University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Carolyn Sotka ’94

Neighbors, comrades across time

Monterey bay

Departments / Alumni Voice

Neighbors, comrades across time

by Carolyn Sotka ’94

Sitting on my porch in Burlington in 1993, I never would have guessed that a hundred years earlier another young woman, also a UVM student, was sitting on her own porch right down the street dreaming similar dreams to mine—of the ocean and becoming a zoologist. Ten years later, our paths would cross again as I’d regularly ride my bike past the house where this same woman once lived in Pacific Grove, California. Dr. Julia Platt, my neighbor twice in place but not in time, would soon help me unfold a story, The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival, about the people and events that changed the course of this famous section of coastline from a bay at its worst to one of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders of the world.

I first learned of Julia Platt while working on a project with the director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, Dr. Stephen Palumbi. We were researching a tiny marine reserve that protected the kelp forest and rocky intertidal zone around Hopkins, and working at the nexus of a debate about how we manage our coastal areas in the United States—specifically, the role of marine reserves or areas of “no take.” The Hopkins Marine Life Refuge, one of the first in the United States, anchors a larger network of marine protected areas in the Monterey Bay. Dr. Julia Platt, then mayor of Pacific Grove, founded the Hopkins Refuge in 1931.

I met this bold, impressive woman for the first time in the dusty archives of the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. I’ll never forget pulling out the huge archive folder not expecting to find much, then being astounded with the turn of every page. The more I learned about Julia, the more I was pulled in by her powerful tide. I got goose bumps when I read she graduated from my alma mater and a second set when I realized we had lived within a mile of one another both in California and Vermont. 

Julia Platt was born in San Francisco in 1857, but raised in Burlington and graduated from the University of Vermont with a Ph.B. degree in 1882. After studying at Harvard and Woods Hole Marine Lab, she went on to become “Dr. Julia,” one of the first American women with a Ph.D. in zoology, which she earned in Germany in 1898. Being a woman in sciences in that era, and a marine neurobiologist/embryologist to boot, Julia’s road traversed the United States and several continents and diverted around the many roadblocks she encountered.

My own road to Monterey Bay began with a semester-abroad while earning my zoology degree at UVM. It was a truly eye-opening experience in Tanzania and Zanzibar, witnessing the real struggles communities face trying to balance preservation of special places and wildlife with cultural needs and use of the environment. Zanzibar Island took an immediate hold on me, and I would return there within months to work translating fishermen’s interviews about a proposed privately managed marine reserve. What is today the Chumbe Island Marine Park, began as a vision of one woman working with the community to help preserve the local reef and the fisheries that depended on it.  In 1992, it became the first marine park in Tanzania, and is fully registered as a United Nations marine protected area. Through my experience on the project, I was hooked—not just on marine ecosystems but on working with people to protect the places they love.  These passions led me around the world and eventually I landed in Monterey on Julia’s shore in 2002.

Julia arrived herself in 1899 to pursue marine science at the first marine biological laboratory on the West Coast, Stanford University’s Hopkins Seaside Laboratory. But after years of futile attempts to get a job with the local universities, the halls of academia closed forever to her.

Fortunately, the doors of civic duty opened wide. Julia wanted to protect the place she loved and turned her energies to Pacific Grove’s rugged and magnificent coastline. She fought for public access to beaches and at the age of seventy-three knocked down a fence to a barricaded point. She posted on the site, “Opened by Julia B. Platt. This entrance to the beach must be left open at all hours when the public might reasonably wish to pass through. I act in the matter because the Council and Police Department of Pacific Grove are men and possibly somewhat timid.”  

Tired of her constant complaining, local politicians suggested she run for mayor, and that Julia did with her motto in hand: “It will take a good man to beat me, and if a good man is elected that will be all the better.” None did. She became the mayor of Pacific Grove, second female mayor in California history, in April 1931. 

One of Julia Platt’s first acts in public office was to protect her beloved shoreline. From her vantage, the Monterey Bay had been under siege, with waste and guts from the sardine plants down the road on Cannery Row suffocating the coast, and from intensive harvesting of marine invertebrates from the rocky intertidal and near-shore waters. She took action in her backyard, a five-mile swath of coast seen from her house at 557 Ocean View Boulevard.  First she drafted a new state law to grant the city of Pacific Grove the title to the waterfront and submerged lands.  It passed the state legislature and became a city ordinance in April 1932. 

She then set up a marine refuge that would serve as a nursery for invertebrates from where “tiny larvae may swim or be carried by currents to all points along the shore and become attached, grow up and replace those taken for food or curio.”  Julia’s rationale is remarkably similar to what is currently used to site marine reserves, the replenishment of sets of marine species that interact together in an ecosystem. It is rationale that was used to set up the Chumbe Island Marine Park, and implemented in a number of coastal areas around the United States, most recently with 2011 plans to protect 15 percent of the Southern California coast in a network of marine reserves.

Julia and I share a past, we share a path, and we share a passion. Her story and the others in The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival, which I co-authored with Stephen Palumbi, tell a history of a place that is noteworthy because it is not just a downward trajectory. The same success could happen elsewhere. In the end, it is the people who are inspired to act and whose acts inspire that lead to positive change and preservation of treasured places and a sustainable way of life.

Several years after her term as mayor, Julia Platt passed away. My research turned up a hand-written account of her funeral.  Of course Julia had to go out in style, and eccentric until the end, she requested to be buried at sea.  Begrudgingly city council members rowed her out far from shore, laid in a wicker basket filled with flowers. They fastened a fifty-pound metal wheel to her chest and set her free. Accounts say that her body bobbed to the surface once, with her head above water, as if to take one last look at her beloved coastline.

Carolyn (Steve) Sotka currently leads outreach efforts to Congress, the media and general public, and government agencies for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Oceans and Human Health Initiative. She lives with her marine biologist husband, two children, and dogs on James Island in South Carolina.

Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue.

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