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29        The Sacredness of This Place

Wildness is the state of complete awareness. That’s why we need it.

 — Gary Snyder

Although only a hundred yards from the La Pinta Hotel, the spacious trailer park was well hidden from the world. It was a quiet tourist stopover offering minimum services: a water faucet, and a crude plywood-screened pit toilet and cold shower. Indeed, its use as a trailer park was secondary to its use as a date orchard. Rarely were there more than three or four vehicles tucked in between the date palms; and most visitors were just overnighting. The atmosphere was warm and wonderfully relaxing; it was easy for both me and Misión to make friends…..


…..I walked over to Misión and gave him the snacks and treats I had no appetite for. I draped my arm over his neck and stared silently at the moonlight playing on the palm leaves.

Later, open eyed and wide awake in my tent, I listened to his familiar mournful bray. I smiled and knew at that moment that I did not want another burro. With all his faults and frailties, I wanted to continue with him even if we camped under a cactus and went nowhere.

A wonderful opportunity presented itself the next day when I received an invitation from a representative of Baja Discovery, a San Diego-based travel company, to join a group of tourists at their “Whale Camp” at Rocky Point, over forty miles away near the mouth of Laguna San Ignacio. Amazingly, after his initial cool response, Martín, the park owner, made it possible by offering to take care of Misión and store my supplies and equipment in his house!

I had two hours to catch the ride leaving for the lagoon. I hastily called Bonni. With no one home, I left a message saying I’d call when I returned, and headed back to the campground to pack. In a way, I was relieved that I could avoid confronting the finality a little while longer.

After a two-and-a-half hour drive through the desert and salt flats, I arrived at Rocky Point by boat at sundown and was excited to see and hear so many gray whales breaching and blowing just offshore. In camp I ate well, had a beer or two, and was given a great reception, and my own wonderfully spacious tent.

The next morning, I put on a life jacket and joined six tourists in a small but sturdy open fishing boat—the twenty-foot panga so familiar in all the fishcamps of Baja. And we didn’t have to wait long to find ourselves receiving all the whale attention we could possibly want.

It began with a thirty-five-foot, barnacle-encrusted, gray whale making a beeline for our boat with its two-ton baby fast beside her. The pair swam under the boat, scratching themselves on its bottom, and then emerged to poke their heads above the surface. The atmosphere of cool cordiality aboard the panga was instantly transformed to a scene of frenzied, photo-snapping, uninhibited, excited laughter. I reached out to pat the mother like it was some forty-ton pet. Unlike the burro, hard, muscular and woolly, she felt soft and delicate—like a giant, peeled, hard-boiled egg. Everyone on our boat had time to reach out and touch, rub, or vigorously stroke the all-too-willing whales.

For four more days, I reveled in a fantasy world of “friendly” after “friendly.” I touched at least a dozen and kissed a few, too. A couple of them opened their mouths wide as eager hands stroked their lips and baleen. Some whales kept their eyes closed; others looked back with black, gentle eyes. One spun under our caresses revealing baleen, blowholes, eyes, and throat grooves in one slow, graceful, trusting turn.

Beyond the magical scene at the boats we were often entertained by babies practicing their breaches, and forty-ton adults “spyhopping”—rising slowly, vertically, one third of their length out of the water, apparently looking around.

And if you could possibly tire of whales, there were many bottlenose dolphins in the lagoon—a pair frolicked in our bow wave—and sea lions. We watched a sea lion thrashing an octopus at the surface; another juvenile sea lion surprised and delighted a boat full of tourists by mixing in with a pair of friendlies and then going one step further by jumping in the boat!

Back in camp, I was able to put back a couple of lost pounds thanks to all the delicious food. For our entertainment, Baja Discovery put on a superb program of lectures by speakers such as Laura Urian (Education Director of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary), Will Engleby (Marine Coordinator for the Wild Dolphin Project of the Bahamas), and Jorge Urban of the University of Baja California in La Paz, who was there studying the gray whales in the lagoon.

Laguna San Ignacio does not offer ordinary whale watching. It dishes up a spectacle of heart-warming, soul-touching, life-affirming, magical interaction set in an apparently pristine paradise, perhaps in its own way as sacred as the tallest cathedral or the most holy mountain. There in the very waters where nineteenth-century whalers harassed and slaughtered the gray whale almost to extinction, where the desperate battling whales earned the name “devilfish” for their determined defense of their young, we were now witnessing these selfsame creatures miraculous transformed into “friendlies.” The mother that once smashed boats and bones to defend her young was now lifting and escorting her baby to almost identical boats to be admired and caressed by the descendants of their tormentors.


