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Wings of Baja
By Melissa S. Cole

On the banks of San Ignacio Lagoon, in a shallow bay known as La Fridera, the men struggled to drag the 35-ton whale carcass to shore. Efficiently they flensed the body, stripping off blanket-sized pieces of blubber to be rendered in huge cooking vats. The oil bubbled and spewed, permeating the air with a dank, fishy odor. The men stood around joking together and trading daring adventures involving narrow escapes from the odious ‘devilfish’. . .

I was reading the log of Captain Scammons as we flew along the rugged Baja, California coastline on our way to San Ignacio Lagoon. I shut my eyes, trying to picture this historical scene in my mind's eye: A 19th-century captain-turned-naturalist by the name of Scammons (for whom a lagoon was named) tells of whalers making it common practice to harpoon gray whale calves first in order to lure their mothers within killing range. Watching this scene, he once wrote, "The mother whale in her frenzy will chase the boats and overturn them with her head or dash them to pieces with one stroke of her ponderous flukes."

Whaling as an industry didn't begin along the Pacific Coast until the 19th century, when American whaleboats from New England and Hawaii began entering the Pacific waters in significant numbers. Within less than 20 years, an estimated 10,000 gray whales had been killed. Unfortunately, slaughter quickened in the 20th century with the introduction of factory boats, which meant that the whales could be processed on board. By the 1930s, the number of grays was down to only 250 from a pre-1850s whale population of 21,000.

As we touched down on the dirt runway at San Ignacio Lagoon, I found it hard to believe that we had arrived at the same La Fridera 130 years later. This time we had come, not to hear boastful tales of man defeating devilfish, but rather to experience the touching curiosity of "friendly whales" for ourselves.
The whole Baja Life gang was there to witness and photograph the magnificent mammalian migration: Erik, Barbara, Cactus Bob, Bil, Matt, Laura and a guide. We were guests of Aero Calafia and were in for a first-rate experience.

Founded by two brothers, Federico and Ricardo Anaya from Ensenada, Aero Calafia began primarily as an air taxi service, but has since blossomed into the best source for adventure on the Baja Peninsula. They'll take you whale watching for the day in Magdalena Bay or San Ignacio Lagoon, surfing along the Pacific Coast, whale-shark spotting off Cabo Pulmo and even out to remote desert areas searching for fossils and Indian cave paintings. Just let them know where you wish to create your adventure and they’ll organize the air transportation. These guys are really ready for anything!

We boarded the awaiting van and drove a short distance from the airstrip to the shoreline of the lagoon. Here, colorful desert dwelling plants struggled tenaciously to survive in the sandy, desert soil. Lizards and jackrabbits scattered as we rumbled by. An old metal drum appeared on the water's edge and reminded us of times gone by. Evidence of past whaling, these huge metal tanks stored the rendered gray whale oil used for fuel, soap, cosmetics and other products. Alongside this piece of history, huge piles of scallop and oyster shells littered the roadside. Today, the people in this area make their living through an aquaculture subsistence, as well as fishing.

Ten minutes later we hopped onboard the colorful pangas (22-foot fiberglass fishing boats) and donned our well-worn life preservers. Heading west and out toward the mouth of the lagoon where the whales enter from the Pacific Ocean, Cactus Bob became determined to find himself a "friendly".

5,000 MILES DOWN, 5,000 MORE TO GO
Each autumn, gray whales religiously leave their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas and migrate southward some 5,000 miles along the Pacific coast to the sheltered bays and lagoons of Baja, California. Arriving in late December, the whales gather by the thousands to court, mate and give birth to calves conceived the previous winter. In the spring, after a lazy three month Mexican vacation, the gray whales begin the migration northward once again. Upon returning to the Arctic, they will have traveled approximately 10,000 miles roundtrip – the longest known mammal migration on earth.

Since gray whale cows normally calve every other year on average, only half of the mature females are available for mating each season. Courting bulls therefore outnumber females two to one. Gray whale mating is a complex and uninhibited affair, with males and females copulating with an assortment of different partners. Sometimes mating groups bloom into thundering orgies, involving as many as 15 whales at a time.

