Steinbeck and the Sea of Cortez

One of America’s most celebrated authors, John Steinbeck, was certainly famous for his writings about California. And as many Californians, Steinbeck was drawn south by the allure and mystique of the Baja peninsula.

In 1940 Steinbeck’s good friend and marine biologist, Ed Ricketts (better known as the character “doc” in Steinbeck’s books like Cannery Row), invited Steinbeck on a research trip sailing around the Baja California peninsula. Eager to escape his newfound fame after the recent release of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck happily accepted the invitation and the two took off with a crew aboard the sardine boat Western Flyer for a six-week scientific expedition. They gathered specimens, made observations, and together published a book about the findings of the expedition in the 1941 The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research.

Steinbeck was deeply struck by the beauty and bounty of the Sea of Cortez and the places and things they encountered on that trip. The people and pearl industry that he found in La Paz were the influence for The Pearl which was published in 1947. In the short novel, La Paz is the setting for the story that examines human purpose, defiance of societal norms, and greed and evil through the lens of the pearl industry. The book was made into a movie that came out in both English and Spanish.

In 1948, Ricketts died suddenly, and a few years after that, Steinbeck followed up their original book about their Baja expedition with a solo book called The Log from the Sea of Cortez, published in 1951.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez is considered one of Steinbeck’s most important works of nonfiction because it offers detailed insight on both the geographical region and on humanity. It’s considered one of the forerunners for the modern environmental movement.

“The Pearl” statue on the La Paz malecón. Photo courtesy

“’Let us go,’ we said, ‘into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too.’ And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away the Japanese shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.”

Not just a log of their trip, or a book of science, The Log from the Sea of Cortez is an observation about the world. It examines the micro and macro with examination of the smallest of the sea’s creatures and the largest thoughts about humanity. In the book Steinbeck makes commentaries about the world through the details of the sea.

Steinbeck never again returned to Baja after his six-week journey with Ricketts. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1962 and died in 1968 at the age of 66.

He summed up his love for Baja and the Sea of Cortez in the The Log from the Sea of Cortez in a way that most of us feel but are unable to articulate when he said, “Trying to remember the Gulf is like trying to re-create a dream… There is always in the back of our minds the positive drive to go back again. If it were lush and rich, one could understand the pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen. The stone mountains pile up to the sky and there is little fresh water. But we must go back if we live, and we don’t know why.”

For more reading:

Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research By John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez by Andromeda Romano-Lax

With Steinbeck in the Sea of Cortez: A Memoir of the Steinbeck/Ricketts Expedition by crewman Sparky Anea

The Western Flyer by Kevin M. Bailey

2 thoughts on “Steinbeck and the Sea of Cortez

  1. Bob Bridge says:

    The original Western Flyer found its way to the bottom near Anacortes Washington, until it was raised and towed to Port Townsend, WA, a major boatbuilding center near Seattle. It took years to find financial backers, but the job was done, and in July, the finished restoration and modernization of the Western Flyer was complete. The restoration has been launched and a new expedition to the Sea of Cortez is being discussed. I assume the vessel will find it’s original home in Monterey, CA.

  2. Raymond ANKA says:

    I see parallels between Steinbeck and Hemingway…..both superlative and insightful writers filled with imagination and a lust for travel and adventure, and humanity.
    “The Old Man and the Sea” and “The Sea of Cortez” both come to mind. Their great works live on. We’ll never see great writers like these two again. Ex libris.

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