The Grapes of the Western Flyer

A survey of the Gulf of California 40 years after the collection event which lead to the book: The Log from the Sea of Cortez

In March of 1940, John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts ventured with a crew of six from Monterey, California to the Gulf of California in Mexico. The goal of this journey was to collect marine specimens and they did so aboard a purse seiner (fancy word for fishing boat) named the Western Flyer, skippered by Tony Berry.

They set out on this scientific expedition  to gather more information on the little known biology of the Gulf of California. Their work was extremely beneficial to the knowledge and expansion of science, and today some of the specimens collected during their trip are housed at the Smithsonian Institution. In addition to the specimens, John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts coauthored the book: The Log from the Sea of Cortez which provides an account of their journey. This book is still celebrated by many, and even today trips are continually made to the Gulf to conduct research.

Now I would like to fast forward several years and introduce Richard Henson. Richard spent most of his life teaching Biology at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Henson saw value in natural history and research collections. Sampling took him across the country, and he spent a great deal of time in California where he gathered various creatures he observed living in tide pools. Henson did not limit himself to fauna- he collected a great deal of flora (specifically algae) as well. He maintained his own personal research collection in Boone which, upon his retirement, he generously donated to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences… and that is where we come in.

As a technician under the Non-Molluscan Invertebrates Unit of the NCMNS, my responsibility is to rehouse and database donated collections; including Richard Henson’s collection. I grew up on the coast of California until I was a teen, which is one of the reasons Richard’s collection stood out to me. The animals I saw as a child, I was seeing again; only they have lost some of their luster over the years due to the preservation process. As I was entering the information from his collection into our database, I began noticing some specimens from the Gulf of California that overlapped somewhat with the adventures I read about in The Log. What Richard was doing in the Gulf, I can’t know for sure, but I can’t help but speculate. Did he just like to travel? Was he conducting his own research? Or like me, was he also an enthusiast of The Log?

I have reached out to Henson, and I do hope I get the chance to one day sit down with him and hear about his adventures and how he ended up in Mexico. But until then, I would like to showcase some of the collections made by both the Western Flyer and Richard Henson. To do this, I will first show you a map which details the collecting locations of both Richard Henson, and of the Western Flyer. Then I will take you through the wide variety of specimens that were collected at each location and show a few that we are so fortunate to have in our collection today. So without further ado… let’s get started.

Collecting Locations

The red dots mark some of the places the Western Flyer stopped, while the blue dots represent the locations where Richard Henson collected specimens. You can see here where the overlap was in their journeys- Angeles Bay, Conception Bay, Guaymas, San Carlos, and Cabo San Lucas.

Collections (Overlapping Sites)

Note: to scroll to the appropriate species name, click on the common name.

Purple Sea Urchin. Photo courtesy of Dr. Steve Lonhart, NOAA MBNMS.

Cape San Lucas (better known as Cabo San Lucas) was visited by both the Western Flyer and Richard Henson in 1976. There, Richard collected the algae, Dasya sinicola. The specimens found by the Western Flyer at this location include: barnacles, a colorful crab called the Sally Lightfoot, a sulfur sea cucumber, and gulf sun starfish.

One who was born by the ocean or has associated with it cannot ever be quite content away from it for very long

Both Richard Henson, and the Western Flyer crew visited Conception Bay. In 1976, Richard found a purple sharp spined sea urchin, and a crab. At Conception Bay, the Western Flyer collected many invertebrates several years prior to Henson’s visit. A red heart urchin, a unique and rare sand dollar, a sea cucumber, a fire sponge, and a stunning translucent shrimp.

In 1976 Richard Henson was at Santa Maria Bay on the Western side of Baja California. At this location he collected an abundant species of hermit crab. These crabs are red in color, and outside of their shell, they have a soft curled body.

Translucent Shrimp. Photo courtesy of David Luquet.
Rainbow Starfish, Henson Collection NCMNS. Photo courtesy of Laura Lukas.

Richard Henson and the Western Flyer both visited Angeles Bay. In 1976, Richard found a fragile rainbow starfish, and a sulfur sea cucumber. Many years before, the Western Flyer collected a boring sponge, Cliona celata, and a Lancelet.

Finally, both Richard Henson and the Western Flyer visited Guyamos. In 1976, Richard found starfish, a sea urchin, and a crowned sea urchinAt this same location, the Western Flyer collected pacific brown shrimp and pacific blue shrimp.

Collections (Western Flyer & Henson)

Richard Henson and the Western Flyer both collected at San Carlos. In 1976 Richard found the algae, Botryocladia sp. The Western Flyer found the Sally Lightfoot crab, a sea sponge, a fragile rainbow starfish, and the Western sea roach, which looks very similar to a terrestrial roach.

“Probably when our species developed the trick of memory and with it the counterbalancing projection called ‘the future,’ this shock-absorber, hope, had to be included in the series, else the species would have destroyed itself in despair.”

Painted Sea Urchin, Richard Henson Collection NCMNS. Photo courtesy of Laura Lukas.

Richard also collected specimens in Cabo Pulmo in 1976. He found a gulf ghost crab which lives in burrows in the sand, and a painted sea urchin. Today, this preserved specimen at the NCMNS has lost most of its color and doesn’t look very painted at all, but we love it just the same. 

In La Paz, the Western Flyer saw a club spined sea urchin, stony coral, a brightly colored starfish, and a sun starfish. Just North of La Paz, at Point Lobos, the Western Flyer collected a serpent starfish. And at Espiritu Santo Island, they collected a long-spined sea urchin, and a sulfur sea cucumber.

