Traveling Companions

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

The Baja is just beginning

A solitary man steps out of a plane and onto a desert tarmac in Loreto, Baja, to be greeted by a bearded colleague. They are surrounded by a swarm of women in Birkenstocks carrying paddles.

The ladies getting off the Aero California flight from Los Angeles are all members of a lesbian kayaking club. They are the triumphant edge of this new phenomenon in the Baja -- eco-tourism.

Jerry Stricklin, left, and Earl Doliber are the sort of travelers who shun the beaten path and seek the undisturbed outback.
Michael Lacey
Jerry Stricklin, left, and Earl Doliber are the sort of travelers who shun the beaten path and seek the undisturbed outback.
Hundreds of visitors each year travel to Laguna San Ignacio to take whale-watching trips like this one.
Michael Lacey
Hundreds of visitors each year travel to Laguna San Ignacio to take whale-watching trips like this one.

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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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As the women assemble their gear, they are watched by Baja's older guard who are scheduled to depart upon the turnaround flight. Loreto, site of the Baja's oldest mission, was first popular as a sports-fishing destination, and the anglers present at the airport are easily spotted with their dorado-stuffed ice chests secured by duct tape. It's early afternoon, but the airport bar is moving fistfuls of Pacifico beer and margaritas among the sunburned fishermen in Hawaiian shirts. The brisk kayakers appear unaware that the airport has a bar.

Earl Doliber, the solitary man, is met at the gate by the friend he has traveled the Baja's dirt roads with for more than a decade, Jerry Stricklin. They pigeonhole into no particular demographic, neither kayaker nor fisherman. They came to the Baja years ago for its dirt, for its vast emptiness, abusive trails and hospitable locals far from the asphalt highway and other gringos. They did not arrive with a need to see gray whales.

The pair drive into Loreto and stock up on water, stopping just long enough for a cerveza at the Hotel Oasis. Long a lodging for the sort of person who reads Car and Driver, the Oasis lobby is cluttered with photographs of big-game hunters with trophy kills bagged in the Baja's mountains. But the pictures of hunters have been pushed to the back of the shelves out of the light. Brochures promoting whale tours now have prominent position. The hotel's transformation is not entirely successful. In the courtyard an enormous deer is penned up, an unsettling reminder of a bygone era.

Doliber is not happy with the kayakers he traveled with on the plane.

"I hooked up with some of this crowd at the airport in Los Angeles," says Doliber. "These folks in their Columbia wear, sporting Polar-tec vests and Aussie hats couldn't all be going to the Baja. Had to be some sort of fluke. What was going on?"

Despite his leeriness regarding the regimentation of their Baja uniforms, Doliber was, initially, conversational, particularly when he learned that they intended to stop kayaking long enough to see the whales.

"They really wanted to know what I do in the Baja, as in fishing, hiking, kayaking or what activity."

Stricklin has his own idea of what constitutes an itinerary.

"We're going to drive around, drink tequila and smoke until we get so dizzy that we don't care if we have to sleep on a cot in a room constructed of cardboard and Tecate cans. End of story," says Stricklin, referring to a particular night's lodging on the Sea of Cortez. "Not knowing what's ahead and leaving the rest of the world in your dust is the attraction."

Doliber says this approach baffled the kayakers who were surprised that, year in, year out, he had no agenda and was content to simply go see, occupied by nothing more than the land and its people. Trying to explain the appeal of the peninsula left him sputtering, particularly when the kayakers showed little appreciation for how poor and occasionally primitive much of Baja is.

"Their idea of poor people were the folks at the grocery store who clip coupons. I think that was the real turn-off, that they were dressed for and in the mood for adventure as long as they didn't get dirty or exposed to smelly people with bad teeth."

A sanitized tour is precisely what the two men hope to avoid.

"People have tamed even the remote regions of California and Arizona," observes Stricklin. "California has phones located on one-mile intervals along most of its highways. When help is just a phone call away, there is very little life-affirming tension and uncertainty. So where do you find a little freedom, adventure and the minute-to-minute uncertainty that reminds you that ya ain't dead yet?

"Baja. It might not be the land of opportunity, but until recently, maddening crowds used to be sparse."

Doliber is of a like mind.

"I liked the Baja when the only Anglos you met were hippies and strange guys in big trucks who came to the Tropic of Dirt to misbehave in ways that have become unacceptable at home," says Doliber. "Baja was, and in some corners still is, like America in the '50s when drunken driving was appreciated and considered a skill. You know, drunk driving takes practice, and I've never hit anything bigger than shrubs and little old ladies. The Baja was a place where barroom brawls were not the exclusive property of biker gangs and college kids, and pissing in the bushes was not an offense if your back was turned."

Doliber concedes that he has not been in a bar fight in the Baja any more than the kayakers have discovered new islands. He is simply nostalgic for the traveler's mirage, the image that brought him to the Baja in the first place.

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