History of Pacific Coast Marine Ecology

What do the famous writers John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell and the first ecological evaluation of marine habitats have in common?  Why Ed Ricketts of course!  Who is Ed Ricketts you ask? Well step back in time to the 1930's.  In a crammed marine biological laboratory next to the sardine canneries in the small town of Monterey, California, Steinbeck and Campbell sat many an evening with Ricketts sharing stories, philosophical ramblings and life lessons as their young lives intertwined.  Ricketts was a marine biologist, educated at the University of Chicago, who moved west to seek his fortune in the tidepools of the Pacific Ocean.  He collected biological specimens for a living, but his passion was seeking the truth about life.  From these conversations and joint field trips came the intellectual fire that sent Steinbeck to writing "Grapes of Wrath", "Tortilla flats", "Cannery Row" (in which Doc is a fictional Ricketts) and others;  Campbell to pin "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" (which started the field of comparative mythology) and "The Masks of God"; and Ricketts to produce the first habitat-oriented marine biology guide book "Between Pacific Tides".

"Between Pacific Tides" arose from Ricketts' observations of the distribution and interaction of marine animals and plants in the intertidal zone where he collected organisms for sale to schools and other laboratories.  Inspired by ecological concepts learned at the University of Chicago, Ricketts saw in the tidepools of the Monterey Peninsula a microcosm of the world.  He spent the rest of his life visiting and cataloguing intertidal and shallow subtidal organisms from the Baja Peninsula of Mexico to  Juneau, Alaska.  This included a major expedition to the Sea of Cortez with Steinbeck where many animals were discovered and many ideas were discussed.  You can read about the trip in a book by Steinbeck (based on Ricketts' diary) called "The Log from the Sea of Cortez".

What is significant about "Between Pacific Tides" is that it is not just a book on identification of marine organisms, although it does that, rather it is a treatise on what organisms live where and why.  For the first time the habitats within a beach are discussed and explained based on ecological factors such as tides, exposure to waves and currents and type of sediments.  As a result we can understand why a mud flat has a different community of animals than a sand flat and why animals are different at the high tide line than at the low tide line.  Knowledge of the different marine and estuarine habitats, their geological and biological characteristics and associated organisms is the educational foundation for any aspiring marine scientist.  It also provides an organizational framework for understanding the distribution and abundance of organisms. This framework allows the casual observer to keep track of what species should be where and helps the marine scientist to understand human impacts on marine communities such as habitat alteration or pollution.

First published in 1939, "Between Pacific Tides" has been maintained and updated by several notable marine ecologists including Joel Hedgpeth and most recently David Phillips in 1985.  The tradition has been carried on by Eugene Kozloff in a major publication called "Seashore Life of the Northern Pacific Coast" whose most recent edition was in 1993.  Similar, less extensive, books are by Gloria Snively, "Exploring the Seashore in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon", updated in 2003 and Lynwood S. Smith, "Living Shores of the Pacific Northwest", 1976.

For those of you just wanting to learn the name of a crab, worm, seaweed or snail you saw at a local beach or while diving there are a number of identification books for the lay person.  Examples are "Whelks to Whales, Coastal Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest" by Rick M. Harbo, 1999, "The Beachcomber's Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest" by J. Duane Sept, 1999 and “Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest” by Andy Lamb and Bernard Hanby, 2005.