In the evening Tiny returned to the Western Flyer, having collected some specimens of Phthirius pubis, but since he made no notes in the field, he was unable or unwilling to designate the exact collecting station.

Xanthodius sternberghii. Photo courtesy of BOLD Systems.

At San Gabriel Bay, the Western Flyer collected a sticky snake sea cucumber, a neat little crab and a polychaete wormAt Cayo Inlet the Western Flyer collected sun starfish, and the Sally Lightfoot crab.

At Puerto Escondido, the Western Flyer collected the gulf sun starfish, a sticky snake sea cucumber, and a purple sharp spined sea urchin.

At Cornados Island, the Western Flyer collected cup coral, and an orange puffball sponge.

[Bystanders] asked where we were going and when we said, to the Gulf of California, their eyes melted with longing, they wanted to go so badly. They were like the men and women who stand about airports and railroad stations; they want to go away, and most of all they want to go away from themselves.

Sea Roach, Henson Collection NCMNS. Photo courtesy of Laura Lukas.

At San Lucas Cove, the Western Flyer collected warrior swimming crabs, a Red Cushion Sea Star, and a sipunculid worm.

At San Francisquito Bay, the Western Flyer collected a porcelain crab.

The Western Flyer also made a stop at Puerto Refugio, where they found the Sally Lightfoot crab, and northern shore crabs.

Richard went to Cholla Bay in 1980 and there he found a tunicate. Three years later, he returned and found a Lumpy-clawed Crab.

Lumpy-clawed Crab, Henson Collection NCMNS. Photo courtesy of Laura Lukas.

Richard stopped in Puerto Peñasco in both 1976 and 1980. He collected one species of brittle starfish in 1976, and two species of brittle starfish in 1980. He collected barnacles in 1976, a photograph of which is attached below (preserved). He collected a sea urchin in 1980, and a tunicate and Porcelain crabs in both 1976 and 1980. In 1980, Richard collected a Western sea roach, a sea anemone, and a crab. In 1976 he collected an orange branching sponge, and many other sea creatures.

The Western Flyer also made a stop at Red Bluff Point. There, they found a yellow arrow spider crab, northern shore crabs, and gulf sun starfish.

“The disappearance of plankton, although the components are microscopic, would probably in a short time eliminate every living thing in the sea and change the whole of man’s life, if not through a seismic disturbance of balance eliminate all life on the globe.” – The Log

In closing, I would like to say that history has given us a great record of biological collections. We even still have specimens collected by Charles Darwin and the earliest specimen in our collection, as mentioned in a previous blog, dates all the way back to 1855. Since I work with research collections, I get to see their history firsthand. Over time, many specimens were collected/harvested in great numbers. Chemicals were added to the water, which killed every living creature that it came into contact with; huge sein hauls would collect more fish than a person could eat in a year. In the past century, conservation has gained popularity. Some of the specimens collected that have been from the Gulf of California are endangered currently. Mass collecting of specimens is much less common. Biologists must justify why they are collecting specimens, and make sure they are not taking too many of the animals. This will insure life has a chance to continue reproducing and evolving. This concept is the basis of what we here in the NMI Unit do, and we hope that by sharing records such as what I have laid out about, it can become the basis of what everyone does.

By Laura Lukas.

Thanks for joining us for another Natural History Deep Dive! If you would like to follow the everyday adventures of our lab, check us out on Twitter and Instagram at @BWWilliamsLab. We hope you enjoyed this awesome story as much as we did. If so, please share it with your friends and let us know in the comments! Signed, the NMI Lab.

Species List:

Sea Cucumbers

Holothuria (Selenkothuria) lubrica

Holothuria (Cystipus) inhabili

Euapta godeffroyi

Sea Stars

Heliaster kubiniji

Phataria sp.

Heliaster sp.

Oreaster reticulatus

Astrometis sertulifera

Echinaster (Othilia) tenuispina

Brittle Stars

Ophiophragmus marginatus

Ophiocoma aethiops

Ophionereis annulata

Ophioderma panamensis

Sea Urchins

Lytechinus pictus

Diadema mexicanum

Arbacia stellata

Meoma ventricosa

Encope grandis

Echinometra vanbrunti

Centrostephanus coronatus


Astrangia haimei

Sea Anemones

Bunodosoma californicum


Porites sp.

Tethya aurantium

Tedania ignis

Steletta sp.

Tetraclita rubescens

Ptilocaulis walpersii

Polychaete Worms

Acromegalomma mushaense

Peanut worm

Phascolosoma sp.


Clibanarius digueti

Grapsus grapsus

Ocypode occidentalis

Xanthodius sternberghii

Tetragrapsus jouyi

Callinectes bellicosus

Petrolisthes nigrunguiculatus

Pachygrapsus sp.

Eriphia squamata

Petrolisthes hirtipes

Ala cornuta

Stenorhynchus debilis


Pontonia pinnae

Penaeus californiensis

Penaeus stylirostris

Other Arthropods

Ligia occidentalis


Amphioxus sp.


The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Non-Molluscan Invertebrates Collection

The Log from the Sea of Cortez -by John Steinbeck

2 thoughts on “The Grapes of the Western Flyer

  1. Euapta godeffroyi is the “sticky snake sea cucumber” holothurian. Somehow it got listed in polychaetes (annelids/bristleworms)

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