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’.
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."
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
CACTUS BOB HUNTS FOR "FRIENDLIES"
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
SEA OF WHALES
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
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.
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.
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?"
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?"
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."
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.
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.
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.