Traveling Companions

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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?

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.

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.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey