Hunkered down in a small rented motorboat, the members of the 1935 City Council of Pacific Grove, California were dismayed to see the weather worsening. They were already nearly out of sight of land, beyond the boundaries of Monterey Bay, and some of them were starting to feel queasy. Cajoled into this particular boat by the mayor of Pacific Grove, doctor of marine zoology Julia Platt, they couldn't muster the nerve to protest very loudly. After all, Mayor Platt had just died and was along only for the boat ride. Yet, even in death, wrapped in canvas and covered in flowers, Julia was still very much in charge.
Twelve miles offshore was the stipulation in Julia's will, 12 miles until her canvas-wrapped body could be cast into the deep. Tradition in 1935 decreed that the Pacific Grove City Council act as pallbearers for a former mayor. No one had ever demanded a burial at sea before, and neither tradition nor small-town pride would allow the City Council to demur with honor. So Julia focused the town's entire attention once more on the dark and rolling ocean and moved the city council just the way she wanted: to protect the sea.
The sea called for help. The ocean that swirled around the jutting rocks of Pacific Grove was no longer healthy. Swirling in the wake of Julia's boat were the typical waifs of the coastal seas: bits of kelp, jellyfish, seafoam churned nearly airborne by the waves. However, the kelp plants lay thin and spare, and the foam spumed an oily yellow that smelled of decay. Even the soaring seabirds gulped fish entrails and fought over discarded fish heads from the nearby can-neries. It was the low point in the health of Monterey Bay.
But Julia Platt had left a legacy that could help repair the health of the bay. Few of her pallbearers appreciated fully what she had accomplished in the last years of her life, but her schemes eventually proved to be the kernel of recovery for this wounded shore. As the waves grew higher and the seasick council grew greener and greener, the motorboat hearse passed over Julia's final, clever gift to her town. Below their boat on its way out of the bay lay the undersea lands of two unique realms that Julia had created: two marine parks that protected the life of the coastline with a fervor and a permanence unequaled anywhere else on the California coast. Their invention was as much a political milestone as it was a biological revolution.
In 2008, the view of Monterey Bay from Julia Platt's former living room window shows a scene completely different from the one that greeted Julia in the 1930s. The living room today is filled with a bustling bed-and-breakfast crowd, enjoying the stunning scenery of the Pacific Grove shore during elegant breakfasts or wine-sipping afternoons. Warm days bring families to the beach at Lovers Point across the street. Almost every morning sees a cadre of scuba divers, suiting up in the parking lot and lugging tanks and cameras toward the kelp forest. When the wind picks up and the waves roll around the point, surfers and boogie boarders appear. All this is watched by a constant stream of walkers, bikers, and dog walkers, threading the bike path between Julia's house and the shore. The visitors thoroughly enjoy the environment, its sheer beauty, and its shine of health.
Why is this place so beautiful, so full of wildlife and suffused with the clean tang of the sea? Most of the visitors to Julia's town of Pacific Grove, or to Monterey next door, assume it has always been this way. Little do they know how recently the bay suffered an industrial blight that wrecked the ecology and the economy. Few of them realize how recently the wonderful tourist shores of Lovers Point stood polluted and abandoned—how bad they looked in 1935, the year of Julia's death.
Had it existed when westerners came permanently to Monterey in 1769, Julia's window would have chronicled a steady ruin of Monterey Bay since that time. It would have seen the merchants and hunters turning one wild species after another into a market commodity that was plucked off the shore for prof it. French explorer Jean-François de la Pérouse was paying a courtesy call at the Spanish capital Monterey in 1786, when he remarked on the wonderful creatures he saw there: sea otters. He knew the Russians were making a fortune selling otter pelts to the rich Chinese aristocracy. Odd, he thought, that the Spanish do not do the same. And soon they did.
A whale was worth a pound or two of pure gold in 1854, and J. P. Davenport used exploding lances to deliver them to shore-based vats of boiling oil. In the late 1800s, abalone brought a whole Chinese village to the Pacific Grove shore, complete with lacy incense, smugglers, and the customs of the Celestial Empire. Fourteen million seabird eggs, gathered on coastal islands, went down the gullets of the Gold Rush prospectors, fueling their hunt for treasure but destroying seabird populations. From the 1910s to 1940s, a new canning industry was driven to unheard-of size on the strength of the sardines of Monterey. Every one of these enterprises collapsed in the ashes of its own greed; first the otters, then the whales, birds, abalone, and sardines were exploited until they were largely gone.
