"We made a trip into the Gulf; sometimes we dignified it by calling it an expedition. Once it was called the Sea of Cortez, and that is a better-sounding and more exciting name. We stopped in many little harbours and near barren coasts to collect and preserve the marine invertebrates of the littoral. One of the reasons we gave ourselves for this trip - and when we used this reason, we called the trip an expedition - was to observe the distribution of invertebrates, to see and record their kinds and numbers, how they lived together, what they ate, and how they reproduced. That plan was simple, straight-forward, and only part of the truth." -The Log From the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck.
John Steinbeck's "Log from the Sea of Cortez" has been one of my favourite books for many, many years. A true story, it's the often whimsical, sometimes moving and always insightful account of a voyage of scientific discovery made during the spring of 1940 by Steinbeck, the eccentric Ed Ricketts (better known to many as 'Doc' from "Cannery Row") and their small crew aboard the good ship Western Flyer. At a time when war was ravaging Europe, and was about to explode with all its apocalyptic ferocity upon the rest of the world, Steinbeck and company set off aboard a sardine netting boat to collect shells, starfish and other inter-tidal organisms from the Gulf of California, between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico.
When they steamed out of Monterey on the 11th March that year, the holds of the Western Flyer were jam-packed with glass specimen jars, preserving fluids and the assorted tools of marine collecting. Their preparations for the six week voyage of discovery had been laborious and detailed in the extreme, yet one can't help feeling that the apparent nobility of their scientific cause was, in truth, little more than a moderately plausible excuse for Ricketts and Steinbeck to pursue yet another great adventure together. And beyond doubt, their cruise was that.
Looking back now, from the high ground of modern history, the timing of their trip was propitious. Much of the poignancy and pathos of "The Log" stems from our understanding that these men were experiencing a part of the world as few would ever see it again. They sailed on the very cusp of a new epoch, and behind them the world began to tilt dramatically on its axis. Things would change rapidly in the years that followed, and nothing in Baja or elsewhere would ever be quite the same again as it was in that spring of 1940.
Fifty nine years later, when I arrived on Mexico's Baja Peninsula for the first time aboard a jet airliner, only the most enduring of the region's physical features would still have been readily recognisable to Steinbeck and Ricketts. One such feature is the Cape itself.
"The tip of the Cape at San Lucas, with the huge gray Friars standing up on the end, has behind the rocks a little beach which is a small boy's dream of pirates. It seems the perfect place to hide and from which to dart out in a pinnace on the shipping of the world; a place to which to bring the gold bars and jewels and beautiful ladies, all of which are invariably carried by the shipping of the world. And this little beach must have so appealed to earlier men, for the names of the pirates are still in the rock, and the pirate ships did dart out of here and did come back."
|The famous Arch frames a beautiful two-master.
Today, it's not pirate ships that dart out from the harbour at Cabo San Lucas, but gleaming cruisers, bristling game boats and luxury yachts. The gold bars, jewels and beautiful ladies are still there, however, and so are those towering monoliths Steinbeck knew as The Friars - named after Clavigero and his fellow Jesuit monks, who came to the Peninsula in the early 1700s.
Like the full-stop below a giant exclamation mark, these rocks represent a significant terminus - an indisputable Land's End. Here, two seas collide - sometimes violently - and the deep, relatively cool waters of the Eastern Pacific mix abruptly with the warm, nutrient laden Gulf of California to create a rich broth of marine existence.
Even today, after years of intensive fishing by a dozen nations and the inevitable ravages of 'progress', the ocean off Cabo San Lucas literally boils with life. On our first morning offshore, I was stunned. More whales than I ever knew existed blew and rolled and broached and smacked their wide black tails on the sea, while acres of little bait fish shimmered on the surface and a dark confetti cloud of bent-winged frigate birds spiralled high above them in the rising thermals.
With the clean smell of salt in our nostrils and the crisp crump of a long surf break on the seemingly limitless beach, we could have been running down the top of Fraser Island or south from Broome, but we were actually heading north from Cabo San Lucas towards La Tinaja and Todos Los Santos, and as if to reinforce this fact, there were tall cacti on the ridge tops and Mexican vultures flapping across the dry ravines behind the beach. I was in a foreign land, chasing strange fish I'd only ever seen before in books, and it occurred to me then that the palpable excitement I now tasted must have been very much akin to the feelings experienced by Steinbeck and Ricketts a lifetime before.