In the months that followed, I set about to determine what other factors lay behind President Zedillo’s decision to cancel the saltworks project. It proved to be a detective story with plenty of clues, on many different fronts. Leaving San Ignacio Lagoon, I stopped in La Paz on the drive back south and met with Jorge Urbán. The university professor had been in charge of reviewing potential effects on gray whales for the new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). His report had been in the ESSA company’s hands for several weeks.
While Urbán had concluded that no likely problems would affect the grays inside the lagoon – in terms of reduced salinity, changes in water temperature, or noise – he did foresee a potential impact during building of a channel, where saltwater would be sent to pumps and then onto the salt flats. He’d recommended that no construction take place during the whales’ winter season. Urbán also envisioned the pier at Punta Abreojos as posing a hurdle during the migration, since the whales travel closer to shore than the pier’s three-kilometer extension into the Pacific. “Also the big ships make noise, and would be a source of potential oil contamination and physical injuries to the whales from direct impacts,” he said. He’d recommended that ship movements be controlled – allowed to move no faster than three knots once entering the bay, turning off their engines and being pulled by tugboats inside of three kilometers.
These things, of course, could be accomodated by the planners. Yet Julia Carabias, the Environment Minister, told the Los Angeles Times that what ultimately persuaded Zedillo was the effect of flooding tens of thousands of acres of desert just inland from the lagoon, which would have altered the landscape forever. Mitsubishi’s Executive Vice President James Brumm echoed this at a news conference in Mexico City immediately after Zedillo’s announcement, saying: “What we would have done is flood salt flats. It wouldn’t look natural. We came to appreciate a number of arguments by people that this is an area that should be left as is for ecotourism.”
Later, when I met at IFAW headquarters with principal organizers of Mexico’s 50-group environmental coalition opposing the project, attorney Alberto Szekely said the government felt “betrayed” by the EIA, because of its objectivity. I discussed this with Homero Aridjis, who said he “heard from sources close to the government that there were many factors.” One of these, according to Homero, was financial. In December 1999, Zedillo had asked the ESSA corporation for an economic feasibility study of the expansion and was allegedly shocked to learn that none existed. Then the President discovered that the lion’s share of the profits would go to Mitsubishi – “and he finally understood what we had been saying since 1995,” said Homero, “that the new saltworks would only provide 200 jobs, of which a mere 50 would be for the local population.”
Homero also pointed out that, around the same time, Mitsubishi Corporation had been awarded a $278-million construction contract to build two new thermoelectric power stations on mainland Mexico. The poet speculated this “could be a consolation contract given by the Mexican government to its Japanese partners.”
In mid-February 2000, two weeks before Zedillo’s announcement, Minister of Commerce Herminio Blanco had flown to Tokyo for a meeting with the Japanese Foreign Minister and the Mitsubishi hierarchy. There are differing accounts of what transpired. According to Japanese TV journalist Teddy Jimbo, “My sources tell me that Mitsubishi, including its very top executives, was shocked to learn from Blanco about the President’s decision, but reluctantly accepted it.” Homero heard an opposite story from his Mexican sources, that “Blanco was told by the Mitsubishi people that they wanted out of the project. Mitsubishi retreated because they were feeling the effects of the boycott in the United States. They have many different economic interests, and for them the marine salt was very little proportionately and it was not worth risking the prestige of the corporation any longer.”
Mitsubishi International’s James Brumm, who oversaw the saltworks controversy from his New York office and sits on the board of Mitsubishi Corporation in Tokyo, was careful to steer a middle course. “Mitsubishi and Mexico were proceeding on parallel tracks,” Brumm told me. “As partners we had independently come to the conclusion we were not going to move forward, and it was a matter of who talked to whom first. Blanco’s trip to Japan presented the opportunity.”
So we may never know just who blinked first, or why. This much, however, is certain: by 2000, the issue had captured the attention of millions, and it was not about to go away. IFAW’s “Save Baja Whales” web-site had received about two million visitors over a four-month period. In California, the NRDC had prodded the Coastal Commission and 43 cities to pass resolutions against the project. Polls taken in Mexico revealed public opposition there to be at around 69%. High-powered Washington, D.C., legal and P.R. consultants hired by Mitsubishi seemed unable to stem the tide. Brumm conceded that the environmental groups had waged “a very effective campaign,” and that “obviously our strategy was not.”