For a month or two following birth, gray whale calves and their mothers prefer to remain separate from the courting groups. They congregate in the calm upper part of the lagoon or "nursery". During February, the peak of the birthing season, about 100 pairs can be found resting, nursing and moving with the tides in the lagoon.
At birth, gray whale calves measure 14-16 feet in length and weigh between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds. They grow rapidly on a diet of rich milk which contains 53% fat and is the consistency of toothpaste. By winter's end, the calves have doubled in weight and added another four feet to their length. Adults weigh between 15-35 tons, with the females being larger. In the northern waters, they feed voraciously on amphipods (tiny crustaceans) burrowing in the mud. During their time in Mexico however, the whales may lose up to a third of their body weight, as there is little to feed upon in the sandy lagoons.

In early spring, adult mating groups become fewer and fewer, since the recently impregnated females are the first to start the return migration to the Arctic. Males and juveniles are quick to follow. Simultaneous to this first wave of whales heading north of the border, mothers with calves move out of the "nursery" and congregate closer to the mouth of the lagoon. They will enjoy over a month of relative peace and quiet while the babies continue to nurse and grow stronger. It won’t be until March or April that they will begin the long migration northward.

All the research in the world could not have prepared us for the soul-touching experience we were about to experience. Zooming along in the panga, foaming waves parting on both sides of the boat, we can see the blows of the whales on the horizon. Suddenly, a monstrous splash appears before us, as a 25-ton animal hurtles itself out of the water and lands sideways, performing the best belly flop we had ever seen. Ouch!
"A breach!" Barbara screams excitedly. Antonio, our panga driver, instructs us to keep our eyes peeled as the energetic cetaceans often breach three or more times in a row. Antonio was right. This one breaches five times!
We pass Punta Piedras (Rocky Point) and enter the "observation zone", where boats are allowed a closer approach to the whales. I hear breaths coming from all directions, making it difficult to know which way to turn next. The wind dies down and the sun shines upon us. All around us the gleaming, barnacle-studded backs of enormous whales playfully dip and plunge, leaving glossy footprints behind in the azure water. Surrealistically, we are gliding through a sea of whales.

In the distance are writhing, twisting tangles of tails and fins. Antonio inches us closer to the frenzied participants to see what is taking place. The whales are busy mating and pay little attention to us. Antonio cautiously backs us away and explains that it could be dangerous, as the powerful whales are unaware of their fitful actions.

"I would be unaware as well!" laughs Cactus Bob. We float lazily amongst our sea of whales, feeling their moist plumes blow across our faces, listening to their deep, hollow blows. Suddenly, the boat gives a quick jolt and we are awakened from our trance. I look wildly about for the cause of the disturbance, and there it is. A massive, barnacle-encrusted nose protrudes from the water on the port side of the boat and then a second later, a smaller nose appears beside it – a mother and her calf. We are being treated to a pair of curious "friendlies". Cactus Bob breaks into a huge grin.

Marialena, our naturalist guide, explains that each year, she sees an increase in these curious, "friendly" whales. Seemingly unafraid, more and more whales “learn” to enjoy human attention and actually seek out whale watching boats for a chance to be rubbed and scratched, similar to overgrown puppies.

Our panga practically capsizes as everyone rushes over to one side to get a better look at the two whales. Marialena, trying to keep everyone calm, tells us that we will all get a turn. The mother whale is scarred and scraped, and is so close that I can see down her twin blowholes. Her baby is sleek and coal gray. He lifts his snout out of the water, bristling with miniature hairs, straining to get a better look at his strange admirers. The curious little (20-foot) fellow comes closer and closer until, much to our amazement, we are able to reach out and touch him. He wriggles in ecstasy and dives below the water only to reappear on the other side of the panga, floating sideways and staring up at us. We look into his large, dark brown eyes buried in a sea of folds and wrinkles, appearing very wise and aged. His silky skin feels like a wet neoprene inner tube as he allows himself to be stroked by our gentle hands while the bulky shadow of his mother hovers protectively just below the surface.