Friendly Gray Whale – Laguna San Ignacio

Our Mexican boatman—Pancho Mayoral—spoke good English. Like all the boatmen there in Laguna San Ignacio, he was very respectful of the whales, allowing them to initiate any interaction. The noise of the motors—slipped into neutral on their approach—and the sound of hands splashing in the water seemed to attract them.

One sunny afternoon, while we were bobbing just inside the roaring surf line by the mouth of the lagoon, he related that his father, Francisco or Pancho Sr., had the first friendly encounter with a whale in the mid-seventies while he was fishing for black sea bass in the lagoon. He was too nervous to do anything as the whale swam under the boat and poked its head above the surface. He didn’t dare start the motor. When the whale backed off, he moved. The whale came after him. He moved his boat several times. The whale kept following him. Finally, Francisco reached out to touch it. When he told the folks in the village, no one believed him.

And it was hard to believe what we packed into five days of whale camp—as well as the whales and the lectures, we enjoyed beach hikes, nature walks, boat rides to see the incredible bird life of the mangroves, and a great good-bye mariachi fiesta. And to top off the experience, I was fortunate to find my camp colleagues were twenty-one members of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Not only had they come to enjoy the magic of the whales and experience the splendor of the lagoon, they were there in furtherance of their campaign to oppose an amazing encroachment into this unique environment.

Exportadora de Sal SA, ( ESSA), jointly owned by the Mexican government (51 percent) and Japan’s Mitsubishi corporation (49 percent), was planning to build the world’s largest salt-production facility in the upper reaches of the lagoon, with a mile-long loading pier stretching across the whale’s migratory pathway just north of the lagoon mouth. If built, the salt works would install noisy diesel engines to pump thousands of gallons of water out of the lagoon every second. More than 100 square miles of the land around the lagoon would be bermed and flooded to produce enormous evaporation ponds. Salinity levels could be affected and, in case of a spill-back accident, disastrously altered.

The NRDC, in fairness to ESSA, presented a video of company director Señor Bremer presenting his case for the salt works; the main point being that the whales and a major evaporative salt works have coexisted in nearby Ojo de Liebre, or Scammon’s Lagoon, since 1957 and there has been no recorded environmental disaster there. On the contrary, the gray whale population has rebounded from the brink of extinction—in the 1930s only a few hundred were left—to its estimated pre-whaling number of between 20,000 and 25,000. The gray whale was taken off the Endangered Species List in 1994. That was the strong point that had to be assaulted.

Listening to the NRDC activists making their case, it was apparent that the assault was going to be made on two fronts, and it was going to be made passionately—if not ferociously. On the one hand, all possible scientific evidence would be brought to bear against ESSA and its environmental record; on the other, a campaign would be made to show that any economic benefits would be outweighed by the threat to an irreplaceable, world-class ecological and spiritual treasure.

San Ignacio Lagoon is the last virtually undisturbed refuge for gray whales that come there by the thousands from the waters around Alaska to mate and bear their young. And the whales in Laguna San Ignacio have long been known to be the friendliest to human visitors. The lagoon and the immediately surrounding desert is a UNESCO declared World Heritage Site and is part of a government-established protected area—the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area in Latin America. Its purpose was to encourage conservation of endangered plants and animals while also allowing some controlled and consistent human activity. Building the world’s largest salt-evaporation facility arguably goes beyond those guidelines. And whales aren’t the only creatures at risk. The mangrove wetlands and desert surrounding San Ignacio Lagoon support thousands of birds and animals, including endangered pronghorn antelope and burrowing owls.

The claim was also made that world salt markets were saturated and did not need the increased production that the new operation would bring. They suspected ESSA of simply planning to run down its old, 50,000-acre site near the town of Guerrero Negro and then opening a more efficient one on the edge of the sensitive whale-breeding habitat at San Ignacio. And maybe it shouldn’t be a mere footnote, but there is the importance to humans of preserving this austerely beautiful place where people can directly interact with forty-ton marine mammals.

Indeed, over the following weeks and months, as the campaign intensified, ESSA was attacked as a poor steward of the environment. Legal actions were launched in Mexico accusing the company of being responsible for an accident at its existing facility that killed ninety-four endangered sea turtles when concentrated salt water spilled back into the lagoon.

