Traveling Companions

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

Once under way again, you notice panels of blindingly white snow off to the side, which in fact are salt deposits upon the arid lagoon's floor. Remnants of water collect and gather in aquamarine pools that jar the eye and promise to strangle the thirsty.

The air is dry enough to snap.

And the sense of God's wonder is overwhelming.

Chema's home, top, serves as headquarters for his whale-watching business, while the Kuyima company operates a manicured camp, above, with English-speaking managers.
Michael Lacey
Chema's home, top, serves as headquarters for his whale-watching business, while the Kuyima company operates a manicured camp, above, with English-speaking managers.
In a small clash of cultures, eco-tourism guide Sue Rocca liberated this octopus from a fisherman's lunch bucket and set it free in Laguna San Ignacio.
Michael Lacey
In a small clash of cultures, eco-tourism guide Sue Rocca liberated this octopus from a fisherman's lunch bucket and set it free in Laguna San Ignacio.

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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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Even here, man's handiwork is evident, kidding the visitor in this expansive-skied baking sheet.

Attached by electrical cord to a metal rod buried in the desert floor is a car door. In red paint someone has written: "Welcome. Whale watching trips. The best guide. Ask for Chema . . ."

Incomprehensible, yes, but this desert hardpan ends at the Pacific Ocean.

Doliber and Stricklin roll into the first of several fish camps. Plywood, corrugated aluminum, wire, rope, all these fundamental materials have been pulled together into sheds. There are rectangles for windows, but pressboard substitutes for panes. Glass is mostly found in trucks. Trucks that run are outnumbered and surrounded by trucks that don't. Trucks that don't run are outnumbered and surrounded by truck parts. Fenders, bumpers, cabs, flatbeds, axles, upside down, buried in sand banks, collected in walls, abandoned where they stopped, dismantled and discarded, the rusting hulks are everywhere and peppered with whale bones.

You'd think something large had been detonated.

Chema, who takes visitors out for the three months -- January through March -- that the whales are in the lagoon, fishes the rest of the year. He negotiates a price, then equips Doliber and Stricklin in neoprene boots and life jackets, and just that quickly the men are in Chema's panga and out into the lagoon. For the next several hours the men glide among the gray whales, mothers and calves.

Beginning with a neighbor of Chema's in the mid-'70s, the gray whales initiated meaningful contact with the human race. Mothers and calves approach the small fishing boats, gently rising out of the water and allowing themselves to be caressed. There is no comparable experience between mankind and animals anywhere in the world.

The sea-weary Doliber is undeniably moved.

"Until that day with Chema, I'd never hugged and kissed a whale. Stunning. Too good to be true at first. A couple of guys and Chema in an 18-foot outboard with whales all around the boat, craning to get a look at us, waiting to be petted."

The tide is out when they return, but the boots make the hike through a quarter-mile of lagoon muck painless enough.

"It's a very human experience," says Doliber. "They approach you. They are curious and seem friendly by nature. The mothers nudge the young towards the boats, towards the humans as if there is something to be gained or learned from the experience. People respond in a motherly manner, with gentle caresses. You can't help yourself. There is wonder and awe at the sight of these huge creatures."

On shore, Chema and other fishermen join the visitors. Someone has cerveza for sale and everyone stands around kicking rocks, chewing the fat. One fisherman shows off an impressive collection of beer bottles including several that feature photographs of topless women.

"Chema did not speak much," says Doliber, about the hours they spent together out on the water. "He took the whales seriously and our money gladly. He wasn't a character, though pleasant enough. He wasn't what tourists are looking for in a friendly native, just a fisherman doing what he could to get by."

Later, Doliber would remember portents of events still unfolding.

"As I recall, there were maybe two other pangas out there from shore. Ours may have been the least populated, but the others were civil, too," says Doliber. "Then we spotted a large boat on the horizon. Turned out to be a mother ship full of tourists."

Doliber's anxiety isn't only from the sound of tourists' footsteps aboard cruise ships: Educated as an urban geographer, he can smell the paving tar of civilization in his nostrils. He has grown possessive. He made the journey without a tour guide, succumbed to the rhythm of a town whose air hose was not yet attached to tourism. He risked the four-hour trek to the coast and made the effort to communicate with the locals whether an intoxicated innkeeper or a reserved fisherman, all parties se habla hand signals, smiles and, of course, dinero.

Massaging mother whales and their calves was, as Thoreau suggested, a tonic, but Doliber managed this resurrection of spirit by getting off the beaten path. Getting off the beaten path was part of the tonic.

Stricklin grew up as a kid in California foolishly trying to capture crows by putting salt on their tails at his mother's direction. He felt that touching the gray whales continued the childhood lesson: "Everyone and their dogs are going to see the whales. This should not be an easy trip. It should be hard. There should be no easy way to catch a crow or see the whales."

From Tofino, British Columbia, to Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California Sur, from within your living room to the back chairs in the smallest town hall, the arguments ebb and flow over eco-tourism. Can wild places and wild creatures accommodate the life-jacketed mob?

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