When Ed Ricketts left for the Sea of Cortez aboard the Western Flyer in March 1940, he hoped the trip would be the basis for a new book. He had just published Between Pacific Tides the year before, an ecology-based guide to the seashores of Pacific North America. Between Pacific Tides had been a labor of love – taking over a decade to get published – and Ricketts was eager to expand his observations and thinking about ecology into new environs. The upcoming expedition to Mexico with his close friend and confidante John Steinbeck was marked by excitement and hope, and Ricketts was eager to get underway from Monterey, California.
Ricketts’s first encounter with Monterey Bay was in 1923, when he and his wife and newborn son, Ed. Jr., arrived from Ricketts’s native Chicago. Like Steinbeck, Ricketts had left college without completing his degree, though also like his friend, had found the seeds of his own emerging world view in the science classes he had taken. Specifically, during his last term at the University of Chicago, Ricketts enrolled in the Animal Ecology course taught by a new member of the faculty—Warder Clyde Allee, a zoologist and early pioneer in the newfield of ecology. When Ricketts was in his class, Allee was working on his classic book Animal Aggregations: A Study in General Sociology (1931), a study of how and why animals come together into groups. He believed cooperation was fundamental to virtually all species, mediated by natural selection. Just as William Ritter’s work inspired Steinbeck, Allee’s ecological ideas lie at the root of many of Ricketts’s ideas about the natural world.
When he arrived in Monterey with his college buddy, Albert Galigher, Ricketts established Pacific Biological Laboratories, a supply house aspiring to provide specimens to schools for study and dissection. Their partnership soon ended, however, and Ricketts struggled to make a go of the business on his own.
Ricketts became increasingly interested in the “little beasts,” as he called them, in the tidepools. Thus, as he worked tirelessly, collecting and shipping specimens to schools across the country, he also spent hours each day observing and studying marine animals. As his wife Nan later wrote:
“We used to see a lot of people gathered around Ed when he was collecting at low tides, asking questions. […] He would have made an excellent tour guide. He loved telling people around him about the animals he uncovered and about their habits.”