The lega-sea of John Pearse

Dr. John Pearse (1936—2020) led foundational research on kelp forests and the intertidal, wrote textbooks exploring the world of invertebrates, and created LiMPETS, an education and citizen science program used across the coast of California to monitor its intertidal communities. His research illuminated distant corners of the ocean spanning from Monterey Bay to Antarctica to Egypt. You could say that John’s curious fingers left prints across the world’s oceans. But if you look beyond the traces of John’s hands, you can see the widespread reach of all those he taught and inspired – including at Hopkins Marine Station, at UC Santa Cruz where he was a professor, and at elementary and high school students across California. Throughout his career, John’s love of education joined his love of science to encourage countless other hands to explore the biology of life under the sea.

John Pearse and Jenny Selgrath tidepooling at Hopkins Marine Station

The first time I went tidepooling with John was a sunny February day in 2018 at Hopkins Marine Station. I was John’s new postdoc (unofficially since he “retired” in 1994). John had agreed to introduce me to Monterey’s intertidal organisms. I’d spent my PhD studying coral ecosystems and was eager to explore this new marine environment. We teamed up with a visiting lab of grad students. And – I did not know it yet – but that was John in his element, surrounded by students and sharing his highly contagious wonder for the ocean.  One of my favorite memories from this first excursion was that he caught a tiny octopus in a clear jar, then nabbed a sea star that a careless seagull dropped as it flew overhead. All while ankle deep in saltwater and surfgrass.

John Pearse catching an octopus while tidepooling

My postdoc research with John centered around an oral history project that John and Chuck Baxter schemed up when they were discussing their impression that biodiversity had declined in Monterey Bay. They recognized that many of the changes they noticed were not well documented by formal research. So John stretched outside his comfort zone to see if the local ecological knowledge held by his network of ocean elders and others could answer some of those questions. Together with his wife and fellow biologist Vicki Pearse, Tim Thomas, Fio Micheli, and Jim Carlton, we interviewed people who were in the area as far back as 1939, when Ruth Andresen was an undergrad at Hopkins. Ruth –  who later went on to become one of the first members of the California Coastal Commission –  was a student at Hopkins in the days of the canneries. The oral histories were such an incredible opportunity to listen to John and others discuss their memories of marine life and of Hopkins. Through it, John was constantly caught by surprise. For example, we learned that before the otters returned to Monterey in the early 1960s, bull kelp was widely present in mixed-stand kelp forests inside of Pt. Pinos. Local wisdom had previously held that only giant kelp-dominated forests were present in that area. John always considered unexpected findings with such an open mind. In that way John was an incredible teacher about how scientific knowledge evolves through paying attention, curiosity, and openness. He and Vicki were endlessly kind and welcoming, and were founts of knowledge when I was trying to learn more about local marine life. The last time we spoke I apologized for asking John so many questions about our research project, and he told me “I always want to talk about science!”

Top Left: John Pearse and Ruth Andresen at the Great Tidepool, Top Right: John Pearse and Jim Carlton tidepooling in Pacific Grove, Bottom: John and Vicki Pearse, hearing Jeanne Rose’s oral history of Monterey Bay

In John’s oral history, he recounts his long connection with Monterey Bay and Hopkins Marine Station which began in 1959. John first came to Hopkins “as a first-year graduate student taking Don Abbott’s invertebrate zoology class,” and returned through the years as a teaching assistant, to write his dissertation, and early in his career as a visiting faculty member. John recounted that while he was a professor at UC Santa Cruz, “I brought my kelp forest ecology students … to Hopkins to dive nearly every year from 1972 to 1994” when he retired. John also wanted to use the oral histories as an opportunity to document the history of Hopkins, particularly the influence of the late and great Don and Izzy Abbott on the Hopkins community. Through the interviews, however, I was continually struck by how John had been such an important figure in the research, education, and community of Hopkins.

There are so many great stories about John, and so here are a few people have shared.

