Gentle giants of the sea return to Mexico lagoon
Gray whales were on brink of extinction
The Washington Post - Feb. 20, 2005
By Mary Jordan
SAN IGNACIO LAGOON, Mexico - The gray whales are back, jumping and
splashing like 30-ton, sugar-buzzed schoolchildren in the luminous
blue-green waters of this remote lagoon.
Nearly hunted to extinction in the beginning of the 20th century,
the whales have rebounded in numbers that are delighting government
marine experts who zip around this Pacific Ocean inlet in a 24-foot
skiff, meticulously counting the lively mammals.
"It's looking very good this year," said Gabriel Arturo Zaragoza,
chief of the Mexican government's whale census, balancing in a boat
with pen and paper in hand. "These gentle creatures are back."
Zaragoza noted that there are now nearly as many whales in this
narrow lagoon as there are people living on its majestic desert
shores. He recently counted more than 800 baby whales here and in a
second lagoon nearby, on the west coast of the Baja Peninsula.
"So far this season, the numbers are running higher than last year,"
Zaragoza said, noting that last year was exceptional, too. Most
significant is the proliferation of 1,000-pound baby whales. "It's a
great sign," he said.
In 1970, after the population of gray whales had plummeted to fewer
than 2,000, they were placed on the endangered species list. But as
whale hunting stopped and whale watching became popular, the numbers
of gray whales that ply these Pacific waters rose so steadily that
by 1994 they were taken off the endangered list.
Whale population on the rise
Now, following a mysterious die-off around 2000 that left many
whales stranded on beaches, the population is on the rise again. The
U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that there are more
than 18,000 gray whales migrating between Alaska and Mexico.
"It's exciting to see. We are happy about the bigger numbers," said
Diane Alps of the U.S.-based American Cetacean Society. She said
some experts refer to whales as the "canaries of the sea." Like
canaries in a coal mine, when they thrive, it generally indicates
healthy conditions in their environment, in this case the ocean.
Gray whales ·eschrichtius robustus ·are found in two
coastal waters worldwide: the Western Pacific along Japan and
Russia, and along the Pacific coast of North America. Mature gray
whales can grow to be 46 feet long and weigh between 22 and 40 tons.
They are dark gray, with white spots and blotchy skin patches, often
covered with barnacles. They travel enormous distances during
migration. The group that winters in Mexico may reach as far as the
Arctic Circle in the summer, and its members have long been popular
among whale watchers in the San Diego area.
Grays are known as friendly whales because they tend to stay closer
to shore than other species and are the easiest to see. As their
numbers have risen, so have the throngs turning out to see them.
Marine officials report ever-growing crowds of whale watchers lining
piers and filling viewing boats off the Pacific coast of Canada, the
United States and Mexico during the months when the whales are
traveling up and down the coastline.
Whale watching a growing industry
According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Americans
are the most avid whale watchers, but the pastime has grown rapidly
in many parts of the world and is now a $1 billion industry spanning
87 countries, up from 31 in 1991. While only about 2,000 visitors
came to Mexico to see whales in 1991, the fund said that by the late
1990s more than 100,000 were arriving annually.
"How things have changed!" said Maria Luisa Camacho, who lives in an
old fishing village on the lagoon. Fifteen years ago, she said,
perhaps five visitors knocked on the door of her modest home,
inquiring about the whales splashing outside her kitchen window.
They wanted to pay her husband to take them out in his tiny fishing
boat for a closer look at the 40-foot-long mammals.
Today she is accommodating 600 whale watchers each year -- from U.S.
firefighters to German librarians -- who stay in her rustic cabins,
part of an expanding local whale-watching business called Antonio's
Residents said the arrival of the graybacks, which generally begin
showing up in December and start leaving in March, was once a
frightening nuisance. But that view changed as their numbers
increased, and as many fisherman started earning far more money
operating whale-watching tours than selling scallops and sea bass.
Camacho, who used to rap on the side of the family fishing boat to
shoo away the whales, said local guides now do the opposite,
silently gliding in close to them. Some tourists have been known to
tip $100 if they get close enough to pet or kiss a whale as though
it were a puppy.
On a recent day in this quiet lagoon community, where there are no
telephones and people communicate by radio, eight small boats were
filled with American, European and Mexican visitors who had arrived
by private jet or driven across the rough desert to get a glimpse of
"Come on! Come on! Come a little closer!" coaxed Eddie Mendia, a San
Diego ship maintenance worker, who came hoping he might get close
enough to touch one of these giants of the sea. As a mother and her
newborn whale leapt in tandem a few feet from Mendia, he marveled at
the stamina that would soon carry the pair back 5,000 miles north to
the Bering Sea.
"It's fantastic," he said, snapping photos of a dozen whales jumping
around him. "Did you see his eye? Did you see that
spyhop?" "Spyhopping," in whale-watcher lingo, is when a whale
raises its head above the water for a look around.
Jean Paul Leigh-Smith Leitch, a restaurant manager from Spain,
watched intently as the blubbery, barnacled back of one whale after
another rose above the waterline, appearing like small gray
submarines. "They are all over the place. It's beautiful," he said.
A 'sense of satisfaction' in return
The comeback of gray whales in these waters is all the more
spectacular because it has not happened elsewhere, said Monica
DeAngelis, a marine biologist with the U.S. National Marine
Fisheries Service in California. She said that there are only about
100 left in the Western Pacific, feeding around Sakhalin island in
the Sea of Okhotsk, off the Siberian coast of Russia, and that the
population that existed in the North Atlantic is now extinct.
Homero Aridijis, a Mexican poet and environmentalist who helped lead
the successful campaign against a proposed Mitsubishi salt factory
at the edge of this lagoon several years ago, said the abundance of
whales brings a "sense of satisfaction" to conservationists who
championed the cause, including several Hollywood stars.
Still, Carole Carlson, a marine biologist visiting Mexico this past
week with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said that
although "there are much stronger numbers, we are not out of the
woods yet." Speaking by phone from Mexico City, she said "save the
whales" campaigns had raised the visibility of the constantly
traveling mammals, which were normally out of the public eye.
During the months when the San Ignacio lagoon turns into a whale
nursery, Zaragoza, the whale census chief, arrives here once a week.
He drives his government pickup over salt flats and desert roads and
pulls into the inlet's sandy shores, dotted with cabins and tents
for whale watchers and small homes for fishermen.
On a recent day, the first person to flag down Zaragoza was Pachico
Mayoral, a 64-year-old fisherman turned whale tour guide, who
excitedly said there were more whales this season than he could ever
Not that counting whales is easy. Zaragoza said he strives for an
accurate count by cruising at six miles an hour, just ahead of whale
speed, to avoid counting the same cetacean twice. His partner,
Martin Garcia Aguilar, keeps watch on the opposite side of their
skiff. He said years of experience, a sharp eye and a set of
binoculars also help.
The two spend hours traveling up and down the usually calm waters,
counting adults and babies, noting their dives, breaches and spuming
blowholes. The whales get so close that the men are sure they
recognize some -- by the marks and spots on their heads and tails --
from previous years.
"Some of them look you right in the eye," Zaragoza said. "They may
be big, but they are gentle."
©2005 The Washington Post Company