As the exploitation of Monterey grew, its natural rugged beauty still called to literary masters and poets. Robert Louis Stevenson crafted Treasure Island from the granite bones of the Monterey Peninsula. Robinson Jeffers built an Ezmerelda Tower to his lady love and inspired the poets of the 1900s. In the 1930s, three friends barricaded themselves against a staid church society in Julia's town of Pacific Grove: John Steinbeck, Joseph Campbell, and Ed Ricketts spawned a hundred riotous parties and created a raucous philosophy of friendship that led the literature and philosophy of its day.
Julia's window looked out over this frenzy like a grouchy neighbor eyeing a wild party. And in her last years, the Monterey Bay called for help. Julia couldn't keep herself from striving against the continual onslaught and destruction. She predicted the doom that the canneries would bring and tried to slow their growth. But she was pushed aside by the economic might of the biggest fishery anyone had ever seen. Thwarted in her campaign to save all of Monterey Bay, she conceived a stealthy legacy that would wait quietly until it was needed and until the world was ready for it. She created for her town and her bay two small protected areas, marine gardens for the future. They eventually paid off in a legacy of ecological rebirth, but only after the bay passed through the worst decades of its environmental life.
Good environmental news is hard to come by these days. Yet when people look out at Monterey Bay today they are seeing an ocean environment that is functioning better than it has been for more than 200 years. It is not perfect, and it faces stunning challenges still, but it has more of the working elements of a healthy ecosystem than it had had in Julia's time, and even for the century before her.
It didn't happen by accident, the recovery of Monterey Bay. And it depended on a few turns of good luck. But it also depended on a set of pioneers with a clear vision of the bay they wanted to leave to future generations. Along the way, the success of Monterey lays out some lessons for possible successes elsewhere. But even if no other bay will ever have exactly this story, the fact that a local shore, the place that generations have called home, has been driven to the depths of ecological ruin and has recovered—this shows that the pathway of recovery from ruin exists, and it is a possibility for places that anyone else calls home.
The First California Gold Rush: Otters
Early fall is a magical time in Monterey Bay, and French captain Jean-François de la Pérouse, arriving in September 1786, perhaps saw it at its best. The fogs of summer begin to roll back in September, releasing the pent-up sun to warm the hills and quicken the air with the scent of sage and pine. The shoreline gathers raucous seabirds. The beaches are the beds of languid seals. Out in the center of the bay, balls of sardines boil to the surface, driven upward by voracious tuna, often split by coordinated attacks from schools of gray dolphins, and circled by thick clouds of spiraling seabirds. The shallower coast also roils with fish, halibut the size of wagon wheels racing across the sandy seabeds, gulping smaller prey. Fishing lines, dangled for minutes over the ship's sides in 1786, would have brought up a constellation of bottom-dwelling rockfish with such a confusion of colors and patterns that future taxonomists would eventually catalogue more than sixty species of this one type offish.
To Europeans, the edges of this rocky coast would have seemed strangely coated by a floating layer of thick brown ribbons, the canopy of a kelp forest. Yards thick at the end of the summer, the surface layer of giant kelp fronds would have lined nearly the entire southern shore of Monterey Bay. Elegant herons could walk on this kelp carpet confidently, searching for the bounty of young fish it sheltered. Sea lions might have swum in and out, mixing with smaller harbor seals and the ever-present sea otters. Gray whales gamboling in the surf zone would have been just starting to head south to their Mexican breeding grounds. But probably most of the whales La Pérouse saw were humpbacks that fed off the productive riches of the cold sea-water or gigantic blue whales, far too swift for most ships of the day to catch. La Pérouse wrote about their numbers, complaining that whales were so numerous that the very air was tainted by their breath, producing an inelegant, "annoying stench."
La Pérouse entered Monterey Bay as a child might enter a candy store, agape at the bounty, confused by the diversity, eager for a bite. He settled his fleet at the shore and prepared to be received royally. The capital city of Spanish California had expected La Pérouse for months. His arrival as the first foreign dignitary marked a milestone in the history of the tiny encampment and its anxious development into a world capital.
The Three Western Discoveries of Monterey Bay
Monterey represented a long-term investment by the Spanish crown. Nearly two centuries before La Pérouse was welcomed at the Spanish mission, the empire had sent adventurer Sebastián Vizcaíno to scout out the California coast and find a suitable harbor. But Vizcaíno was impatient to be off discovering pearls and gold, not harbors. Perhaps one of the world's first public relations geniuses, he had sent back glowing reports of "the best port that could be desired." He bestowed the name of the expedition's patron, Gaspar de Zúñiga, Conde de Monterey, the viceroy of New Spain, on the bay and claimed it was "sheltered from all winds." Back in Spain, Vizcaíno's reports elevated Monterey Bay to a legend, and it was designated the future capital of Spain's California.
