Of Monterey and men: How a Great American author ushered in age of ecology

© Adam White

Editor’s note: For three nights beginning August 31st, Conservation International’s Dr. M. Sanjayan will be co-hosting “Big Blue Live,” a live television event documenting the natural splendor of California’s Monterey Bay. Tune in at 8 p.m. EST/PST on PBS to see what he discovers — and in the meantime, learn why this unique place is an important piece in humanity’s understanding of the natural world.

Gaze into a tide pool and you’ll see all of life’s complexity, shrunken down to size. From the soft anemones waving sticky tentacles, to spiny sea urchins, to hard-shelled mussels, with crabs and gobies wedged in between, every square inch is occupied by something — pushing, scrambling and fighting for access to sunlight, or nutrients, or a mate.

In Monterey, California, tide pools might seem to pale in comparison with the town’s famous sea otters, kelp forests and breaching whales, but for one unlikely duo (an amateur biologist and a future Nobel Prize-winning American novelist) in the 1930s, these pools inspired a new way of looking at the natural world — one that shapes our modern understanding of ecology.

Lessons from the tide pool

Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck spent hours wandering through tide pools on the coasts of Monterey, discussing philosophy and life in the town that boomed as sardine production in its canneries peaked before collapsing after World War II due to overfishing. In his 1945 novel “Cannery Row,” Steinbeck immortalizes his friend Ricketts in the character of Doc. (To learn more about Ricketts and Steinbeck’s role in Monterey’s history, check out the excellent book “The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival.”)

Ricketts — whose 1939 book “Between Pacific Tides” remains an essential resource on marine biology — viewed nature not as a collection of individual species that could be removed from their habitat and studied solely in jars, but as a larger system made up of many integrated parts. His crucial revelation, one that we take for granted today, was that animals behave differently when surrounded by others — when they are within a community of organisms. Today, his holistic view of nature is the backbone of much of the conservation work we do, where we strive to protect entire working ecosystems.

Steinbeck too was influenced by Ricketts’ view of nature, and in “Of Mice and Men” and his literary masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath,” he creates a giant interconnected world, where characters struggle to make a life for themselves against the backdrop of upheaval and ecological disaster. As in the tide pool, every action provokes a response that ripples through water, as it does through time.

More than 70 years ago, Steinbeck and Ricketts observed the Pacific coast and saw the interconnectedness of nature — and how people fit into the equation. In the years since, the rest of the world has been playing catch-up.

Save the ocean to save the fish

The complex, interactive nature of ecosystems goes beyond tide pools — it can be found wherever life exists, in rainforests, tundra, deserts and oceans.

For example, take Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, home to the most diverse coral reefs in the world. Conservation organizations, including Conservation International (CI), often draw attention to sharks and manta rays — keystone species that hold tremendous economic value for tourism — but in order to give these species a chance at long-term survival, we understand we must protect their whole habitat, including the reefs that shelter fish that will one day be shark food.

Here as everywhere, the role of humans in this ecosystem is also important. Over centuries, Indonesian communities have undoubtedly altered the lands and waters where they live, but — as in Monterey — people have also played a crucial role in recovery. Community-based fisheries and marine protected areas have helped both systems recover by incorporating human needs into the fabric of nature.

Thanks to some remarkable initiatives, today Monterey Bay is healthier than it has been in more than 200 years. In fact, coastal upwelling of nutrient-rich waters, and migration patterns of species like whales, dolphins, sardines and seabirds now result in an explosion of life each September. This “Super Bowl for nature” is a phenomenon I can’t wait to see for myself, and share with you.

For three nights starting August 31st, I will be co-hosting “Big Blue Live,” a broadcast that will bear witness to one of the planet’s greatest revival stories, happening now on the edge of the Pacific. Co-produced by the BBC and PBS, I along with a superb team of scientists and TV presenters will base our reporting out of the legendary Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has been integral to the region’s revitalization.(Learn more about “Big Blue Live” in the video below.)

Don’t forget to tune in starting August 31st at 8 p.m. EST/PST on PBS to see what we discover; if you live in a different time zone, check your local listings. Until then, check back on Conservation News to learn more about why this region, and the Pacific Ocean, is so special.

M. Sanjayan is an executive vice president and senior scientist at CI. Follow him on Twitter.

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