Dispatches – Countdown for the Gray Whales

Laguna San Ignacio, the gray whales’ last pristine nursery ground, is threatened by industry.

Photo by Brian Keating

Humans once hunted gray whales to near extinction, but these creatures are forgiving. Every winter, at the end of their annual 6,000-mile southern migration from the Bering Strait, they meet us in the salty waters of Laguna San Ignacio. Here in Baja California the gray whales spend several months giving birth and nursing their young, and-for unknown reasons-letting us commune with them, touch them, share their waters.

As Amicus reported last summer, this last pristine nursery ground is threatened by industry. In June 1994, Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation and the Mexican government-in a joint venture known as Exportadora del Sal, S.A. (ESSA)-proposed building the world’s biggest solar salt-production facility at Laguna San Ignacio. Covering 116 square miles, this industrial machine would suck out six thousand gallons of water every second and pump it into giant evaporation ponds. These would eventually yield salt, to be collected by huge earthmovers, processed nearby, and transferred at a mile-long pier extending out into the ocean, which would be a port for cargo ships trafficking the tranquil waters.

Things have not gone as planned. Quickly, Homero Aridjis, head of the Mexico City-based environmental organization Group of 100 and a renowned writer, sounded the alarm. In February 1995 the proposal was rejected by Mexico’s Environmental Secretariat (SEMARNAP), which deemed the project incompatible with Laguna San Ignacio’s status as part of a Biosphere Reserve. But SEMARNAP relented under pressure from ESSA, and permitted it to submit a new proposal and environmental-impact statement.

In October, responding to an outcry from environmentalists, Mitsubishi and the Mexican government announced some changes. They proposed moving the pumps inland to reduce noise and pollution, building a double dike to avoid a potential break in the ponds that could harm the lagoon, and widening the gaps between the pilings to reduce possible interference with the whales. “I don’t see that the pristine lagoon is going to change,” says Mitsubishi International Corporation’s executive vice president and general counsel James Brumm. “Nothing is being done but letting the water flow into an area, letting it evaporate, and then scooping up what remains. This is not heavy industry. It’s very low-tech.”

Low-tech? Not according to José Varele Galvan, general director of the Kuyima ecotourism camp. “This project would take water directly from the lagoon with these huge pumps,” he says. NRDC attorney Robert Kennedy, Jr. agrees. “They’re going to turn a nature reserve into a barren moonscape, a biological wasteland ”

Now the conglomerates have contracted with about fifty scientists from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to write an environmental-impact statement by March 1999. Then an international scientific advisory committee will review the assessment and make its own recommendation to SEMARNAP, but Aridjis is concerned. “The real pressure is coming from the minister of commerce, the governor of Baja, and other higherups in the government,” he says.

Mexican and American environmentalists are applying pressure too. “Laguna San Ignacio is one of the planet’s biological gems,” says NRDC attorney S. Jacob Scherr. “It must be preserved.” NRDC members and others have sent more than 200,000 letters of protest. In February, Kennedy met with the Japanese foreign minister, who agreed to arrange a meeting between the NRDC attorney and the head of Mitsubishi.

A decision is anticipated by the summer of 1999. For now it is a waiting game, and the whales still cone trustingly to humans, as I witnessed in March. Floating in the Pacific waters in our skiff, I watched as a mother nudged her two-month-old baby toward us. I dipped my hands into the waves. Mother and baby surfaced an arm’s length from the boat and showered us with spray. And when the baby lifted its head toward me, asking to he petted, I felt its skinsoft, smooth, and rubbery-and was taken in by the huge moonstone-blue eye of its mother. Within a few years such an exchange in Laguna San Ignacio may be rendered impossible, if Mitsubishi has its way.

Dick Russell is a contributing editor of Amicus.