Mexico’s Environment Ministry determined that the spill killed the turtles of the Chelonia agasizzii species, which nests in Michoacan state further south but feeds along the coast of Baja CaliforniaSur. At a high-profile news conference, Greenpeace showed videotape of turtle carcasses scattered about the banks of the Ojo de Liebre Lagoon. An Environment Ministry spokesman said a special Scientific Committee conducted a six-month investigation and determined that the massive turtle kill was caused by a spill after ruling out deadly red algae and illegal poaching. Greenpeace, the NRDC, and other environmental organizations angrily demanded that Mexico refuse to permit ESSA’s planned operation in Laguna San Ignacio.

And to rub salt in the wound, the environmental groups also suggested ESSA may have been behind the deaths of twenty-one gray whales in the lagoon where the saltworks operates after a total of fifty had washed up dead on Mexican shores.

Ecologists claimed the wildlife deaths testified to ESSA’s “poor past environmental record” and showed “a pattern of illegal toxic discharges and harm to the marine environment” at their current 50,000-acre site, which shows it cannot be trusted to open a new plant nearby.

In the face of the initial report, ESSA denied releasing any brine concentrate into the lagoon at the time of the turtle deaths, and said there was no evidence that whales were harmed in any way by its operations at the lagoon.

Moreover, the company stressed the advantages of the new operation, claiming it will bring numerous benefits to surrounding communities, and will convert Mexico into the leading producer of salt in the Pacific basin.

The company’s own environmental impact statement claimed there would be no impact on whales or other wildlife because affected habitats are “terrestrial” with little biodiversity and no productive use.

Steve Wechselblatt, Mitsubishi’s U.S.-based vice president for public relations, argued that the campaign against the salt works was misleading in several respects.

“This is not an industrial operation,” he said. “It is a facility that uses the renewable resources of sun, wind and seawater.” Saltwater pumped from the ocean is filtered through a series of ponds, allowing evaporation and salt crystallization. Other experts agree with Wechselblatt that the ponds have contributed to the formation of new wetlands which, in turn, have drawn more birds.

And for the few hundred fishermen and their families in the handful of primitive fishing camps without electricity, potable water, or health services, company officials dangled the prospect of 200 jobs and modern conveniences sure to follow the projected $100 million in export revenues.

Given the controversy, a second study was initiated. To complicate matters, it found no proof that the salt company was responsible for either the turtle or the whale deaths!

Armed with this new conclusion, the company went on the attack, accusing environmentalists of conducting a smear campaign, and fabricating and exaggerating charges in order to defend the gray whale, which continues to thrive despite salt “farming” on the banks of the Ojo de Liebre Lagoon.

“Attempts by groups of activists to create a link that does not exist with Exportadora de Sal are reprehensible,” ESSA said in a statement. “Furthermore, they show the absence of any real concern for the well-being of the whales, trying to put responsibility on an institution that is not responsible at the price of genuine efforts to discover the true causes.”

The “activists” were not impressed! “We will continue investigating to try to prevent ESSA from expanding its operations to San Ignacio Lagoon,’’ said Juan Carlos Cantú, Greenpeace’s director of biodiversity in Mexico.

The company pointed out that such comments suggested the environmental organizations were conducting a witch-hunt against ESSA to make stick any charges necessary to justify their opposition to the Laguna San Ignacio project.

Whatever the truth behind the charges and counter charges, one only has to visit Laguna San Ignacio and touch a friendly whale to feel outrage that this unique and magical place, this literally fantastic natural and spiritual resource, should be threatened merely to knock a cent or so off a kilo of salt. As far as I’m concerned, even if not a single creature is threatened, we should no more tolerate an industrial intrusion there than we should tolerate wind generators on Mount Fuji or atop Mexico City’s cathedral on the Zócolo! Actress Glenn Close said after a recent visit to Laguna San Ignacio with her eight-year-old daughter: “We will take back the blessing of the whales and the sacredness of this place.”

[On March 2, 2000, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and the Mitsubishi Corporation announced that the plans for the salt works were being permanently abandoned. “This is one of the most significant environmental decisions of our generation, not just for Mexico but for the world,” said a delighted Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the NRDC.]

The lagoon needs to be left undisturbed because it is sacred! I returned to town with that conviction. After I’d set up my camp again, it was too late to call home but Misión was quick to call to me as I approached him in the dark with an orange. Before eating he sniffed me a few times and then nudged his head against me—probably to deal with a bothersome fly or mosquito, but it looked very cute. I inspected Misión’s back with my flashlight; it seemed dry and sound; there was no indication of soreness or infection. I had no doubt I could get him to Santa Rosalía and another healing break….