Still Not Home Free

 Gray whales cradle boats in a Baja sanctuary thought to be safe after plans for a salt plant dried up. Now activists see a threat resurfacing.


SAN IGNACIO LAGOON, Mexico – The day was like any other and Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral was out fishing for black sea bass. Then the head of a whale emerged from the water and began rubbing against his small wooden dory.

Mayoral knew all about “devilfish,” the name whale hunters gave California gray whales in recognition of their legendary ship-splintering counterattacks. He had always kept a respectful distance from the whales that come each winter to this salty lagoon halfway down the Baja Peninsula to breed and nurse their young.

The massive head soon slipped back under the water. Then it popped up on the other side of his boat. The routine continued for 40 minutes. One side. Then the other. On this day, Mayoral wasn’t afraid. He reached out with one finger and touched the whale. The whale moved closer. The fisherman reached again and petted the whale.

This first encounter with a “friendly” gray whale in San Ignacio Lagoon 33 years ago transformed this sleepy fishing village into a celebrated place where humans can make contact with one of the world’s largest and most powerful creatures.

San Ignacio Lagoon has receded from the top of conservationists’ priority campaigns since the battle was apparently won five years ago to protect the lagoon from a giant salt production plant, a joint venture of Mitsubishi and the Mexican government.

After stirring words from a Mexican poet, letters from worried children and broadcast images of teary-eyed Hollywood celebrities, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo took a boat ride with his wife and children and had their own close encounter with the lagoon’s nuzzling whales.

Four days later, Zedillo pulled the plug on the saltworks project.

Now, residents around San Ignacio Lagoon and conservationists working in Mexico are worried that the commitment of one man, long out of office, could be undone.

Political momentum in Mexico’s capital appears to be shifting toward a different vision for the future, one of industrialization, for this isolated lagoon and the few hundred rural poor who live here.

And a Baja businessman, purportedly representing the salt production company, recently asked if landowners were willing to sell thousands of acres of salt flats next to the lagoon, a wind-blown area ideal for extracting salt from seawater.

Winding through a forest of cordon cactus, dipping in and out of soft sand in the bottom of arroyos and past herds of skittish cattle, the dirt road to San Ignacio opens onto the flats – mud flats and salt flats – as far as the eye can see. The monotony of the stretch is broken only by pools of collected water, sometimes colored red by salt-tolerant bacteria.

Each winter, about 2,500 tourists make the 1½-hour, tire-chewing drive from the town of San Ignacio to the lagoon, or fly into a dusty airstrip next to a handful of primitive eco-tourism camps with tents or plywood cabinas. It’s off-the-grid camping: outhouses, lights powered by solar panels, showers from bags of water warmed by the sun.

Most visitors come from the United States or Europe. Few Mexican tourists visit. One adventurous woman from Hermosillo, marveling at the brightness of the Milky Way against the darkened camp, put it this way: The well-heeled in Mexico would rather go to a four-star hotel than a hotel with 1,000 stars.

Raul Lopez, coordinator of Kuyima Ecoturismo, ushered visitors onto a 22-foot dory, or panga. Soon it was bouncing through the shallow backwaters to the designated whale-watching area, a deeper channel near the mouth of the lagoon.

Several hundred whales, mostly pairs of cows and their calves, take refuge in San Ignacio Lagoon for a few weeks each winter while the newborns gain weight and strength for the migration north to feeding grounds off Alaska.

All the camps work together, Lopez explained. Only 16 boats are allowed at one time, and all must remain in the deep channel so whales can dive if they want to elude them. Boat drivers are not to pursue whales, but to let the creatures choose to approach them.

Within minutes, seawater roiled in a fury of bubbles. A gray shadow came into view, inches beneath the surface. It stretched twice as long as the boat, too close to make sense of the shape. The boatman, hand on the tiller, looked nervous. He popped the outboard into reverse and began to back away.

Whomp! The bow of the dory swung wildly. The barnacled snout of a gray whale surfaced. The whale began to turn, belly up, and slipped under the boat. The dory was filled with the sound of rubbery flesh squeaking against the fiberglass hull.

