Laguna San Ignacio: A Living Testament to NRDC’s Work

A firsthand experience with the Pacific gray whales in Laguna San Ignacio confirmed the extraordinary achievement from NRDC’s past work—and our oncoming challenges.
NRDC president Rhea Suh photographs a Pacific gray whale in Laguna San Ignacio

A firsthand experience with the Pacific gray whales in Laguna San Ignacio confirmed the extraordinary achievement from NRDC’s past work—and our oncoming challenges.

Deep in the heart of the Baja California peninsula in an inlet of sparkling, jade-green waters, there exists the last pristine place left on earth for Pacific gray whales to breed and nurse their young. It’s a place of peace and beauty where these whales frolic, spout water, and bond.

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to visit this lagoon, called Laguna San Ignacio. The deeply moving, thrilling experience was at once a confirmation of our past work and a blueprint for our future endeavors.

Heading over to the boats to find the Pacific gray whales of Laguna San Ignacio

Our story of Laguna San Ignacio is the stuff of legend. Beginning in 1995, NRDC spearheaded an international campaign to keep a major auto corporation from developing a salt production facility that would have contaminated the lagoon with a stew of toxic chemicals. The salt factory would have undoubtedly endangered the Pacific gray whales, who swim almost half the length of the Northern Hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to be in these waters for critical phases in their lives every winter.

Over the span of five years, our organization amassed an incredible network of allies in the fight, including environmentalists, fishermen, scientists, and activists, to raise awareness of just how destructive the operations would be. With millions around the world speaking up against the proposal—all the more impressive when you consider that the internet was not a way to petition back then—our powerful coalition was able to block the project with a landmark win in 2000.

To me, personally, Laguna San Ignacio is also the stuff of dreams. When this campaign was in full swing, I was a young twentysomething environmentalist. Its success was seared in my memory as proof positive that environmentalists had the power to change the world, and I’m unwavering in my belief and optimism that we still do today.

Birds in Laguna San Ignacio

The legacy of our win is evident because almost two decades later, the lagoon is still truly the stuff of wonder. It is awe inspiring to be in the presence of these friendly, majestic creatures, like Fantasma, a repeat visitor to the lagoon who greeted us and gently pressed her body upward against the boat. Another whale swam directly up to us, urging her weeks-old calf to do the same. The shy calf eventually made its way to us and rolled and swam alongside her mother—a beautiful, enthralling sight.

The experience of watching these whales carried more significance for me because I was fortunate to be able to share it side by side with my seven-year-old daughter. The trip instilled in her a deeper understanding of the importance of protecting the environment. The sheer, undeniable joy and wonder she felt in the presence of these creatures were not only the direct result of dedicated efforts by the NRDC but also the inspiration—the stuff of hope—for me to keep working hard, every single day, to lead in this movement.

Suh's daughter points out a Pacific gray whale.

This work is ongoing, and necessary. The reality is that even though these waters are protected and designated as a World Heritage site, it still takes constant vigilance to make sure they remain a true haven for Fantasma, the mom and calf, and others just like them. To this day, decades after our win, NRDC continues to sponsor work by local fishermen and researchers to free the whales from fishing gear in the lagoon. In one 2014 rescue, fishing lines and buoys were cut from a baby whale’s mouth and flippers.

What’s more, these aren’t their only obstacles to a healthy future. Climate change is making the oceans more acidic, which leads to a smaller food supply for the whales. The Trump administration has called for expanding offshore drilling in most of the coastal waters of the United States, which increases risk of oil spills and disturbs migration routes. And the House of Representatives will soon vote to gut key protections under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If approved, the cynically named SEA Act would allow seismic air-gun blasting off the Atlantic coast, which would injure or kill already vulnerable marine mammals that live in those waters.

A Pacific gray whale greets its visitors.

This visit, and the opportunity to be face-to-face with these whales, serve as a stark reminder that the tough task of defending the environment is never finished, but that we can and will continue to protect our shared habitats, especially ones that are as beautiful and life-affirming as this.


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