Traveling Companions

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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.

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.

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.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey