Dave Lohse, Nate Fletcher and Maya George of UC Santa Cruz, at the start of a biodiversity survey on Sage Beach. (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

Nearly eighty years ago, the tide pools around Sitka inspired a pair of naturalists — Ed Ricketts and Jack Calvin — who went on to transform the way we think about marine biology. Last week, a new set of researchers came to town to explore the same beaches, and remind Sitka of its place in the history of science.

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It’s 5:30 in the morning and low tide at Sage Beach, next to the Sitka Sound Science Center. Researchers from the science center, UC Santa Cruz and the University of Alaska Southeast have laid out a grid of measuring tape, and are crouched over the rock, taking a look at what the low tide has exposed.

“Every ten centimeters, we’re going to identify exactly what’s under that point, and what the two nearest things are to it, ” says Maya George, a researcher at UC Santa Cruz.

This is called a biodiversity survey. Through this method, researchers can get a sense of just about every species in the intertidal zone — that area between high and low tide that’s home to sea anemones and sea stars, hermit crabs and rockweed.

“We have sites like this up and down the entire west coast,” George said “It gives us a nice view of what the intertidal looks like here today.”

Melissa Miner, a research associate at UC Santa Cruz, led the team surveying sites in the intertidal zone around Sitka (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

But the project is also a window into the past, part of an effort to remind Sitkans that, in the words of Lisa Busch, Executive Director of the Sitka Sound Science Center,

“Sitka has a great connection to a very, very important chapter in the history of science.”

That connection dates back to 1939, when Ed Ricketts and Jack Calvin published a book called “Between Pacific Tides” — and transformed the study of marine biology.

“What was so amazing about what they did, was the way they grouped things together,” said Busch. “They didn’t just come up with a list of the things they say, they grouped things together in terms of community — in terms of ecology — this was not a word that was used at the time, in the ’30s. And it was very, very controversial.”

Ricketts and Calvin surveyed the intertidal zone from northern Mexico up to Sitka and organized plants and animals by habitat, grouping organisms together as they found them. This way of thinking about species — emphasizing the interconnectedness of animals and their environment — is so central to biology today, that it’s hard to imagine looking at the world without it. But at the time, Calvin and Ricketts had trouble even getting their work published.

Now, more than 7 decades later, the textbook is in its 5th printing.

“Every marine biologist in the US has it on their bookshelf,” said Busch.

For Ed Ricketts, coming up to Sitka was fundamental.

“You can see that much of how between pacific tides was put together, his thoughts really gelled and crystallized right here in Sitka,” said Marnie Chapman, of the University of Alaska Southeast. “It’s interesting to go back and see that this is where it all came together for him and he put it all together here. So that’s really cool.”

In the 20s and 30s, Ricketts and Calvin were part of an intellectual circle in Monterey, California that included the writer John Steinbeck — author of The Grapes of Wrath — the mythologist Joseph Campbell, and the composer John Cage.

“Ed Ricketts was a real renaissance man,” said Busch. “He was interested in the way that scientific ideas and music and art overlap.”

Ricketts became a cult figure after Steinbeck immortalized him in the novel Cannery Row, as “Doc” Ricketts. Steinbeck wrote, “He wears a beard and his face is half Christ and half satyr, and his face tells the truth….” There’s now a life-size bust of Ricketts in Monterey.

As for Jack Calvin, “Jack Calvin has kind of been forgotten in Monterey,” said Busch. “Now he’s not forgotten here in Sitka.”

Calvin married a woman from Sitka, Sasha Kashevaroff, and the couple moved up here, where Calvin eventually became one of the founders of the Sitka Conservation Society and a leading force in the creation of the West Chichigoff Wilderness Area.

In 1932, Jack and Sasha Calvin brought Ricketts and Joseph Campbell up the coast from Puget Sound, on their boat, for a 10-week expedition, surveying the intertidal zone.

“It would be great to be a fly on the wall,” said Sitka-based marine biologist Jan Straley. “Really interesting conversations I bet they were having.”

Straley realized that there had been no formal survey of the area’s intertidal zones since Calvin and Ricketts.

“A lightbulb just went off, and I said, we should just re-survey those areas,” she said. “It was pre-sea otters — pre-sea otters being introduced to sitka sound — pre-war, who knows, things could have been really different.”

So now, 80 years after Calvin and Ricketts did their survey, the Sitka Sound Science Center has partnered with researchers from UC Santa Cruz to return to many of the same places. The project is funded by the North Pacific Research Board. Researchers will compare what they find now to Ricketts and Calvin’s observations 80 years ago — and establish a baseline for future studies.

Besides the biodiversity survey, the researchers also set up plots on the study for longterm monitoring. They’ll return to these same plots year after year, taking photos and tracking changes.

Melissa Miner is running the project.

“The whole idea is to get an idea of what normal natural change is,” she said. “Then if there’s some disturbance, like an oil spill, we’ll have this record of the natural change and we can compare that to what we see if a disturbance happens.”

Lisa Busch says its important for Sitkans to remember their place in the history of marine biology, and to continue that work going forward: “As a community that is so dependent on natural resources, especially ocean resources, we have a particular interest in the work of ricketts and calvin, the grandpas of modern marine ecology.”