“It’s Valentina,” Lopez said, explaining that the whale got her nickname when she showed up last year on Valentine’s Day.

One flipper, raised about 4 feet out of the water, came along one side of the boat. Another flipper came along the opposite side. Gently cradling the dory between her flippers, Valentina lifted it slightly out of the water. Passengers grabbed for the rails.

“It’s a whale hug,” Lopez said. “Forty tons of love.”

Swimming on her back with the dory balanced on her broad chest, Valentina took passengers for a short ride. Some squealed with delight, while others sat silently in awe.

The boat shuddered again as another whale broke the surface. This one was smaller and darker. Lopez leaned over the gunnel and scratched its smooth, bulbous forehead and gave it a kiss.

This year, Lopez said, Valentina showed up with a calf.

The small community of whale-watching outfits wants more than to just limit the boats on the water. It wants to limit growth on land to protect the last pristine gray whale refuge on the Baja coast.

“We don’t want a Disneyland here,” Lopez said. “We don’t want big resorts or industrial plants. We want to use the land in a smart way so we can create a sustainable way to live.”

Lopez, 43, isn’t the typical fisherman turned whale-watching guide. He came here two dozen years ago as a college-educated fisheries extension agent to try to reduce overfishing and help develop a sustainable catch. Whale watching emerged as alternative employment for fishermen after populations of turtles, black sea bass and bay scallops had crashed.

Lopez married into the community and is now president of an ejido, or communal landholding group, formally known as Ejido Luis Echeverria.

Much of Baja California is held as common land by rural ejidos. The million acres that drain into San Ignacio Lagoon are split among six ejidos. Luis Echeverria, one of the largest, is located in the middle, with much of the coastal land used by whale-watching groups.

Ejidos did not have the power to sell communal lands until Mexico adopted legal reforms in the 1990s. Now ejidos are being enticed with offers to buy their land, exposing new areas of Baja and elsewhere to private development.

But the new laws also gave ejidos the power to sell easements that restrict development. So Ejido Echeverria, led by the same people who run the whale-watching operations, has been negotiating with a conservation group to sell the development rights on 120,000 acres of communal lands in exchange for a trust fund that will pay $25,000 a year in perpetuity for community projects, such as improving schools. Ejido members formally voted Sunday to give Lopez the power to sign a deal with Pronatura, Mexico’s oldest and largest conservation group.

Once Lopez inks the deal, it will be the first step in a master plan by conservationists on both sides of the border to prevent any large development from ever being built around San Ignacio Lagoon.

“Our goal is to work with local people to protect the most beautiful and wild places in Baja,” said Serge Dedina, director of Wildcoast, an Imperial Beach, Calif.-based conservation group. He is part of a coalition organizing a $9.9-million fundraising campaign to buy conservation easements over all of the million acres that drain into the lagoon.

Although Mexican land deals are notoriously unpredictable, Miguel Angel Vargas, a coordinator with Pronatura, said the deals around San Ignacio Lagoon are being structured so that Pronatura’s lawyers have legal power to defend the easements and prosecute un-permitted development. Each deal will have a defense fund to pay attorney fees.

“We don’t have a lot of confidence in the federal government, especially in San Ignacio Lagoon,” Vargas said.

It’s a sentiment shared by Lopez. He worries about what will happen to the land held by five other ejidos that ring the lagoon.

“We want to keep the whales nice and relaxed,” he said. That, he added, can happen only if all of the neighbors share the commitment to protect the lagoon.

Lopez got back on the bone-jarring road to San Ignacio, a ride that functions as a dusty deterrent to all but the truly motivated. He had an appointment with the leaders of the neighboring landowners, Ejido San Ignacio.

Unlike Ejido Echeverria, which owns the coastal land used by fishermen and whale-watching camps, most of Ejido San Ignacio’s members live on inland ranches or in the town. In the 1990s, they embraced the idea of a salt production plant as a path to economic progress. They still own 18,500 acres of mostly salt flats that were going to be part of the plant.

