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The Footprint of a Whale

Diana Marcum, a staff writer for the Fresno Bee, last wrote for the magazine about Palm Springs card dealer schools

The road to the whales eats cars. When Wallace J. Nichols, an American turtle researcher, broke down he was stuck for two days until a mechanic happened by. The mechanic was a friend of the notorious Gordo Fischer, known throughout Baja California Sur for poaching sea turtles. While the mechanic patched up the rock-blasted International Travelall in the garage of his San Ignacio home, the poacher and the conservationist sized each other up over cold Tecates. That’s how things go here. One road. One lagoon. And a bunch of people with different ideas about how the lagoon should be used. Have a beer amigo and let me take the measure of my enemy.

At the ocean-end of the 37-mile, oil pan-piercing, axle-busting Baja desert dirt road, past fingers of cardon cacti, volcanic ridges and eerie, seemingly endless salt flats aglow in pale, winter light, is Laguna San Ignacio, the last unspoiled mating and calving grounds of the California gray whale. The route the whale pods take to these warm, peaceful waters is even more obstacle-strewn than the drive here. From the frigid waters of the Bering Sea, the cetaceans dodge oil tankers and fishing nets and swim by indigenous Siberians with rifles, then run a gantlet of diesel-spewing whale-watching boats while enduring the sewage discharge of Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and the San Diego-Tijuana area.

As late as March of last year, Exportadora de Sal S.A., or ESSA, a joint venture between Mitsubishi and the Mexican government, planned to build the world’s largest saltworks in the Vizca’no Biosphere Reserve, which had supposedly been set aside to protect the center of Baja California and the surrounding waters. The $180-million project would have placed 116 square miles of dikes and ponds and a mile-long pier for cargo ships in the lagoon. Local fishermen protested. Their cause was picked up by the Group of 100, an influential circle of Mexican artists and intellectuals, and by a coalition of more than 50 environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Forty-six cities and towns, including Los Angeles, joined the California Coastal Commission in condemning the project. E-mails zigzagged around the world. Movie stars went on save-the-whale press junkets. In car-crazy Southern California, consumers sent boycott letters to Mitsubishi dealerships. But this was one of the world’s largest corporations

in partnership with the Mexican government. It looked like it would be a long, lopsided fight. But, on March 2 of last year, then-President Ernesto Zedillo made the surprise announcement that his government was canceling the venture.

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It was a great day for the whales. But some people who live on the road to the lagoon and on its shores felt that their hopes for a better life had been harpooned. A year later, the whales are back, but the locals say the tourist numbers are down. And the creatures who are arguably this ecosystem’s most intelligent species find themselves squinting into the harsh Baja sun and contemplating anew exactly how they fit into this habitat. With the saltworks defeated, people are rearranging their alliances, reconsidering their livelihoods and reexamining their values.

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THE ROAD TO “THE FRIENDLIES” ENDS AT LA LAGUNA, POPULATION 30. Salt flats shimmer beneath the fog. Whales, turtles and dolphins are out there in the turquoise water and a fisherman named Pachico works on his boat while a puppy tries to untie his shoelaces.

Jose Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral, 59, was the first to pet a whale. In front of his home, atop a knoll, sits the very panga he was in that day.

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In February 1972, Pachico and his partner, Santos Luis Perez, were fishing on the lagoon. Usually they were careful to keep away from the beasts that they knew could easily capsize their boat. But this day a mother whale surprised them. She came alongside and started rubbing against the panga. They were terrified, but over the next several minutes Pachico felt courage growing inside him and decided to touch the whale. He just felt, he says, that it was a good idea to pet a whale. Which he did for a half hour.

Santos, still Pachico’s best friend, drops by to help tell the story. He also tried to reach out to the whale, he says, but his hand shook too hard with nervousness. The whale was marked by scars on her shoulders, so Pachico and Santos recognized her the many seasons afterward that she came to his boat.

The story made it into the American “Reader’s Digest.” Pachico has a carefully preserved copy. In this version of the tale, Pachico throws himself down and fervently makes the sign of a cross as the whale chases the panga. “Fantasy,” he says. Because it is not a wise man who throws himself down and gesticulates wildly in a 20-foot panga chased by a 50-foot whale. But this much he says is true: Twenty-nine years ago, in this lagoon, a whale approached a fisherman and the fisherman reached out to pet the whale.