Chuck Baxter, who spent many years as a lecturer at Hopkins, shared “I have known John for a little over 59 years. We shared similar interests and motivations in science, teaching and environmental immersion. Our cumulative hours in the intertidal and kelp forests provided a history of patterns so we could share transition stories with libations in hand in our declining years. John was an inspirational teacher and his Hopkins course, Kelp bed as a classroom, provided a model and motivation for my 20 years of summer teaching introducing students to his passion. He was a naturalist in a transitional period where his education was rich in the diversity of classical courses and he entered into a rapidly accelerating diversity of new scientific interests and approaches. His foundation was solid and diverse and both his science and students profited from his expanding frontiers. Knowing him made my life richer and I toast his contributions to make the world a better place.”

Fiorenza Micheli, a Hopkins professor remembers John as unfailingly generous and enthusiastic. “John was always available to share his knowledge, support, encourage, and explore. He has helped so many students, postdocs, faculty, visiting researchers, always with the same openness and enthusiasm. I always came away from our conversations and time in the field with more questions. John was in his element out on the shore in rubber boots. His joy and focus were contagious! John and Vicki have a genuine passion for science and for the natural environment, I am so grateful to have had them as friends and collaborators.”

William Gilly, another Hopkins professor, sent photos and shared “I found these photos of John with our 2010 Holistic Biology class in Baja California Sur — the photos are from Punta San Francisco, south of Puerto Escondido and Punta Marcial. In one photo you can see the back of Rafe Sagarin (in white hat) — he is also now deceased and a former Hopkins undergrad and postdoc with Fio. It’s hard to believe they are both now gone. I may be able to find more photos of John in Mexico with our class, but they will probably much like these – John with his nose to the rocks surrounded by students. That’s who he was…always.”

2010 Holistic Biology class in Baja California Sur, provided by William Gilly

Don Kohrs, the Assistant Librarian at the Miller Library, shared “For Pearse and I, one of our favorite topics of discussions was Ed Ricketts and we had many. One that is memorable is the day, John was looking at a Pacific Biological Laboratories 1925 catalog. I’d gotten a digitized copy of the catalog, had printed out and placed it in the reading room of the Harold A. Miller Library. Pearse looked at me at said something along the lines ‘How did he do it? How was he able to become familiar with so many marine invertebrates in such a short period of time? And look, he had dredged organisms in the catalog!’ John discussion of the PBL catalog continues to inform me to this day as I continue to research Ed Ricketts and his expansive research efforts. Beyond this discussion, John and Vicki Pearse took me to Marin, California and introduced me to Ed Ricketts, Jr. Soon to follow were Nancy Ricketts, John and Jan Straley and a long line of others interested in the work of Ed Ricketts.”

During his oral history, Bruce Robison – now a senior scientist at MBARI – talked about working with John (who was a senior scientist) during a semester aboard Stanford’s ship, the Te Vega, in 1968. “[John] was incredibly patient with the students on the ship, and with me as a first time TA. His knowledge seemed ultimate it was as though we could never stump him. What’s this animal? What’s going on? How does this work? John calmly knew the answer. I guess my first impression other the fact that he was really a nice guy was that there was this incredible depth and breadth of knowledge about marine animals. I think that John’s encouragement had a lot to with my succeeding here because I wasn’t at all sure I could make it. This is Stanford for pete’s sake, but John was really calming and encouraging, and was like ‘sure you can do it’ and it made a big difference for me.”

