Traveling Companions

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

Olivette Rodgers, who admits to being in her mid-70s, does not consider herself a tourist. In the spring of '97 she ventured out with Kuyima, along with her daughter, son-in-law, 7-year-old grandson, and a Jeep Cherokee full of friends including a hitchhiker. She never mentioned any sense of crowding.

This was not her first experience with whales.

"In the '30s, whale watching started with whale smelling," says Rodgers, describing the memory of finding dead whales washed up on the California beach.

The Lindblad cruise ship Sea Bird carries visitors to gray whale calving lagoons in the Baja.
Michael Lacey
The Lindblad cruise ship Sea Bird carries visitors to gray whale calving lagoons in the Baja.
Fish farmers like Bill Vernon find themselves lectured by eco-tourism operators, who urge their guests to boycott farm-reared salmon.
Jacqueline Windh
Fish farmers like Bill Vernon find themselves lectured by eco-tourism operators, who urge their guests to boycott farm-reared salmon.


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

In the winter, she and her friends would watch the grays on their migration. "These special sightings were spouts of water far beyond the breakers, which was exciting in a small town not known for excitement."

Rodgers had been an old Baja hand for years before her first husband passed away. She looked forward to returning and to seeing the whales for the first time. "Nothing, not colored brochures, not videos, not movies, nothing prepared me for the thrill of San Ignacio Lagoon."

"The experience was so moving that we cried and laughed," she says. "The mothers had come into the bay with their offspring and would come, almost as if by command, to our small boat. . . . Because of the number of whales and babies, it seemed almost intimate.

"There seemed to be such softness in their nature that they often bumped us carefully and then came alongside to be petted or rubbed like the family dog."

Rodgers got to share this experience with friends and family, including her grandson, Sam. She has nothing but warm regard for the trip.

"I agreed completely with our 5-year-old boating companion when he told his mom, 'It's better than a carnival.'"

Stricklin, who has also ventured out to see the gray whales with Kuyima, had a similar feeling when he watched a child's reaction.

"I saw in his eyes what should be in all our eyes when we encounter a beast the size of a whale, a little fear and a lot of wonder," recalls Stricklin. "The boy opened my eyes. Made me realize how jaded I had become over the years."

The fishermen from Kuyima navigate a fine line, and they know it.

"We don't want to have tourist pressure and turn this into a Disneyland," says Kuyima's Lopez.

Yet Valera, his partner, returned last winter from a meeting Baja leaders had with the Mexican president, Vicente Fox, excited about their new business opportunities.

Fox promoted his plan for a string of marinas to be constructed along the entire coastline of the Baja with an idea of luring American mariners south. This might mean more work for Kuyima's fishermen.

From January through March, Valera says, his figures showed that more than 200 locals earned some $250,000 from eco-tourism.

Valera estimates that if people came down a month earlier to see the whales and stayed a month longer, he could quadruple the number of visitors to the lagoon from 2,500 annually to 10,000.

"People don't understand," he says. "Seeing two whales [when they first begin to trickle into the lagoon] is not any different than seeing 20 from our point of view."

He understands that he cannot grow to 10,000 visitors a year on his own.

"The government could help with roads, highways, airstrips, police and soldiers," he says.

If this seems like a typical developer's dream and anathema to the spirit of eco-tourism, it does not strike Lopez and Valera as such.

"We don't like to have here Los Cabos, Cancún," says Valera. "We don't need big hotels, resorts."

Not only will the village of San Ignacio need more infrastructure to support such growth, but the culture of the fishermen themselves will have to accommodate the needs of eco-tourists.

Valera spoke of the difficult time some fishermen had working in the salt plant in Guerrero Negro, but he could just as easily have been referring to their fit in the world of eco-tourism, the staffing of hotels, the busing of restaurant tables.

"The mentality of fishermen is not about time management the way some people think of it," he says. "You know, reporting on time, taking lunch at a specific time. Fishermen think about hitting it big. In the plant, you work all the time and the people with an education do the best."

At Kuyima the ones who do best are all tied to Lopez and Valera, united by blood and their ability to speak English.

The sun crosses the plane of the equator making the night as long as the day last March and shuffling the vernal equinox into the Baja. Spring in the lagoon. At the campsite everyone is reflexively sweeping out his tent.

Asked earlier what made her whale-watching camp different from the others in Laguna San Ignacio, Robbin Burton replied impishly: "We have brooms."

Burton is kidding.

Baja Discovery has the single best location in the lagoon, on an island nearest the Pacific Ocean at the point where the lagoon is its narrowest.

But there are no "bad" locations in paradise; Baja Discovery has another secret.

It is run by women.

Burton, who markets the camp to eco-tourists seeking a longer visit than those who typically make a day trip of Kuyima, makes no mention of this in her promotions. There are no allusions to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, though there should be. In person Burton is not given to extolling the machisma of the women in charge. She is too busy trying to persuade listeners that the San Diego Padres have a future as contenders in the National League.

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