Traveling Companions

Gray whales are leading tourists, conservationists and business operators on a rocky voyage toward economic and environmental salvation.

Lindblad pays each fisherman $220 per boat. The inflatables depart the ship three times a day, six boats per shift. The company also hires a local restaurant to cater a barbecue. On the Sea Bird, two of the six scientists are always Mexican.

At night the scientists on board the ship make knowledgeable presentations, even sketching out the fight in San Ignacio to stop the expansion of Mitsubishi's salt plant into the calving lagoon. In fact, the head of the cruise line, Sven Lindblad, had been the first to contact activist Roger Payne in the Sea of Cortez to inform him that the president of Mexico had killed the salt plant.

Several days into the trip, an alarm sounds aboard ship. One fellow traveler has fallen ill and will have to be helicoptered to more sophisticated medical attention, which necessitates the Sea Bird making for port. All of the passengers on the beach have to be evacuated promptly. Soon, boats stuffed with senior citizens roar out from the shore heading for the ship.

Even a remote Canadian inlet can seem like a parking lot on days when the whale-watching is at its height.
Michael Lacey
Even a remote Canadian inlet can seem like a parking lot on days when the whale-watching is at its height.
Valerie Langer teaches tourists enraptured by the wilderness about logging practices.
Jacqueline Windh
Valerie Langer teaches tourists enraptured by the wilderness about logging practices.

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The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population. In New Times" special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Baja to the Bering Sea to tell the complex tale of a creature whose 12,000-mile instinctual journey places it squarely in the path of myriad human cultural conflicts. The trek follows the competing interests of Indians, scientists, environmentalists, tourists and local residents.

In this last installment of the series, Executive Editor Michael Lacey joins travelers in search of the gray whale to examine the burgeoning eco-tourism industry along the Pacific coast, the people who venture into the wild, and the impact of the whale-watching business on local communities and cultures.

Read the entire series

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When Jean Simmons clambers back on board, her face registers immediate relief upon spotting her friend, a 53-year-old stay-aboard who'd stood by the rail watching intently, never having witnessed a tourist Dunkirk.

"Thank God, you're safe," says Simmons to her flummoxed friend, who does not understand her concern. "I thought I heard them say your name when they told us who had to be airlifted out."

There are few destinations where you can go to get hugged by 90-year-old women. There ought to be more.


The soldiers in the war on drugs are housed in an enormous army base in Guerrero Negro halfway up the peninsula. The barracks are built upon the remains of an abandoned school. Underground classrooms there used to house the graffiti image of San Francisco's Saint Stupid, but the cone-headed icon has been replaced by military hardware.

It is here that Baja Discovery's campers must stop their bus on the way back to San Diego so that the soldiers can inspect the baggage and eyeball the eco-tourists for suspicious behavior.

Guerrero Negro is the home of ESSA, the salt plant whose plans to expand to Laguna San Ignacio triggered the five-year battle with the worldwide environmental coalition. Since 1993, the town has also offered organized whale-watching tours.

Waiting in Guerrero Negro to go see the grays is Gabriella Ruffo, who once helped train Keiko, the killer whale with the sagging dorsal fin that went on to star in the movie Free Willy. Her work at the aquarium in Mexico City with Keiko was also her ticket to fame. Ruffo became a famous Latin screen star. You could tell from the excited comments of the men hoping to help her into the panga.

"Gabriella is here. Gabriella is here."

Enrique Achoy Cota is not one of those men. He, after all, owns Mallarimo Eco-Tours, the similarly named restaurant and the charming motel out behind the kitchen.

In conversations with Achoy, it is clear that NASA launched rockets with less stringent oversight than the pangas of Guerrero Negro are subjected to before taking to the water.

For one thing, only half the number of pangas -- 12 -- are licensed for Scammon's Lagoon as are given permits for Laguna San Ignacio. This despite the fact that the body of water in Guerrero Negro is twice as large as the waters near Laguna San Ignacio some 100 miles south.

But it goes beyond that, according to Achoy.

"A fisherman cannot be a whale-watching operator because they don't have the training," says Achoy of his competitors in San Ignacio. "They don't know how to handle tourism. They come and go when you pay them. We have developed a non-governmental association and a code of ethics. If they violate the code, they are out."

Sadly, the pangas depart before Achoy can finish his recitation of the code of ethics.

Ruffo is pensive on the short drive to the pangas.

"We in Mexico do not have the culture to take care of animals," she says. "Just look at all the dogs in the streets."

It is true. You never see any coffee-table books on the dogs of Mexico. But Keiko himself was infamous in animal rights circles because of the suggestion that he was treated shabbily in Mexico City before being set free. Folks continue to follow the unsuccessful effort to reintroduce Keiko to the open sea in Iceland.

Ruffo has another point of view.

"I didn't like Keiko," she says. "Keiko was making a soap opera and this guy was carrying a prod to show when Keiko was making a mistake. Keiko left the pool to go to the holding tank. They opened the door to let him get in and he was angry, making circles and waves. He didn't want to be with people. He was moody and temperamental."

Like a movie star?

Actually, Ruffo was known for her cheerfulness and consequently worked as a game-show hostess where the popular refrain was, "Here's Gabi!!!"

Today, she hosts parties for children aged 3 to 12.

Out on the water, Ruffo and the panga full of eco-tourists see whales everywhere. Toward the end of the visit, the spectators are treated to much thrashing, splashing and loud, raucous carrying on by several gray whales.

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