Mission to Laguna San Ignacio
Face-to-face with the gray whales at a threatened nursery.
First came the explosive hiss, followed by a fine shower of spray from the gray whale's blowhole, leaving a small rainbow floating in the air over the small boat. Then the 40-ton barnacle-covered mother surfaced through the murky water, nudging her newborn toward the children and adults on board so they could touch, feel -- communicate -- with these magnificent creatures. It was a moment of deep joy.
Getting this close to a gray whale is rare for anyone, but for those on this special journey -- including actors Pierce Brosnan and Glenn Close -- living with the magnificent gray whales for five days touched them deeply, and in some cases changed their lives.
The location was the remote Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California, a bone-jarring 2 1/2 hour ride from the nearest town. The gray whales, almost hunted to extinction in former times, now number some 20,000. Hundreds of them return year after year to this warm inlet to mate and calve. It is the last lagoon where the whales are almost entirely free from the intrusions of humans. But this place is now threatened by plans for the world's largest industrial salt-making facility.
The mission to the whale sanctuary was sponsored by NRDC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), who invited thirty people to make the trip, including Brosnan and Close and the renowned documentary film maker Jean-Michel Cousteau. One of the mission's goals was to significantly raise the profile of Laguna San Ignacio, which the presence of celebrities and related press coverage would do.
Another was to give the visitors the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Mexican environmental groups who are opposed to the saltworks. One national group, Grupo de los Cien (Group of 100), which first brought the saltworks project to international attention in 1994, is lead by poet Homero Aridjis and counts among its members other luminaries such as Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. The Mexican Pro-Peninsula Working group included regional and local groups that focused on estuaries and the Baja environment. And there were representatives from the local fishermen's cooperative who make their living from the sea and from the increasingly popular eco-tourism.
The setting in the lagoon is visually stunning. Towering mountains in the distance set off the low mangroves that line the estuary and support a bewildering variety of birds and other aquatic creatures, including the black turtle. Huge cactuses dot the plains offshore where herds of the rare pronghorn antelope live. And then, of course, each winter, the whales return. The entire area was designated a Biosphere Reserve/World Heritage Site by the Mexican government in 1988 in an effort to save the lagoon and the fragile desert environment that surrounds it.
If the saltworks is completed, clattering diesel engines will pump 6,000 gallons of sea water out of the lagoon each second, sending it into 116 square miles of evaporation ponds diked and dug out of the surrounding terrain by fleets of bulldozers. A mile-long concrete pier cutting right across the whale's migratory path will transport the finished salt to an offshore loading area that would serve more than 120 salt tankers a year. Every three months a giant diesel tanker would pump its fuel onshore. The risk of oil spills and other accidents would be very high.
After seeing the lagoon, the whales, and what was at stake, all who came felt an added urgency to fight the proposed saltworks. Pierce Brosnan, who came with his 13-year-old son Sean, was one of them. Long involved with marine issues, Brosnan felt the trip opened up "a new chapter" in his life. "You come in on the ground floor and meet the whales on their terms. I would be deeply distressed to see this wonderful lagoon raped, mauled and mangled by greed." Glenn Close, who came with her 8-year-old daughter Annie and spent much of the time in the whalewatching boats singing her heart out, felt that there was indeed something special about San Ignacio. "We will take back the blessing of the whales and the sacredness of this place," she said.
Despite many months of communication and cooperation, this was the first time the representatives of these groups had all met face-to-face -- significantly, on a windswept promontory overlooking the very lagoon they were dedicated to preserving. "The reason we are here is for us," NRDC attorney Bobby Kennedy said. "The whales enrich us culturally, economically and spiritually. We are not here solely for the sake of animals but also for humanity."
The meetings with the Mexicans were very productive, forging new and stronger alliances to oppose Mitsubishi, 49-percent owner of the company planning to build the salt facility. The Mexican government owns the remaining 51 percent.
Successful as the mission was in generating media coverage in Mexico and the States, and as productive the international meetings, it was the presence of the whales that provided the emotional highpoints of the journey. "Everywhere you looked there were whales, breaching, spyhopping, blowing," says Kennedy. "Whenever the whales came close the boats would be filled with laughter. It was pure joy being out on the water."
The Spartan campsite itself was designed to impact as little as possible on the environment, with two-person tents, simple cots, and primitive facilities: showers were salt-water with a small amount of fresh water for rinsing. At night a glittering blanket of stars filled the sky, and undeterred by the presence of humans the whales would glide beside the tents, filling the cool air with their sounds of breathing.
After an early breakfast, everyone got into the small boats. In earlier years when they were hunted, gray whales had been known as "The Devil Fish" for their tendency to turn suddenly to attack and crush the boats of the whalers. Today, these same whales are docile, curious and trusting, a testament to the safety and comfort they feel in the waters of the lagoon.
The hours in the boats helped create a bond among the human visitors and also forged a profound respect for the whales. Says NRDC Executive Director John Adams, "seeing the whales and experiencing the beauty of Laguna San Ignacio strengthened our determination that this special place needs to be protected and preserved for now -- and for future generations."
That determination is now being translated into action. Over the past two years NRDC has been intimately involved in saving the Laguna San Ignacio whale nursery with a campaign that generated over 100,000 letters of complaint to Mitsubishi, and led to meetings with members of the Mitsubishi board and the Mexican government.
Despite the overwhelming emotions that the five-day trip generated among all who came to see the magnificent gray whales, and despite the surge of press coverage, the battle is nowhere near won. Mitsubishi continues to insist that they will move ahead with the next step, the environmental assesment process.
But everyone is equally convinced after this special trip that Laguna San Ignacio must remain the last untouched haven for the gray whales. "There are lots of places to make salt," said John Adams, "but this is the last pristine lagoon where the gray whale has chosen to calve. Having met the whales NRDC 'represents' there's no question in our mind we'll do everything possible to protect and preserve that area for them."
Photos courtesy of S. Jacob Scherr and Joel Reynolds.
last revised 3/2/2000
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