilly says, "but what it means we don't really know."

Gilly says that many people consider the jumbo Humboldt dangerous, but he doesn't, having had approximately 1,000 of them in his arms in a boat, while tagging them for scientific studies, with none being aggressive.

"They seem to be more curious, exploring what some unfamiliar object might be, than aggressive," he says, "although they certainly attack other fish in the water and maybe even each other."

At one point while tagging the squid, Gilly says, "I jumped right into the water with my snorkeling mask, just in shorts and T-shirt. After a few minutes, I saw four or five blinking, flying-saucer-like things coming up. They got about 12 feet below me, and then one of them started coming at me with arms pointed toward me, which is exactly the posture they take when they go to eat something.

"I didn't know what to think. I opened my arms, and the squid reached out—gently touching and pulling my hand—then drifted back to the group. Then another one or two did the same thing. They were probably tasting me. They taste with their arms, so maybe I didn't taste good.

"I think they have an intelligence that we have a hard time comprehending, and they seemed to be interested in what I was and what I felt like or tasted like. That was a remarkable experience. It felt like meeting some extraterrestrial and saying hello."

Gary Libman is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.