By Phil Colarusso
Tide pools in the Pacific Ocean are very different from our pools in the Northeast. The western pools are dominated by colorful sea anemones and large sea stars. These are the tide pools that inspired Ed Ricketts, the real life marine biologist who became the Doc Ricketts character in John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. Ricketts wrote the definitive book on West Coast intertidal organisms, called Between Pacific Tides.
For many budding marine biologists, Doc Ricketts was the quintessential marine biologist. His office was a laboratory with a multitude of fish tanks hosting all manners of creatures. His schedule was dictated by the tides, not by the clock. He was a man, who felt most comfortable in hip boots with a net in one hand and collecting jars in the other. He had an unusually keen sense of environmental issues for his time – the 1940s – railing against overfishing in the book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which he and John Steinbeck co-wrote.
Like Ricketts, I have spent many happy hours flipping rocks in tide pools. I don’t know if Ricketts believed that the answers to many of life’s mysteries could be found in a tide pool, but I suspect that he did. My favorite passage from The Log of the Sea of Cortez reflects Ricketts understanding of the interconnectedness of all things:
And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away the … shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.
As I look into tide pools today, the reflection back is no longer a young marine biologist, but a kindred spirit of Ed Ricketts, who understands and appreciates the interconnectedness of life.
About the author: Phil Colarusso is a marine biologist in the Coastal and Ocean Protection Section of EPA’s New England office, and is an avid diver.