Conservation & Science

Julia Platt & the rebirth of Monterey Bay

Through September 2, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary will host Big Blue Live – an unprecedented series of live natural history broadcasts from PBS and the BBC. Big Blue Live highlights the remarkable marine life that gathers in Monterey Bay each summer, and celebrates an ocean conservation success story of global significance. We’re publishing guest commentaries about conservation efforts that contribute to the health of the bay and our ocean planet. This comes from The Death and Life of Monterey Bay by Stephen Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka. Palumbi is director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station; Sotka manages science and policy outreach for NOAA’s Oceans and Human Health Initiative.

Good environmental news can be hard to come by. Yet when people look out at Monterey Bay today they’re seeing an ocean environment that is functioning better than it has for more than 200 years. It’s not perfect, and it faces stunning challenges still, but it has more of the working elements of a healthy ecosystem than it’s had for more than a century.

It didn’t happen by accident. And it depended on a few turns of good luck. 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. Even if no other bay will ever have exactly this story, the fact that a local shore has been driven to the depths of ecological ruin and has recovered—this shows that the pathway of recovery from ruin exists, and is a possibility for places that anyone else calls home.

The story of Julia Platt

Hunkered down in a small rented motorboat, members of the 1935 Pacific Grove City Council were dismayed to see the weather worsening. They were already nearly out of sight of land, 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. Yet, even in death, wrapped in canvas and covered in flowers, Julia was still very much in charge.

Julia Platt
Julia Platt

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 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 them 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.

And 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. However, the kelp plants lay thin and spare, and the foam spumed an oily yellow that smelled of decay. The soaring seabirds gulped fish entrails and fought over discarded fish heads from the nearby canneries. 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. Below the boat on its way out of the bay lay two unique realms that Julia had created: marine parks that protected the life of the coastline with a fervor and a permanence unequaled anywhere else in California.

Then and now

Today, the view of Monterey Bay from Julia Platt’s former living room window shows a scene completely different from the one that greeted her in the 1930s. Why is this place now so beautiful, so full of wildlife and suffused with the clean tang of the sea? Most of the visitors to Pacific Grove, or to Monterey next door, assume it has always been this way. Few realize how recently the wonderful tourist shores stood polluted and abandoned—how bad they looked in 1935, the year of Julia’s death.

Harbor seal mother and pup. Photo: Kim Worrell
Harbor seal mother and pup. Photo: Kim Worrell

Had it existed when westerners came permanently to Monterey in 1769, Julia’s window would have chronicled a steady ruin of Monterey Bay. It would have seen 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 Chinese village to the Pacific Grove shore. 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 Bay.

Sea otter mom and pup in Elkhorn Slough: Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder
Sea otter mom and pup in Elkhorn Slough. Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder

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.

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.

Learn how we’re working to protect and restore California’s ocean resources and ecosystems.

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