In The Pipeline: The outdoors is his classroom

March 28, 2012|By Chris Epting
  • Gerald J. Bakus.
Gerald J. Bakus.

About two years ago, I experienced my first grunion run — a late-night visit to the beach in the hopes of seeing mobs of the elusive fish, the grunion, appear to perform their mysterious spawning rituals.

I'd heard many stories of people trying for years to witness the spectacle, following the suggested nights when the moon and tides are just right. Of course there's no guarantee, but on the night we went, we scored big — tens of thousands of the fish appeared on the beach starting around midnight.

I wrote a column about the unique experience and, shortly after, received a note from Gerald J. Bakus, a professor of biology at USC. Bakus explained that he was working on a book, "Natural History of California," and asked if he might use one of my grunion photos, which was fine by me.

About a year later, last spring, I received a follow-up note from Bakus saying that his book was finished and that he was sending me a copy. When it arrived, neither my son nor I could put it down. Part of a series of "Natural History" titles he has created (which include Nevada, Oregon, Santa Catalina Island and, soon, New Mexico), the titles are all crammed with facts, histories and photos that, together, form the definitive natural histories of each region. The books are impressive not just in their scope, but in their crisp organization and simplicity — they are terrific.


Right around the time I received the book, we learned that our son Charlie would be attending USC, and this semester, he is very pleased to be taking Bakus' course on California's natural history. It's so funny how things work out sometimes.

Recently, the three of us had lunch together on campus, but before eating, Bakus took me through his lab, a wonderfully old-school space stocked with books, specimen jars and microscopes. I learned that not only was this going to be the professor's 50th year teaching biology at USC, but that he is approaching his 50th year as a Huntington Beach resident, as well.

That had never come up and I had no idea he had raised his family here, but I knew I'd want to write about him, given what an interesting member of the community he is.

Bakus completed his Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Washington, Seattle in 1962 and has field experience from the Aleutian Islands, Iceland, the Antarctic Peninsula and the Galapagos Islands to the tropics.

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