Now in the winter, after fishing season, Pachico, his sons and other lagoon fishermen make money taking tourists out to pet the friendly whales. The mothers bring their babies alongside the skiffs and tourists scratch their backs and stick their hands into their mouths to feel the bristly plates of fibers called baleen. (Gray whales don’t have teeth; they eat tiny plankton, amphipods and krill strained from the ocean floor.) “They like a firm scratching,” Pachico tells his clients. “Don’t touch their tails; they don’t like that.”

This is not normal California gray whale behavior. Or, at least it’s not the way the whales behaved in the 1920s when Norwegian ships hunted them with exploding harpoons that turned tranquil lagoons red with blood, or in the 1800s when American and European whalers would strike calves first to lure the mothers within killing range. Captain Charles Scammon, one of the first whalers to discover Mexico’s secluded breeding grounds, reported that enraged mothers would chase the boats and overturn them, earning the whales the nickname “devil fish.”

Through systematic hunting and the reckless killing of calves, the reproductive hope of the species, whalers reduced the gray whale population in the waters from Alaska to Baja to a few thousand in the late 1800s. Twice in the past 120 years gray whales have teetered on the edge of extinction.

At Laguna San Ignacio, whales have been regularly reported to approach people in a friendly manner. Could it be learned behavior passed down from Pachico’s whale or that the hum of the panga skiffs may be just the right frequency to attract whales, or that the aftereffects of whale sex have made them particularly touchy-feely? Whatever the cause, the whales’ aberrant behavior formed bonds. “The whales,” says Pachico, “they are family.”

“Most of the people from here are looking for jobs, they really wanted the saltworks,” recalls Pachico’s son Ranulfo Mayoral, an artist who sells sketches of whales to tourists. “People got very angry. They shook their fists and called us traitors to Mexico, to the lagoon.” But long before Mexico’s poets, environmentalists and researchers joined the fray, Pachico and his sons spoke out: “Think what it will do to the whales, the lagoon, our way of life. Do you want to work in a factory instead of fish on the ocean?”

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IF YOU DECIDE TO COMMUNE WITH THE GRAY WHALES AFTER THEY ARRIVE at the lagoon in late winter and before they depart in late spring, you might want to type “Baja whale-watching” into an Internet search engine. You’ll be steered to tour companies offering to fly you down on a chartered plane, put you up in one of the tourist camps on the shores of the lagoon and motor you out to where the whales congregate.

La Laguna and other communities close to the tourist camps are poor. The waters are overfished. Profits from the catch barely pay for gas and boat repairs. Families here now depend on the seasonal income that comes with the tourists.

On the other end of the lagoon is Punta Abreojos, a hamlet of 200 families with a picturesque sea wall and fleet of fishing boats. The rocky bottom of the waters near Punta Abreojos attracts lobster and abalone, high-profit products. The houses are modest but well-built, with plumbing and fenced backyards. The fishermen of Punta Abreojos make about $5 million a year because they long ago formed a strong fishing cooperative. They buy major equipment together, own their own spotless processing facility and protect their marine area from off-season fishing and poaching. It was Punta Abreojos fishermen who courted environmental groups to help block ESSA.

The saltworks planned to pump seawater out of the lagoon at 6,000 gallons per second and evaporate it on salt flats. The desert sun would also dry up the fish eggs, brine and other small creatures in the water. Most scientists agreed that of all the species living in the lagoon, the whales, remarkably adaptable creatures, were the best suited to survive the changes. But while the whales might continue mating and rubbing against pangas, other species would find their food supply diminished, and then fishermen might find their economic lifeblood depleted as well. And all the while the human population of Punta Abreojos would be growing, tripling within two to three years.

The fishing cooperative, and later the environmental groups, worried that people--especially in far-off Los Angeles and Mexico City--might have a hard time getting worked up about a hamlet of fishermen’s families. But they knew people could be counted on to rally to the defense of enormous mammals that sing and make goo-goo eyes.

In the town of San Ignacio, 37 miles inland, the resentment of Punta Abreojos is palpable. “It was never about the whales,” says Rafael Aguilar Romero, a San Ignacio resident. “They want to stop progress for everyone else to protect their precious abalone.”