Chris Lowe, a Hopkins professor, recalled how “I first “met” John when I was an undergraduate in 1990. I was working on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean figuring out reproductive cycles on a couple of urchin species. I was pretty much on my own and clueless. I remember writing to a few professors while I was there trying to figure out what I was doing, and John was the only one who wrote back to me. I was thrilled! His enthusiasm and encouragement were just what I needed to keep me going – it is the sort of interaction that defined John’s career; supporting and encouraging junior biologists. He mentioned that if I were interested graduate work to give him a call, and I did visit him in Santa Cruz, and we plotted an exciting thesis project. Alas, finances didn’t permit moving forward, but I stayed working on echinoderms and stayed in touch with him throughout my early career. Moving to Hopkins, both Vicki and John have played a really important part of me connecting with the animals here and have been my go-to people for all things invertebrate. John was also always generous with his time when I brought molecularly-focused grad students down from Campus. His early morning tours of the intertidal were one of the highlights of the course. John was unique – a combination of child-like wonder at biology that he maintained throughout his career, that inspired and shaped so many of our careers. He was also such a warm, positive and generous man. I will miss him terribly.”

Shirel Kahane-Rapport, a PhD candidate at Hopkins recalled “John and Vicki welcomed me to Monterey when I arrived here Summer 2016. They immediately made me feel at home. John and I would spend hours watching the seals and birds from their living room window. I learned so much from him: how to spot an oystercatcher on the rocks, how to eat an artichoke with butter, and how to ask questions like a scientist. John answered all of my questions without ever making me feel silly and shared his extensive collection of books with me. I am forever grateful for the friendship and kindness he and Vicki showed me. May his memory be a blessing.”

George Somero, a Hopkins professor shared “In his long career as a marine biologist, John touched many lives in many important ways. As a faculty member at UC Santa Cruz, he was an inspiring professor who received top honors for his contributions.  For his intellectual excellence, he was honored by being elected President of the California Academy of Sciences. Less obvious perhaps, but certainly no less important, were his individual impacts on untold numbers of aspiring marine scientists.  I am one of these fortunate people, having met John when I arrived for my Ph.D. work at Stanford as a member of the budding United States Antarctic Research Program.  John had already been to “the Ice” and had become a primary catalyst for development of the marine biology program at McMurdo Station. As a neophyte Antarctican, I relied on John for pointing me towards questions that were at once interesting and tractable to study, under the challenging conditions I would face.  His depth of knowledge in natural history was extraordinary and he was an endless source of good information and ideas for research.  I owe him a tremendous debt for getting me launched in my career and for his sustained friendship and stimulation over the almost 60 years that followed our first days together at Stanford.  John truly loved what he did, whether in his science or his engagement in his community.  His remarkable legacy will be felt for many years to come.”

Jim Carlton, a long-term colleague and friend of John and Vicki, writes, “John will always be remembered for his amazing vitality, intellect, and a profound memory for detail. Debby and I were always welcomed into the Pearse home with great warmth – Vicki greeting us at the door with a beaming smile, and John would look up from the kitchen table (= his upstairs office) with a robust, “There they are!” (One day we arrived to stay for a few days, but John and Vicki weren’t home. We assumed there was likely a key hidden somewhere around the front door – we found it in short order, and let ourselves in.  John and Vicki arrived in due course, and wondered how we had managed to get in – we told them we had found “the key,” and I think the response was something along the lines of, “What key?” – one of many funny moments over the years).  John was instrumental in 1973-1974 test-driving for us, with his students, some of the draft chapters with keys for the Third Edition of Light’s Manual (1975), and it was a pleasure to work with John again on echinoderms for the Fourth Edition of the Manual (2007). And of course, many other endeavors in between. Working with John these past few years on the biodiversity history and oral histories of Monterey Bay reminded us all, every day, that there was no bottom to the depth of his knowledge about the Bay, about California, about the Eastern Pacific, and about the world’s oceans. As with countless others, we will miss him terribly.”

And finally, Vicki Pearse wrote, “Words about John? I miss him unbearably. I have only words of gratitude to all of you for creating this special session in his memory and for the loving support I’ve received.”

If you miss #tidepoolingwithjohn, you can watch the video of John’s oral history here:

Jennifer Selgrath is a postdoctoral researcher studying climate change and adaptive capacity, working for Hopkins Marine Station and NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.