Traveling Companions

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


In 1993, a group of local fishermen in Laguna San Ignacio formed the eco-tourism company Kuyima occupying the former offices of the bank in the village square. They meant to take people whale watching.

The most obvious change is the beaten path.

Vistors prepare to set out in boats for a whale-watching tour in Guerrero Negro.
Michael Lacey
Vistors prepare to set out in boats for a whale-watching tour in Guerrero Negro.
Tourists in Tofino, called "gorbies," take one of the less-expensive whale-watching trips on Clayoquot Sound offered by Remote Passages.
Matt Kenia
Tourists in Tofino, called "gorbies," take one of the less-expensive whale-watching trips on Clayoquot Sound offered by Remote Passages.

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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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A road grader stops his work long enough to smoke a cigarette. Sure enough, he agrees: It's a dry heat. He has been carving the rattling ridges out of the levee that connects the town to the lagoon. He says lately the government has been paying to have the trail smoothed out a little more frequently.

The drive has been cut from four hours to two.

Not all the fishermen were pleased at these developments.

Anselma Mayoral grew up on the lagoon. Her father, Francisco, while fishing from his panga, was the first human being to touch the whales once the grays initiated contact. His fishing partner, Santos Ruiz Perez, is old enough to resemble beef jerky but his mind is still sharp.

"I was very nervous at first," says Ruiz. "I like to see the whales from far away."

Anselma, her mother Carmen, and Ruiz stand around sipping sodas, lamenting progress.

"We have been left out by Kuyima," says Anselma.

With an office in town, Kuyima collects the majority of the visitors who are unaware that fishing families out at the lagoon are eager to take tourists out. Kuyima bundles the tourists up in its vans off the town square and then whisks them out to its "fish camp," bypassing the shanties and the truck cadavers of the local fishermen.

During the three-month whale-watching season, the government bans any fishing, and even at other times of the year, fishing is a tough buck.

"We have to go further and further out," says Anselma. "You need big boats and big engines to go out. Often, we can't. Every day we go out and fish, but they just aren't plentiful anymore."

Today, many species are wiped out at the lagoon, and the stocks that remain are vastly depleted.

In the off-season Anselma waits for tourists, and even though the road is smoother, visitors aren't plentiful anymore, either. Kuyima has made it too easy for travelers to drive past the fishermen.

Kuyima's Raul Lopez and Jose Jesus Valera began by working as hands at American-owned whale-watching camps on the extreme western tip of the lagoon when the two men weren't fishing.

They have put a Mexican face upon the beginning of eco-tourism in San Ignacio. Kuyima offers day trips, overnight camping and longer visits if you choose to stay in one of the company's waterside cabanas.

The manicured Kuyima camp is overseen by an English-speaking manager who, along with his wife, entertains visitors by playing music from throughout the Americas. While the waterside kitchen is always open, those seeking more active distraction are steered to a nearby environmental artist.

Not far from the Kuyima camp, Francisco Gerado lives in a makeshift tent and lean-to utilizing a discarded tarp and scrap wood. He constructs outlines of gray whales upon the salt pan floor that stretch hundreds of feet from head to tail. He uses children to assemble what he calls geoglifos de Baja California.

"I instill in kids that they can make something very large though they are very small," says Gerado.

The silhouettes are made entirely from the shells of discarded Catalina clams that were wiped out by local fishermen. Tens of thousands of the empty bivalve casings lie in mounds along the edge of the lagoon.

"This land is a cradle of dreams because it is empty salt flats, salt marshes and plains," says Gerado. "When people are here, there are not a lot of distractions. You can work on what is important. You can work upon harmony with the planet. In the ether of the cosmos, there are many dreams waiting to happen. Half of our work here is to dream. It is our most important work."

For Lopez and Valera, eco-tourism is their dream for the men of the lagoon.

There is need for work for the fishermen who remain. Lopez and Valera decided to take a shot. "We saw how the Americans ran their camp and did the same," says Valera. "We focus on providing jobs for our people."

There are 25 pangas licensed in Laguna San Ignacio by the government to take whale watchers out, and Kuyima controls 12 of the boats. It provides various levels of employment for 48 people in its rural ejido.

Lopez, who spent four months studying in Mexico City before moving to the Baja in 1983, is a new breed of manager with an eye on the bottom line but also upon conservation.

"We need more tourists, six per boat, though sometimes we are forced to go out with only two," laments Lopez.

On one trip to the Baja, Doliber was shocked to see Kuyima in the town square and decided to give the company a try, as much a lark as anything else. He was not pleased.

He found himself sandwiched between two other eco-tourists on a single plank in a panga jammed with seven people. He felt crowded, unable to move and appalled by gewgaws like tee shirts for sale in the camp kitchen and dining room. Cutting the drive time out to the lagoon in half just meant more gawkers would get there before him.

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