What Successful Environmental Activism Looks Like: Wild Baby Whales

I spend most of my working hours sitting in meetings in office buildings. But over the past few days, I came face to face with what those meetings can achieve: wild baby gray whales, whales whose last unspoiled nursery was saved by NRDC and our citizen activists.

Every time I go into the field, I am reminded that environmental activism has tangible results--things you can literally touch, like the trunk of a 300-year old tree in a healthy forest or a grizzly bear footprint along a muddy stream. Being within arm's reach of the sleek, rubbery gray whales was a jolt of inspiration: this is what successful conservation feels like.

I felt this revelation in Laguna San Ignacio on the Pacific side of Baja, California--NRDC's first BioGem. Every winter, hundreds of pregnant gray whales swim 4,000 miles from the Arctic to reach this pristine lagoon with its warm tranquil waters that are perfect for giving birth. When we arrived in the remote lagoon (by boat; there is no road access), many of the newborns were honing their swimming skills in preparation for the arduous journey back to Alaska.

On each morning of our trip, we set out from our solar-powered encampment in panga boats, small Mexican fishing vessels that sit close to the water. Not far from the shore, we would stop and watch as mother whales emerged from the sea and started prodding their babies toward our boat. Mysteriously, they seemed as curious about us as we did about them.

When the whales grew closer, the babies started to frolic around the boat. They were like playful puppies, only gentler, without the friskiness. They rose out of the water to greet us, and opened their mouths to show off their baleen-- teeth that resemble toothbrush bristles. What was really magical was when they looked me straight in the eye.

When the mothers decided it was time for a rest, they swam between the boat and their babies, plainly telling us that our visit was over for the time being. I have never communicated so clearly with a wild creature before. It was exhilarating.

Each time our panga headed back to shore, I realized once again that these whales would have lost their nursing grounds if NRDC had not mobilized 1 million people from around the world and stopped Mexico and the Mitsubishi Corporation from building the world's largest salt factory on the banks of the lagoon.

I am proud of that victory, but I am also proud that we continue to collaborate with local communities to promote sustainable economic growth. And together with our Mexican partners, we are racing to buy the development rights to the 1 million acres surrounding the lagoon to put them off-limits to industry forever.

Seeing the long-lasting results of this work--the presence of the playful whales-- energized me. And so I say to every person who cares about the health of the planet, but who can't remember the last time they felt the magic of the natural world firsthand: go outside. Explore a patch of the Earth that you care about. And then take action to preserve it. Because you really can make a difference.