Background image of Gray whale in the ocean


When Gray Whales Return

It began in 1972 when a local man named Francisco "Pachico" Mayoral was approached by a 40-ton, 50-foot-long gray whale while fishing.

Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico — It’s quiet and peaceful here in a whale watching camp on the south side of San Ignacio, a 60-square-mile lagoon on the central west coast of Baja California del Sur, home to the greatest concentration of breeding whales in the world. As calm and beautiful as brown pelicans gliding over a long soft pink clam shell beach and a light breeze in a brilliant red setting sun. Half the world’s wintering population of black brant, terns, loons, grebes and miscellaneous shorebirds of every description fill the air; bottle-nosed dolphins play in the surf; four of the world’s seven species of sea turtles are found in these waters; and dozens of gray whales roll in an outgoing tide.

My great, great, great grandfather, Silas Beebe, a whaling captain out of Mystic, Connecticut and namesake to my eldest son, filled his mid-1850s ships’ logs with tales of slaughter of whales and elephant seals from both the North and South Atlantic.

It was Captain Silas Beebe’s compatriot of the same era, Charles Melville Scammon, a Maine born whaling captain (later turned naturalist) sailing south from San Francisco, who discovered the fabled nursing grounds of California gray whales in the warm lagoons of the Pacific coast of the Baja peninsula in the 1850s. Long the source of myth among the New England whalers, the nursing grounds were a place where bulls, cows, and calves were found in unimaginable numbers in shallow waters following a 5,000-mile migration from the Bering and Chucki seas. On his first discovery he took 47 whales yielding 1700 barrels of oil worth $15,000, a small fortune for the time. Scammon returned only a few years later to find the secret place a noisy camp of hundreds of whalers from all parts of the world, a sea turned red with the blood of horrific industry. Some of the whalers would target the calves with their harpoons to attract the protective mothers to their deaths. In a rage, some cows would attack the whale boats and earned the reputation as “devil fish” for their ability to wreck the boats with a slash of their giant flukes. The lagoons were soon hunted to exhaustion by the 1940s just a few thousand survived in the eastern Pacific, following the same pattern of Atlantic populations of gray whales, which had been exterminated by the mid-1700s.

My son Sam and I are here to record the remarkable story of the whales’ recovery and the economic effect it has created for local fishermen who now augment their income as whale-watching guides. Seven camps employ 75–100 local guides, boatmen, cooks, camp keepers and support crew from January to April each year for the past 30 years, attracting as many as 5,000 tourists and school children annually. This effort has doubled the income for many local people.

It began in 1972 when a local man named Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral was approached by a 40-ton, 50-foot-long gray whale while fishing with a friend in a small panga, a 20-foot boat. Fisherman had learned to keep their distance from the feared devil fish.. The whale approached so close, Pachico was able to reach out and touch her gently on the head, his heart pounding, not sure what might be the whale’s next move. Gently she slipped away after almost 40 minutes of playful curiosity. He was sure the whale chose him to re-establish an ancient connection. Gradually over the ensuing years, friendly individuals, particularly cows with their newborn calves, approached other fishermen and visitors, and from that, a whole whale watching industry has emerged, both here at San Ignacio and throughout Baja.

Pachico’s son Ranulfo was our guide for three days, exploring the lagoon, pristine wilderness beaches and mangrove swamps in the midst of the six-million-acre Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area of its kind in Latin America. Ranulfo is a no-nonsense, hard working fisherman-turned-naturalist who, along with his father, brother Jesus and daughter Adelina, is dedicating his life to protecting the lagoons, its extraordinary bird life and the surrounding area from exploitation. Ranulfo has taught himself to become the local bird expert, and an excellent photographer as well. Local ejidos, the peasant communities who control the land, and a variety of local fishing cooperatives for clams, lobsters, abalone, scallop, halibut, corvina, mullet and other fish, have resisted over-fishing and intrusive whale watching from large outside operators.

Both fishing and whale watching are controlled most effectively by local people. Whale guides have strict local rules, stricter than those imposed by federal conservation agencies, to prevent undue disturbance. They have limits on the number of fishermen, whale watching operations and guides, and restrict the movements and number of whale watching boats as well as the time the boats interact with individual whales. In the late 1990s, locals helped fight off a 120,000-acre salt mining operation proposed by Mitsubishi International Corporation and the Mexican Ministry of Trade. Their exports, they decided, would be of a different sort: Baja’s red rock lobster fishery was in recent years certified by the international Marine Stewardship Council.

Pachico and the whales of San Ignacio Lagoon are a small part of a much larger story, a global story of people and place and a more “natural model of development” that is emerging as a salvation not just for whales but for the well-being of communities everywhere. Across the Baja Peninsula and the entire Sea of Cortes, communities of fishermen, scientists, conservationists and Mexican state and federal agencies and institutions are working together to improve both the well-being of the environment and its residents–man and the biosphere reserves and marine protected areas proposed and maintained in large part by the people who live there. They are fighting a huge proposed Cancun/Cabo San Lucas style development by a bankrupt Spanish development company, backed for the time being by the current President of Mexico, adjacent to the Cabo Pulmo Marine Protected Area in the Sea of Cortes. They are suggesting that community-based, conservation-based development that emerges naturally and incrementally from the intimate relationships that evolve over millennia in this very particular and distinctive place, is a better, more resilient, more reliably prosperous approach than large-scale, top-down initiatives. The latter destroy both the environment and the distinctive culture of livelihoods that differentiate it from other places, and provide only transitory benefits to outside people and businesses.

Pachico and Ranulfos’ whales tell us this suggestion from the people of Baja just might be true.

Editor’s note: In 2012, Ecotrust founder Spencer Beebe is traveling the globe to discover stories of resilience. Join him and those he meets along the way in shaping —  in new and unimagined ways — resilient communities, economies and ecosystems.