Hunkered down in a small rented motorboat, the mem¬bers of the 1935 City Council of Pacific Grove, Califor¬nia 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, sea foam churned nearly airborne by the waves. How¬ever, 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 bus¬tling bed-and-breakfast crowd, enjoying the stunning scenery of the Pacific Grove shore during elegant breakfasts or wine-sipping after¬noons. 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 real¬ize 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 profit. 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 Chi¬nese 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 bar¬ricaded 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.
STEPHEN R. PALUMBI AND CAROLYN SOTKA