The Log from the Sea of Cortez

views updated

The Log from the Sea of Cortez

March 31

Book excerpt

By: John Steinbeck and E.F. Ricketts

Date: 1951

Source: John Steinbeck and E.F. Ricketts. The Log from the Sea of Cortez. New York: Penguin, 1951.

About the Author: American author John Steinbeck (1902–1968) was born in Salinas, California, and attended Stanford University for several years without taking a degree. Best known for his fictional portrayals of the down-and-out and others on the margins of society, he wrote Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, and East of Eden. His nonfiction works include two travel narratives: the record of an early 1960s cross-country trip with his standard poodle, titled Travels with Charley, and an account of a biological collecting expedition to the Gulf of California, Sea of Cortez. Scorned by some Californians for his stark portrayals of the underside of their society, Steinbeck spent his later years living in New York. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath and the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. E.F. Ricketts, a close friend of Steinbeck, was a marine biologist who earned a living by writing and selling biological specimens to schools. His book Between Pacific Tides was published in 1939 and remains a highly regarded reference about the intertidal biology of California's seacoast. Ricketts and his business, Pacific Biological Laboratories, figured prominently as Doc and Western Biological in Steinbeck's fictional Cannery Row. Although the text of The Log from the Sea of Cortez has been attributed solely to Steinbeck, scholarly research after its publication showed that Steinbeck wrote not from his own journal, but rather from those of Ricketts and the ship's master. Some of the more philosophical sections of the narrative, moreover, appear to have been originally written by Ricketts and incorporated into the text by Steinbeck.


The Log from the Sea of Cortez is the daily journal of a six-week biological collecting trip to the Sea of Cortez organized by Steinbeck and American marine biologist Edward Ricketts (1897–1948). Known officially as the Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortez is an arm of the Pacific Ocean that lies between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico. Steinbeck and Ricketts chartered a fishing boat, the Western Flyer, and hired a small crew for their expedition to an area that to this day remains remote.

The text of The Log from the Sea of Cortez was originally the first part of a much longer book, Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. The latter was a collaboration between Steinbeck and Ricketts, and included a catalogue of biological specimens collected during the trip. Sea of Cortez was published during the first week of December 1941, just days before Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States was drawn into World War II, and has faded into obscurity. The narrative that constitutes The Log from the Sea of Cortez, however, has endured to become a classic environmental travelogue that reveals as much about human nature as it does marine biology.

The log for March 31, 1940, is typical of the daily entries in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. It mixes a combination of marine biology, philosophical reflections about a world on the brink of global war (the European portion of World War II was already underway), and insightful descriptions of shipboard life that ring true with any scientist or explorer who has been on an expedition.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


The Log from the Sea of Cortez has stood the test of time as an environmental travelogue and commentary about the madness of an advanced society consumed with superficialities and stumbling toward a global war. In the entry for March 31, Steinbeck describes in typical fashion a morning of specimen collection made difficult by an unfavorable tide, critiques the scientific practice of using Latin to classify organisms in an age when nobody speaks the language, speculates how western civilization would be viewed by the subsistence fishermen of Baja, and warns about the danger of a single lemon pie on a ship of hungry men. (Although one woman, Steinbeck's wife, was also on board, she is never mentioned and they divorced shortly after the trip.) He emphasizes that their work, like that of most scientists, is more concerned with the normal than the exotic. Like geologists who are far more interested in common minerals like quartz than gems such as diamonds, working biologists concern themselves with the organisms that constitute the bulk of an ecosystem.

As a travelogue, The Log from the Sea of Cortez is a classic description of an area that is now as much a tourist destination as a frontier. It is also an accurate description of the often mundane day-to-day work of scientists in the field, complete with references to their continual frustration with a balky outboard motor that Steinbeck christened the Sea Cow. The biological catalogue included in the original Sea of Cortez but omitted in the more popular Log of the Sea of Cortez was a major contribution to the marine biology literature. The philosophical aspects, for which Steinbeck was often criticized, paint an introspective picture of a world and have retained their relevance for more than half a century.



Ricketts, Edward F. Between Pacific Tides. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1939.

Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row. New York: Viking, 1945.

Tamm, Eric Enno. Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2004.

Web sites

Anonymous. "Back to the Sea of Cortez." 〈〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).

"John Steinbeck's Pacific Grove." 〈〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).

About this article

The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Updated About content Print Article