Lopez had heard of an offer to purchase the flats. The offer reportedly came from a representative of Exportadora del Sal, the company – 51% of which is owned by the Mexican government and 49% by Mitsubishi – that wanted to build the saltworks plant. Lopez wanted to check it out and explain the alternative his ejido was pursuing.

The meeting with four ejido leaders began stiffly, over coffee in a local restaurant. Raul Galindo, the secretary of Ejido San Ignacio, scowled. He stirred his coffee and, without taking a sip, folded his arms across his chest.

Lopez explained that Ejido Echeverria was going to sell an easement to conservationists. He said the ejido would not give up its land but merely agree to maintain it much as it is. No high-rises. No industrial plants – but moderate, planned developed would be OK. The cattle herds on various ranches may have to be thinned to prevent excessive grazing.

In exchange for these concessions, the community would receive $25,000 a year in perpetuity for the easement on communal lands. The owners of private parcels would negotiate separately for extra cash.

The four ejido leaders peppered Lopez with questions. Galindo, the secretary, nodded. “I get it,” he said. “It’s like eating the meat without killing the cow.”

The leaders confirmed that they had met with Humberto Ibarra, a businessman from the town of Guerrero Negro who said he was inquiring on behalf of Exportadora del Sal, if they would be willing to sell the salt flats.

Ibarra would not quote them a price for the land, saying a proper value would have to be established. Rodrigo Martinez, president of Ejido San Ignacio, said his group’s largely aging majority was more interested in money than holding on to the land.

“I would not be interested in selling,” said Martinez, 37, the co-owner of a supermarket. “But the older people will want to see because they are not thinking about the future.”

Ibarra was unavailable for comment.

Exportadora del Sal operates the world’s largest salt plant in Guerrero Negro, a 2 1/2 -hour drive north of San Ignacio. Edmundo Elorduy, the general director, said he was unaware of Ibarra’s discussions with the ejido.

“He has nothing to do with us,” Elorduy said. “He’s an entrepreneur. He’s a business guy. He’s always eager to break new ground.”

As giant trucks rumbled in the distance, each carrying 360 tons of salt toward a barge, Elorduy said he was too busy running the company’s existing plant to think about resurrecting plans for a second plant at San Ignacio Lagoon.

“As far as I know, it has not been considered,” Elorduy said. “The board [of directors] hasn’t mentioned anything about it…. If there is anything official, we will make it official.”

The Mexican government a few years ago put its 51% share of Exportadora del Sal on a list of federal assets that could be sold for needed cash. If the company were privatized, that would also enable it to ignore Zedillo’s presidential directive.

Homero Aridjis, a Mexico City poet and head of the conservation-minded Group of 100, said that longtime supporters of the San Ignacio Lagoon salt plant are lining up behind the front-runner to be Mexico’s next president. It makes him think the government may resurrect the project.

He said a second salt plant would despoil the lagoon, which is the heart of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, Latin America’s largest naturally protected area. Aridjis helped inspire the reserve in 1988 as a way to protect the gray whale’s breeding and birthing lagoons, but its protections can be trumped by economic interests.

“In Mexico, there is little understanding of the need to have places which are left wild,” Aridjis said. “The prevailing philosophy is that nature has to pay its way and that development and business comes first.”

All this political intrigue and business dealing bring back old worries for Pachico Mayoral, the fisherman said to be the first to pet a whale in San Ignacio.

He and his family are the only permanent residents on the 18,500-acre parcel of salt flats owned by Ejido San Ignacio. Despite living there since 1960, the slender 64-year-old holds no title to the property and worries about losing his home and tourist camp to developers.

Mayoral said the gray whales, once hunted nearly to extinction, have much to teach humans about resolving conflicts. After all these years, he marvels how the curious cetaceans behave, the mothers sometimes boosting their calves out of the water so tourists can scratch their heads or rub their baleen gums.

“They were attacked by men and yet they look to get closer to people,” Mayoral said. “That is a great lesson for all of us.”

Times staff writer Jason Felch contributed to this report.