“His mind had no horizons. He was interested in everything.” This is how John Steinbeck described his mentor and best friend Ed Ricketts.
A self-taught marine biologist, Ed Ricketts authored Between Pacific Tides, a seminal book on intertidal ecology. He was also the inspiration for characters in several Steinbeck novels, including the protagonist “Doc” in Cannery Row. Out of an old ramshackle wooden building, squeezed like a sardine between the giant canneries, Ricketts lived his life and ran his business Pacific Biological Laboratories.
The antiquated lab still stands along Cannery Row, and is opened one day a month for public tours. On this day, our impassioned docent guide shared some amusing stories about Ricketts, and his role in Steinbeck’s life and books. As if suspended in time, the former lab and living quarters still contained Ricketts’ old phonograph, beloved record collection, and gleam of enlightenment.
The lab property backs up to the productive waters of Monterey Bay, where Ricketts collected marine specimens for research, preservation, and retail sale. Looking down into the shallow waters behind the lab, we watched hundreds of bright red crustaceans struggle against the placid surf. For the first time since 1983, warm El Niño currents have carried billions of these pelagic red crabs hundreds of miles north, from their homes in Baja California to the beaches of Monterey Bay.
Next door to the old lab is the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. If he was still with us, Ed Ricketts would certainly endorse the scientific, educational, and ecological mission of this outstanding marine museum. Inside the aquarium, we witnessed the interplay of weird and wonderful marine species within every marine habitat, from the deep open ocean to the shallow tide pool.
Walking past the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we followed the rocky cliffs of Pacific Grove to Point Pinos and the site of the Great Tide Pool. Here in this fascinating world between the tides, John Steinbeck often accompanied Ed Ricketts to study and collect samples from the teeming natural aquaria.
In his novel Cannery Row, Steinbeck metaphorically compared the regular ebb and flow of activity within the Great Tide Pool to the everyday rhythms of human life. Just as the spirited citizens of Cannery Row came out when the cannery workers left for the night, so too the colorful creatures of the tide pools emerged from under their rocks when the tide rolled out. Sporting his rubber hip waders, the brightest spirit in the communal tide pool belonged to a bohemian biologist and first-rate friend named Ed Ricketts.