The guy who runs the general store has an anti-environmental diatribe he works into his sales pitch: Did you see my selection of beautiful T-shirts with whale pictures? How dare big-city rich Mexicans and hypocritical American environmentalists, whose own waters are poisoned, keep prosperity from reaching rural Mexico? The saltworks would have meant 216 permanent jobs and 1,400 temporary and part-time jobs for a depressed area, and the government said it would not harm the whales or environment. Some warm date cake for your journey to the lagoon?

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Adriana Romero, 87, sits bundled against the cold in a drafty San Ignacio house. Her shawl is pink. Her eyes are sad. She is wrinkled and brown. “No one ever cares about us, the common people,” she says. “We can’t have turtle soup. Our sons can’t have jobs.”

ESSA’s slogan was “Expanding our partnership with nature.” And those who hoped for jobs and better roads believed ESSA. “I have a book that says the saltworks won’t hurt whales,” says Rafael Aguilar Romero, Adriana’s son. He offers to go get the book. It’s a public relations pamphlet distributed by ESSA. It has cartoon drawings of happy whales.

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ECO-WARRIORS LIKE ARI HERSHOWITZ FOUGHT ESSA’S PR EFFORTS WITH promises. During the five-year battle, environmental groups swore that they would stick around to help lagoon communities become more economically self-sustaining. Such assurances, they confide, may be the future of the environmental movement: not just the blocking of projects, but helping find alternatives to lost jobs. For the time being, though, employment prospects remain dim, promised funds scarce, and everyone wants to talk to Hershowitz, the NRDC’s man-on-the- scene.

In San Ignacio, they want an ambulance to traverse the bumpy road that might have been paved if the salt plant had been built. In La Laguna, they want to talk about the new schoolroom that the NRDC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare are funding. Hershowitz considers it a cost-effective way to protect whales. “The people who will best protect the lagoon are the people who live here, and education is the most powerful tool we can provide,” he says, sounding like the son of two teachers that he is. Last year he took children and parents from San Ignacio and the lagoon communities whale-watching. Most had never been able to afford going. Now wherever the slight, bearded American goes, children run up shouting Ari! Ari!. He dances around a pole with a 4-year-old. He admires children’s artwork in classrooms. By the end of the trip, the 28-year-old former Caltech neuroscience grad student, fresh off an international environmental victory, will wonder if maybe what he ought to be doing is teaching eighth-grade science in Mexico.

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ISIDRO ARCE ARCE FROM Punta Abreojos has the habit peculiar to fishermen and sailors of looking into the sun and squinting with one eye. He is the one who finally caught Gordo. He arrested him with seven illegally captured turtles and videotaped it with a digital camera donated by Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group headed by Bobby Kennedy Jr. that took part in the fight for Laguna San Ignacio. Kennedy and Arce, a lifelong fisherman, are chummy. They went sailing on rock star Billy Joel’s boat in a place Arce calls Long Iceland.

Arce, 37, wanted to live his life as a simple fisherman in the town where he grew up. But now he is the “vocal de vigilancia"--the game warden--and he prowls the waters in early morning and late night, protecting the marine populations from poachers and always hoping he doesn’t inadvertently stop armed drug traffickers, who might show the same mercy on him as poachers show the turtles. He also travels--to Orlando and Los Angeles for example--to attend Waterkeeper meetings.

“The United States is nice--for a visit,” he says. But then people from Punta Abreojos tend to think no other place is as nice to live in as their town. In the early ‘90s, long before the issue of the saltworks came to a head, Mexico restricted fishing in the lagoon during the whale season. Local fishermen said they would continue to fish unless the government offered them a way to make up for lost income and support their families, and so they received exclusive access to whale-watching permits. The American outfitters who fly in chartered planes of tourists, charging hefty fees for solar-heated showers, padded cots and spaghetti dinners, must hire La Laguna residents to take clients out in their pangas.

Most of the tourist camps are owned by outsiders. Not Campo Cortez, which is Johnny and Maldo’s place. Johnny Friday, 34, is a blue-eyed California beach boy who grew up wanting to be a marine biologist but ended up playing college baseball in Texas and stumbling into a business degree. He is an equal partner in Campo Cortez with Maldo Fischer, 38, a dark, powerful lifelong fisherman, father and “man of respect” on the lagoon.