It is hard to believe that twice in history man hunted these animals to near extinction. Thanks to a program of protection started in 1946 by the Mexican government, and continuing with the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, gray whales have made a remarkable comeback. Yearly censuses conducted near Monterey Bay report that their numbers are around 21,000 – equal to the days prior to Scammon. None of us want the moment to end, but the whales are finished playing with the humans. They slip quietly below the dark waters and reappear on the surface quite a distance away. Perhaps it is lunchtime or naptime or time to get ready for the arduous journey ahead. On our way back to La Fridera, a whale lifts its massive flukes from the water as if in farewell. We wave in turn and reluctantly head for shore, satiated by the experience.

Although tousled by the wind and soaked in warm whale breath, we wear huge smiles as we tumble off the panga and back onto dry land. Walking up the beach, we pass the rusted steel ruin of a Norwegian barge once used to carry salt scraped from nearby salt flats to the factory boats during whaling times. Antonio tells us that his great uncle actually worked with the whalers and remembered the exploding harpoons and the abundance of blood in the water from the hunt. It was a sobering thought after our day's experience with the gentle giants.
As we sit down to a delicious lunch (provided by Aero Calafia and prepared by Maria, Antonio's wife), we are joined by a visiting group of scientists from Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the Universidad de Baja California Sur (UABCS). While gobbling down fresh scallop machaca and warm, hand-made tortillas, the researchers tell us that they are studying how the proposed Mitsubishi/ESSA (Exportadora de Sal, S.A. de C.V.) salt plant might affect the wildlife in San Ignacio Lagoon.

Dr. Clinton Winant, leading the Scripps field team, tells us about the different kinds of gadgets the team uses to measure salt density, water temperature, currents and drift in various parts of the lagoon. Ing. Aguilar with ESSA explains to us that the proposed plant is to be located in the vicinity of Abreojos (north of San Ignacio) quite a distance away from the lagoon itself. Here, a large pump would take sea water out to be dried by the wind on the shallow surrounding mud flats. No chemicals will be used and the bitterns (the concentrated salts left over) will be re-mixed with ocean water and put back into the lagoon once again.

Winant, in coordination with Scripps' Dr. Paul Dayton and the UABCS team, is studying various oceanographic components to see if removing this amount of water would affect the density of salt and therefore the drift of the water and perhaps the recruitment of larval animals (fish, mollusks, etc.). He explains that the pump will not be within the lagoon itself, and that this area is 8 kilometers away from areas which whales frequent.
Cactus Bob asks, "But what about all of the barge traffic in and out of the lagoon that will be used to transport the salt? Wouldn’t that affect the whales?"

Winant replies, "There is no way large boats could enter the lagoon and the cost of dredging and keeping the lagoon open would probably greatly exceed the profits generated by the facility. Instead, bulk carrier ships will dock at the pier to be built in Abreojos, keeping them clear of the lagoon."
"So when will this plant be built?" asks Barbara.

Dr. Winant continues, "The study dates are November 1, 1997 through October 31, 1998. After the study is complete, a report will be written and submitted. I'd be surprised if construction began as early as the year 2000, but if it does, it will take at least five years after construction begins before any salt can be shipped. Also, I believe both ESSA and Mitsubishi have stated that they would not proceed if the EIS (environmental impact statement) was negative."

Aguilar tells us about a similar salt plant which has been in operation in Guerrero Negro for forty years, with no negative effects to the gray whales wintering there. In fact, there are actually more whales and seabirds there than ever before. Additionally, thirteen pairs of endangered Peregrine falcons nest in the vicinity of the plant itself, hunting the migratory ducks that congregate on the evaporated ponds.

Although I was not immediately thrilled with the idea of the salt plant, it was comforting to know that it might not be the terrible environmental hazard that some of us have imagined. Perhaps the salt works might even prove to be one of the first successful endeavors of its kind, combining economic gain (helping provide countless Mexicans with employment) with environmental well-being. Big business mixed with environmental consciousness? Sounds like it could finally be a possibility.

Finishing our tasty and insightful lunch, we climbed back into the awaiting Caravan and headed back to Los Cabos. Skimming over the mangrove-laden shores and desert scrub surrounding the lagoon, we could see the unmistakable shadows of the gray whales below us, floating peacefully once again, unharmed in their liquid playground. Perhaps one of these mother and baby pairs was "ours." The whales had given us the thrill of a lifetime and a brief glance into a fantastic cycle of natural wonders that none of us will ever forget.

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