Another full-page ad against the project – arranged by Homero and including nine Nobel Prize-winning authors – was scheduled to soon appear in Reforma and the New York Times. Instead, IFAW took out an ad in the Times on March 31, headlined, “To Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and Mitsubishi Corporation: Thank You For Saving Laguna San Ignacio!” Then IFAW President Fred O’Regan kept a second promise he’d made to Brumm, should ESSA bow out: he took the Mitsubishi executive out for an expensive lunch. There, when Jared Blumenfeld asked Brumm whether he thought the project might ever be revived, Brumm would recall, “I think I said something like, ‘God forbid!'” At IFAW’s invitation, he then brought his wife and daughter along on a whale watching trip off Cape Cod. It was, Brumm said, “just magnificent.”
In Mexico, three months to the day after Zedillo’s decision, on July 2 opposition leader Vicente Fox was elected to the presidency, ending seven decades of domination by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Andrés Rosental, another leader of the anti-saltworks coalition, said afterward that all the Mexican people signing petitions against the project represented “the first indication of a strong, pent-up desire by civil society to participate in decisions like San Ignacio, and the first indication of what later became a groundswell of the anti-establishment vote to elect Fox.” Particularly striking was that three of Fox’s closest advisers – campaign manager Hector Elizondo, foreign policy adviser Adolfo Aguilar, and Senate Environmental Committee chair Luis Alvarez – had all been among the politicians who came to meet with the local people, and the whales, at San Ignacio Lagoon in 1999.
Ultimately, how much had the whales themselves influenced outgoing President Zedillo? “Oh, hugely,” IFAW’s Blumenfeld believes. “Whatever anyone says about all the technicalities, it was the whales.” Or, as Homero Aridjis put it, “For me, the nursery of the whales was always sacred. This is not just an ecological victory, but a spiritual one.”
The gray whales received a reprieve in another arena in 2000. First, on April 20, as a Makah tribal canoe closed in on a gray whale not far from where they’d killed their first one a year before, a young female anti-whaling activist on a jet ski raced toward the crew. The noise and movement of Erin Abbott’s craft caused the whale to dive out of danger from a harpoon throw. A Coast Guard boat proceeded to run right over Abbott, who spent the next four days recuperating in a hospital with a broken shoulder blade and fractured ribs. For violating the government’s exclusionary zone, she faced charges that could bring jail time and a fine up to $250,000. But she had saved the whale and, on June 9, a federal appeals court in Seattle rejected the federal Environmental Assessment that had allowed the Makah to proceed with their hunt. The U.S. government’s review, concluded the judges in a 2-1 ruling, was “slanted” in favor of the hunt; the National Marine Fisheries Service was mandated to look again at the potential impact on resident gray whales and other environmental consequences before the Makah could resume the hunt. “My whales have at least a stay of execution,” tribal elder Alberta Thompson said.
Yet later that summer, Japan sent its whaling fleet into the North Pacific to resume hunting sperm whales and Bryde’s whales – two still-endangered species that were nearly wiped out prior to the 1986 commercial moratorium – under the guise of “scientific research.” Already, at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) held in April in Nairobi, Japan had tried – and failed in a vote of member nations – to downgrade the level of protection given to the gray whale and two other species. A month later, genetic scientists in New Zealand announced that gray whale meat had been sold commercially in Japan in 1999, falsely labeled as minke whale (140 of which, under the International Whaling Commission’s rules, Japan is allowed to harvest annually in the Southern Ocean for stock research purposes). The University of Auckland scientists were unable to determine whether or not the gray whale meat came from the critically endangered Western Pacific population, the ones being studied by Dave Weller’s team at Piltun Lagoon.
Then, at the IWC’s annual meeting in July, Japan and Norway – flanked by seven of their patron states and Denmark – succeeded in blocking an effort by other nations, including the U.S., to adopt a Southern Pacific Sanctuary for whales. A Caribbean fisheries minister from Dominica resigned after claiming that Japan bought his country’s vote. Later that month, the Japanese government gave the green light to its whaling fleet. In August, the U.S. joined fourteen other countries in a diplomatic protest to the Japanese. Then, on September 13, President Clinton directed that Japan be denied access to allotments for fishing in U.S. waters and ordered Cabinet members to examine other options, including possible trade sanctions. By then, however, the damage had been done. Japan “harvested” 43 Bryde’s and five sperm whales (as well as 40 minkes) before returning to port. They claimed to be studying fish consumption by whales – according to Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research, cetaceans consume three to five times the amount of marine resources that are harvested for human consumption. U.S. Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta saw it differently, that Japan was “paving the way for outright resumption of commercial whaling.”
The looming question is whether the U.S. response has been compromised or at least muted, due to having allowed the Makah to hunt gray whales again, precisely what Japan began pushing for in the early 1990s. One of the Makah’s chief supporters, Eugene Lapointe of the IWMC-World Conservation Trust, phrased it like this in a late September press release: “President Clinton’s threatened trade sanctions against Japan….reflects nothing more than made-for-media campaign hype prompted by his political party’s desire to keep control of the White House.” Meantime, the Vancouver Island-based World Council of Whalers was gearing up to hold its Third General Assembly in New Zealand.
