The Blog from the Sea of Cortez

The Blog from the Sea of Cortez


“That plan was simple, straight-forward, and only part of the truth. But we did tell the truth to ourselves. We were curious. Our curiosity was not limited, but was as wide and horizonless as that of Darwin or Agassiz or Linnaeus or Pliny. We wanted to see everything our eyes would accommodate, to think what we could, and, out of our seeing and thinking, to build some kind of structure in modeled imitation of the observed reality.”

-John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Almost 75 years ago, John Steinbeck, Ed “Doc” Ricketts and a group of others took a trip down the California coast, around Baja, and into the Sea of Cortez. The goals of the trip were vaguely scientific, building on “Doc” Ricketts’ earlier work of cataloguing the biology of the San Francisco Bay. There were other factors involved, too, most of which can be attributed to the historically understated motivation of “why not?”.

The outcome the trip became one of my favorite books, The Log from the Sea of Cortez by Steinbeck and Ricketts. It’s a hard-to-categorize story about biology, geography, adventure, history, friendship, and, mostly, curiosity. It looks at how all those dynamics blend together and drive a group of people away from the safe harbors of home and out into the horizon. The book also became one the most exhaustive works of biological research on the Sea of Cortez, with detailed records of hundreds of species, mostly invertebrates.

As soon as I finished reading the book, I began dreaming about making my own trip to the Sea of Cortez, but on 21st century terms. Although I wasn’t sure what that meant, I sensed it might be interesting. Steinbeck’s perspective seemed close enough to my own: a fascination with the natural world, a deep respect for the scientific process (combined with a severe lack of formal training), and the belief that not knowing what you’re doing shouldn’t stop you from trying. And, I thought, this trip could be the perfect excuse to take this emerging suite of citizen exploration tools into the field.

I knew I couldn’t do it alone, though. The idea needed more scientific muscle to give it any validity, but had to maintain its DIY roots if it was going to remain interesting. I needed the modern maker equivalent of “Doc” Ricketts. I found him in Mac Cowell, co-founder of and Genefoo. Halfway through explaining the concept to Mac, he replied with a “Yep, I’m in. When do we leave?”

January, we decided, would be the perfect time to make the trip. And so we booked a charter aboard the 82′ Schooner Seaward from Cabo San Lucas to La Paz. We recruited a crack team: my OpenROV co-conspirator Eric Stackpole, OpenPCR co-creator Josh Perfetto, and a number of others. Everyone was slightly confused about the goals, but excited about the opportunity to field-test the tools. The more we planned and plotted, the more the reality set in: we don’t really know what we’re doing.

This trip is shaping up to be a microcosm of a larger trend: citizen exploration. Makers taking their tools and machines out into the natural world. It broaches all sorts of interesting questions, for our small group going to Cortez as well as the broader maker community:

– How do you prepare for an expedition like this?
– What is good science? Can we be useful?
– What types of approval or permission do we need?
– Just how far have these maker tools come? How effective are they?

Over the coming months, we’re going to be documenting the preparation of our trip. Talking to experts and hearing from makers who’ve travelled this road ahead of us. I’m not sure what we’ll find, but we’re all excited to look. Stay tuned for more!

“A few naturalists with specialties had gone into the Gulf and, in the way of specialists, had seen nothing they hadn’t wanted to… There were some romantic accounts by young people who had gone into the Gulf looking for adventure and, of course, had found it.”

-John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

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Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!

View more articles by David Lang