Gray whales were on brink of extinction

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 stretches of 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 EcoTours.

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 the whales.

“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 remember.

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.”