If a large-scale resumption of whaling is one dark cloud on the horizon, the impact of global climate change is certainly another. Toward the end of April, I had joined National Marine Fisheries Service scientist Wayne Perryman at Point Piedras Blancas in San Simeon, California. He was conducting a seventh annual count of northbound migrating gray whale females with their calves, supervising a professional team of four observers. They’re here from mid-March into June, as long as whales keep passing. They stand watch in paired shifts, with high-powered binoculars, over the course of a twelve-hour day. Thermal imaging sensors on loan from the Navy are mounted on tripods and used to record data on the whales’ nighttime movements. Aerial censuses are periodically conducted as well, to make sure that mother-calf pairs aren’t migrating beyond range of the observers’ sight. They almost never do. This is an ideal spot to see gray whales, especially mothers and their recently-born, most of which will pass very close to the shore, in the lee along a bed of kelp.
Located on a point directly below the Hearst Castle, this is one of the West Coast’s most scenic locations. I’m leaning back in an elbow of a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, hunkered down alongside Perryman and against a 25-mile-an-hour wind from the northwest. About forty feet below, huge waves send a jet-spray of seawater that falls just short of drenching us. In the spring, huge flocks of Pacific loons settle in to feed in these waters, a million or more passing through in the course of their migration. Peregrine falcons nest near a group of sea lions, and an elephant seal colony occupies a beach at the base of a small hill. Behind me the meadows bloom with purple lupines, yellow mustard, and bright lavender iceplants.
Perryman explains that the gray whale mothers usually keep their calves on the inside, between themselves and the shore, apparently as a protective measure. “Almost ninety percent go by as a single unit,” he says. “You can tell they’re calves just by their size and the way they swim. At this point, they’re still really transitioning out of dog paddling. So the heads keep floating up out of the water. The cue that they’re coming, though, is the mom – because we can easily see her blow three miles away.”
Then Perryman adds, wistfully: “But it’s not as much fun to do this in the bad years.” 1999 had been one such, and this year looked even worse as far as the numbers. “On a normal year at this time, you’d expect to have seen a hundred cow-calf pairs. We’ve seen twenty-one. You can stand out here all day and see zip.”
Perryman hunches his shoulders against the wind, and continues: “I’ve never seen whales that look as thin as some of the ones this year. We had a juvenile going by yesterday that looked just terrible. The whale looked pasty, washed out. It hung around, roaming back and forth, wasn’t swimming very well. With a few, I’m afraid their skeleton structure is showing through their blubber layer.”
All of this, unfortunately, was bearing out the belief of Perryman and other marine scientists that something was very wrong on the gray whales’ feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. This seemed to be affecting not only their body condition, but their reproductive capabilities. When I spoke to Perryman again after the migration, his total calf count for the season had reached only 96 – the lowest figure since he started the survey, and well below “the reasonable range to expect of somewhere between 350 and 450.”
At the same time, the count of stranded gray whales – either found beached or floating dead – had by November reached another record number. It stood at 360, well above 1999’s previous known high of 274. The majority of these whales had been detected in Mexico, with 207 found dead either inside or near the breeding lagoons, an 83 percent increase over the year before. The remainder of the tentative count on the northbound migration route broke down like this: California, 57; Alaska, 56; Washington, 23; Canada, 15; Oregon, 2.
“…if the whales were starving in 1999, they were starving in 2000 as well,” according to a draft scientific report for Cetacean Research Management. The report went on to hypothesize that gray whales’ low body reserves and inanition was caused, in part, by “the depressing effect of increasing water temperature over the last decade on amphipod biomass.”
The probable chain-of-events with the grays’ predominant food source had to do, first, with the warmer Arctic temperatures which dominated the decade and brought about a decrease in amphipod production. Then, secondarily, came the reverse La Niña cooling trend of 1997-98, which resulted both of the following summers in late-melting ice that prevented the grays from reaching the feeding areas early enough and long enough. Additionally, new studies are indicating that, in years when ice is slow to recede, not enough food is available for the bottom-dwelling amphipods. One hopeful sign is that, in 2000, an ice break-up happened early – “so these animals going back with their tanks dead-empty are at least going to be able to get to the feeding grounds,” as Perryman puts it.
