Traveling Companions

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

That image certainly did not include packaged eco-tours, something more readily associated with the likes of Cabo San Lucas and easily avoided in the past. But now team leaders were taking planeloads of freshly garbed tourists into the outback, leaving Doliber and Stricklin picnickers who have just discovered a long line of ants in the potato salad.

Doliber acknowledges that part of his response is simply NIMBY (not in my back yard) on holiday.

"I didn't want those people in their brand-new safari gear in my Baja," admits Doliber. "The combination of self-righteousness, alternative lifestyle, Eddie Bauer field dress headed to San Ignacio to commune with nature in the form of a barnacled encrusted gray whale I felt I was on a first-name basis with, just set me off my feed."

Local whale-watching guide Chema doesn't need slick marketing to bring in the tourists.
Michael Lacey
Local whale-watching guide Chema doesn't need slick marketing to bring in the tourists.
Jose Jesus Valera, left, and Raul Lopez are former fishermen who now operate the Kuyima whale-watching business in Laguna San Ignacio.
Michael Lacey
Jose Jesus Valera, left, and Raul Lopez are former fishermen who now operate the Kuyima whale-watching business in Laguna San Ignacio.


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

If he sounds misanthropic, it is perhaps because he has the passion of a convert. Such is the power of the whales in San Ignacio that Doliber went from total indifference to sending checks to environmental organizations purporting to save these grays from industrial development.

Doliber, at first, was a reluctant visitor to the Pacific lagoon fish camps outside of San Ignacio.

"I have worked the sea and find little romance in the notion," he says.

Recalling one of his earliest voyages, he says the crew members were almost all drowned when a Russian trawler nearly crushed them off the coast of New England. Worse, there was no money made on the trip.

"At the end, my pay was two large codfish and a couple of haddock. No money, just a piece of the paltry catch. You find any romance in that? I worked the offshore lobster boats on the continental shelf, and on one of those trips we also came home busted because the water turned warm, and 10,000 pounds of lobster along with a few tons of crabs died. Absolutely the worst smell I've ever been exposed to. Everyone got sick."

The sharp angles of Doliber's initial skepticism were chipped away on the approach into San Ignacio itself. The road through the desert winds past the Three Virgins volcano and alongside 20-foot-high, magenta lava flows. Atop these columns of volcanic rock, elephant trees -- bent, stunted things, with limbs seemingly too thick for the body, some pale, others mahogany, whose bark peels on the trunk in curled sheets -- grow out of the cooled basalt magma.

From this parched landscape emerged a vision of 100,000 palm trees planted by Spanish missionaries and nurtured by a spring that feeds a river.

"Just the sight of San Ignacio from the highway was a visual high after the surrounding desert drive," says Doliber.

Literally an oasis, San Ignacio contains the Baja's most graceful zocalo, or town square, where six massive laurel trees shade a tiny park. A bank, a dry goods store and a mission with four-foot-thick walls cozy the square where kids and specimens of canines chase. The church, lovingly maintained since 1728, is presided over by a statue of Saint Ignacius Loyola who is equipped with a broom.

On the west side of the zocalo, Marible Transvina Arce sells her date bread and date custard pies at a little open-air stand. Like much of Mexico, requests for coffee produce pleasant conversation, a cup of hot water and a bottle of Nescafé with a teaspoon.

"Another dusty little burg with spare dirt and smoldering rubbish," notes Doliber, "but there was knockout vegetation, and obviously San Ignacio had a soul of its own."

Cheered at their prospects, Doliber and Stricklin spend the night eating and drinking at Tota's, where the owner produces his own jug of tequila and continues to pour freely until everyone is too blind to see clearly the red, yellow and green checked tablecloth. Operatic arias fill the restaurant's stereo until the weeish hours.

At 5 a.m. the two depart for the torturous drive out to the lagoon.

"There was about four inches of clearance, and boulders were slamming into the floorboard when these old shit-box vans would just blow by spraying rocks and laying down a dust cloud that lingered long after they were gone," says Doliber. "On the map it didn't look that far away."

The map lied. It is easily four hours of concussive jolts that rattle bones and strain ligaments no matter how slowly you proceed.

After several miles of rugged washboard through twisting and turning desert arroyos, the road opens up and you can see to the horizon. There is nothing there.


Any contrast of color has been vacuumed out of the earthen landscape.

The sky is blue, but everywhere else are skeins of dun-hued dirt, rock, rubble twined and flattened like tawny cords of baked terra cotta laid out in a single khaki plane. No cardons, ocotillo, yucca, cirio, palo adan or agave. The eyes take in nothing that lives or breathes. When your vision adjusts, you notice occasional feathering along the roadside. Salt bush, no more than a couple of inches off the deck, does not soften the vista in the least but rather adds one more tannin-stained element.

The road, rippled as badly as the worst tank track and twice as hard, rises inches up off of the desert, a hemp-colored levee stretched out to a vanishing point where it then continues forward.

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