Being a man of respect carries a lot of responsibility. One evening five years ago, when Friday and Fischer were still trying to run a camp with just the three tents they’d bought at WalMart, a cluster of whales surrounded the skiffs the partners had filled with paying customers. It was a coup for their infant business. Anyone else would have stayed past the unenforced deadline mandated by the whale-watching permit. But Fischer, with a shudder and a sigh of infinite regret, turned back. “I am a man of respect in the community,” he told Friday. “How can I break rules when I am a leader who has to set rules and boundaries?”

Fischer’s house, 10 miles from the camp, is dim and rattling, with wind buffeting the tin roof and flimsy plywood walls. Blue plastic barrels are stacked up outside holding the water that must be trucked in. The front room has a couch and two love seats that take up every inch of wall space, a stove, sink and refrigerator, on which sits a tiny TV blaring the talk show “Laura.” Today’s topic: The man who ruined me and the man who saved me. Neighbors have dropped by to watch the show with Fischer’s wife Catalina. Fischer proudly shows a tiny box sprouting several colors of wires; controls for the solar panels that two years ago brought electricity to the lagoon.

When Friday looks at Fischer’s house, Fischer’s lifestyle, through his American eyes, what he feels is envy. “I’m the typical story. Broken family. Single mom,” Friday says. “I appreciate the way Maldo lives. Community comes first. Catalina is the center of that community. Going for coffee is the big thing around here, and every day everyone has to go to Catalina’s at least once to get caught up. Now they have that damned satellite TV, but before that a little coffee visit was the favorite entertainment.”

Friday and Fischer have much in common--they both like to work hard and with their hands. But Friday knows they have different intensities of ambition. “Maldo’s dead-set on an education for his kids, and around here that takes a lot of money. It’s important to him that we become one of the big guys. But, I . . . . No one wants to teeter on the edge, but even if there came a time we didn’t make money, I don’t know what else I’d do. I don’t want to go back to the States and a regular job. I think I’d still park the trailer, go drink coffee with Catalina and pound a few nails.”

Friday’s even more content these days. He’s in love. This season Marie Pierre Dalcourt, a curly-haired Quebec veterinarian, is living at the camp. In the panga, as Fischer constantly scans the water for whale signs only he seems to see, Dalcourt practices the spiel she plans to use later on tourists: “How big do gray whales get? Fifty feet. How long does a gray whale live? About 50 years.” As long as she can remember, Dalcourt has been fascinated with whales. “They are for me,” she says, stopping to struggle for the word, “divinity. They are the largest creature. They could destroy anything. But they are out there swimming, peaceful. Humans also have the power to destroy. If only we could learn from the whales.” Her words faintly echo a poem by Homero Aridjis, leader of the Group of 100. “Gray whale,” he wrote, “show us the way to another fate.”

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IF YOU’RE AT LAGUNA SAN IGNACIO and you go whale-watching, perhaps a cold morning wind will be blowing. Perhaps you’ll see whale spouts in the distance: sky-scraping fountains from the mamas and comical, mimicking squirts from their babies. Maybe your first up-close glimpse will be a 40-foot primordial shadow swimming under the 20-foot panga you sit in, and you will think with an astonishing lack of profundity, “Boy, that’s really big.” When the back of the whale surfaces just a couple of yards from the stern and a gusher spews from the blowhole, perhaps you’ll see a rainbow and laugh as you’re misted with whale spit.

Maybe when you go out again that afternoon, the wind will have died down and the ocean will be a deep blue except where it glints gold in the late sun. Maybe cormorants will form a V in the sky, and bottle-nosed dolphins will make scalloped jumps, and your mind will wander, the way minds do out on the water. Even if you don’t see a whale this time you will still not think this was such a bad deal. But then maybe a mama whale decides to introduce you to her 2-week-old, 1-ton baby. Maybe after a few coy passes and splashes the baby will " spy-hop,” pushing his head out of the water and gaze, you’ll swear, right at you. Maybe, looking into the eyes of a baby whale, something like wonder or maybe awe will settle deep in your chest and work its way up behind your eyes, and you will be afraid, not of the protective 40-ton mama, but afraid that you might cry. Then the mother will dive. Her enormity will displace a piece of ocean, leaving a smooth circle of perfect stillness on the water, and the man piloting your boat will point and murmur: “The footprint of a whale.”

Stare into that circle of calm and maybe you’ll understand: It was never about the whales.


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