In the Arctic, the general trend of rising temperatures has caused sea-ice thickness to decline by more than forty percent since 1958; it’s been estimated that the Arctic’s year-round icepack could completely disappear within another fifty years. That would spell disaster for ice-dependent wildlife such as walrus, bearded seals, and polar bears. It’s quite possible, too, that the Northwest Passage could open up, exposing cetaceans to increased ship traffic. The prognosis for the gray whale’s summer feeding habitat is, overall, not good. A recent study for the World Wildlife Fund/Beringia Conservation Program summarized the situation:
“Scientists studying global warming believe Arctic ecosystems and their wildlife will be far more vulnerable to climate changes than those at the lower latitudes. Temperate and tropical animals, fish, and plants may be able to shift their geographic ranges northward to stay within comfortable climatic ranges. But for temperature-sensitive wildlife living near the poles even a modest amount of warming leaves no options. For the ‘organisms of the tundra and polar seas,’ writes biologist Edward O. Wilson, ‘the North and South poles are the end of the line. All the species of the high latitudes, reindeer moss to polar bears, risk extinction.'”
What might gray whales be trying to “say” to us? Here was Melville in Moby Dick, describing having come upon a whale nursery: “The young of these whales seem looking up toward us, but not at us…Floating on their sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us. – Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond.” So it is at San Ignacio Lagoon. Never is there a moment’s fear that the whales will do us any harm. Their huge size makes them more sensitive, not less. On the surface, externally, they are a mountain of mottled gray, leathery skin and barnacles. Beneath the surface, internally, they are as big as the imagination.
Imagine….What if lions in the jungle suddenly allowed you to pet them? What if elephants suddenly slept at your feet? The Mexicans say the gray whales are “tame.” Yet they are not domesticated. We did not “break” them like we might a horse. They tamed themselves – to come to us, their time-honored enemy, in the place where they give birth. And, mysteriously, it feels that this is how it should be, the way it used to be. The commonality is primordial. We are molded of the same clay. Eschrichtius robustus. Homo sapiens.
We are thus, in a phrase, biblically bound. Beyond Genesis and the Book of Job, we are told in Matthew XII: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” And D.H. Lawrence, in a chapter on Moby Dick that concludes his Studies in Classic American Literature, informs: “…in the first centuries, Jesus was Cetus, the Whale. And the Christians were the little fishes.”
Our Western culture is, of course, not alone in the symbolic meaning ascribed to the leviathan – “bigness, largeness, the mass that moves upon the seas,” as the Tse-shat peoples of Vancouver described the gray whale. The whale sustained and took care of the ancient peoples. The shamans knew. In trance states, a trained shaman could go to the whales and communicate with them. Western man does not understand the nature of “a god” in the same fashion. Except, it seems, in our subconscious. Moby Dick again, as the hunt approaches, as Captain Ahab wrestles with the demons of his inner being:
“‘What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab?'”
Lawrence writes: “What then is Moby Dick? He is the deepest blood-being of the white race; he is our deepest blood-nature. And he is hunted, hunted, hunted by the maniacal fanatacism of our white mental consciousness. We want to hunt him down. To subject him to our will.”
In more recent times, it is our psychoanalysts who have addressed this dilemma we have fashioned for ourselves, especially since the advent of industry and high technology. “Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos,” wrote Carl Jung. “He is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto had symbolic meaning for him. Thunder is no longer the voice of a god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree means a man’s life, no snake is the embodiment of wisdom, and no mountain still harbours a great demon. Neither do things speak to him nor can he speak to things, like stones, springs, plants, and animals.”
James Hillman, in an essay titled Animal Kingdom, elaborates: “The reading of living form, the self-expressive metaphors that animals represent, is what is meant by the legends that saints and shamans understand the language of animals, not in the literal speech of words as much as psychically….”
Which brings us, once more, to the gray whale, the whale that despite our history in seeking to destroy it, wants to live closest to us. If they are being forgiving toward us, the implications are enormous. This is surely, in part, why they touch us so deeply. Like gray whales in their lagoons, human beings too must seek solace, a centering focal point, a place to go that remains relatively untouched and pure. A place to remind ourselves of our basic nature, not surrounded by all we have built. So do we commune with the whales at San Ignacio.
The fight to protect this “sacred nursery,” a fight which captured the attention of so many – direct contact with these whales or not – represents something beyond environmental awareness or fervor. What is hurting them is hurting us. As the oceans go, so go we. Can we survive global warming? Noise pollution? The wanton carelessness about our habitats? Can we pretend to endure anything that the whales cannot? Can we come to grips with the suicidal tendency to destroy what sustains us? Is this what the gray whales are reaching out to communicate?
The answers to these questions are as yet unseen, hidden, perhaps entwined in our unconscious, in the great mystery of our relationship with these most majestic of nature’s creatures. It may only be a mystery because we don’t yet have the senses to perceive it, though we bump into it occasionally in the dark. And we glimpse it, at the rippling edge of life, bursting startlingly above the surface – in the eye of a whale.