But Vizcaíno's hyperbole was empty. Monterey Bay is a broad bite taken out of the coastline, but it does not include the perfect harbor Vizcaíno described. When the Spanish colonial administration in the New World eventually got around to sending a land expedition to Monterey, in 1769, the perfect harbor of Monterey was nowhere to be found. The expedition leader, Captain Gaspar de Portolà, walked from San Diego to where Vizcaíno said Monterey Bay should be. He found Vizcaíno's Punta Pinos, the pine-covered peninsula he said defined the southern boundary of the bay. But nowhere was there the perfect harbor Vizcaíno drew and described. Portolà's expedition wandered in confusion and dismay north to discover San Francisco Bay, shrugged off this accomplishment, and walked in failure back to San Diego.
The next time Portolà was sent to Monterey, though, he had a more insistent master. The next expedition to Monterey, only months later, was led by the zealot monk Junípero Serra, who was determined to find the bay and establish the headquarters of his string of Catholic missions. A stern Franciscan priest, barely five feet tall, rapier thin and with sharp features, Serra radiated a relentless desire to expand his church's reach. He did not eat well or sleep peacefully. He believed that mortification of the flesh purified the spirit, and "he would pound his breast with a stone while in the pulpit, scourge himself, or apply a lighted torch to his bare chest." Lame in one leg, he walked, painfully, everywhere—even from Veracruz to Mexico City. In San Diego, Portolà told Serra about his failure to find Monterey, and Serra turned him around and sent him back. Not to be thwarted again, Serra himself took a boat up the coast and landed a few days before Portolà's arrival. Announcing that the current site of the city of Monterey was the right place, Serra sent Portolà home and settled down to the business of building his mission.
The chronicler of the Serra expedition, Ensign Miguel Costansó, wrote late in 1769 that the bay seemed welcoming: "The land which shuts in this immense bay, seen from the sea, forms an agreeable view. Looking to the south can be seen the Sierra of Santa Lucia ... their summits crowned with pines and covered with pasturage, presenting a magnificent amphitheatre.... On the northeast and east shore, the country stretches in beautiful plains."
But the shores of the bay were not empty in the late 1700s, and the Spanish were not alone. Costansó records encounter after encounter with native villages along the Spanish route as they marched north from San Diego. At Monterey Bay, he found a constellation of villages bound by a common language and sustainable culture. Modern-day archeologists would record millennia of life at Monterey and a complex of coastal native cultures that stretched back in time for thousands of years.
At the time, Monterey was home to the Ohlone people, who lived throughout coastal central California, from San Francisco Bay south to Big Sur. The Ohlone showed a strong affinity with the natural products of the coastal environment, harvesting seeds from local grasses and gathering acorns in bulk for processing into flour. The Ohlone formed a loose association of villages, clustered by common dialect within a language group and with at least five permanent villages in the Monterey Bay area. Perhaps 7,000 people lived near Monterey Bay when Serra appeared there. They seemed to the Spanish to have no agriculture, but they carefully tended the oak-covered hillsides using fire to clear the underbrush and produce acorns and grasses. And seasonally they used the bounty of the sea, piling middens high with fish bones, otter skulls, and abalone shells. Whales were for eating but were difficult to kill. The Ohlone waited for them to wash ashore and chased the condors and grizzly bears off.
Because the Ohlone presented little threat, Costansó worried mostly about the reception that the Spanish religion would bring about, whether they could be converted: "The natives of Monterey live in the Sierra.... These Serranos (mountain Indians) are extremely docile and peaceful.... Their good disposition has given to the Reverend Mission Padres well-founded hopes of winning them over." Father Serra wrote in the official record of the Portolà expedition his hopes about the future promise of the missions, "the affability of the Indians, and the promise which they had already made him, to intrust [sic] their children to him to instruct them in the mysteries of our holy Catholic religion."
And so by 1769, the conversion of the native American culture of Monterey Bay commenced.
La Pérouse in Monterey
In 1786, La Pérouse was a famous captain and explorer and was in the middle of a voyage of discovery for his masters in France. Once La Pérouse settled his fleet of two ships at anchor near the Monterey shoreline, the officials at the lonely presidio and mission of Monterey wasted no time in sending a boat to pay their respects to their celebrity guest and invite the illustrious captain to dinner. "No effort will be spared in acquainting you with all the facts and figures of our administration," they promised. La Pérouse seemed an eager student, and he spent the next weeks chronicling Spanish lives in the first Californian mission.
But Serra was not there; the feared and admired head of all the California missions had died in 1784, two years earlier. His reputation was so overwhelming that at his funeral, bits of his undergarments were distributed as sacred tokens. La Pérouse was invited to visit Serra's monument, but the Frenchman cautiously demurred.