Guardian of the Gray Whales


“Pachico,” as he was known to all in the small village that surrounds Baja’s San Ignacio Lagoon, changed my life. He changed the lives of thousands who have journeyed in recent years to this magical place to see and even pet whales in the wild. The guardian of the lagoon, Pachico “called” the Eastern Pacific gray whales to us for a generation. In 1973 he’d been out fishing alone when a group of whales surrounded him and, overcoming his fear, Pachico reached out a hand. “It was like breaking through some kind of invisible wall,” he once told me, as he became the first human being known to have touched a whale in its habitat.

That moment marked the beginning of what’s today called “the friendly gray whale phenomenon” – their approaches to winter boatloads of visitors at the Mexican lagoon where they’ve been coming to give birth for millennia. Only a little more than a century earlier, the gray whales’ ancestors had fallen victim by the thousands to whalers’ harpoons. Now they responded, with unspoken forgiveness, to our outstretched hands.

I will always remember: Perhaps a hundred yards off our bow, a massive torpedo shape rises to the surface like an island being formed. Pachico, the wizened captain of our small motorized panga, cuts back on the throttle and begins a gradual approach. A fan-shaped geyser of seawater erupts ahead and subsides with a whoosh. As the whale dives, arching its heart-shaped flukes, a sparkling waterfall beckons us forward. Pachico leans over the side and starts rapping his knuckles in a rhythmic pattern against the boat’s metal hull.

Now, a mother-and-calf pair surges toward our panga. Weighing over thirty tons, ten times the size of a large elephant, the mother dwarfs our boat, and the calf is already about one-third her size. Either whale could overturn us with a mere flick of the tail. Yet I feel no trace of fear.

The mother, using her body as a natural breakwater, seems to be coaxing the young one toward us. Slowly, they make the rounds of awestruck people bent almost double over the sides. They are surprisingly soft to the touch. Amazingly, the whales enjoy the rubbing of the long, bristly baleen plates they use to ingest their food. The mother turns on her side and gazes upward, her baseball-sized eye appearing moonstone-blue, like that of some unfathomably old, unjudging god. The look penetrates to the very depth of my being.

Because of that moment, I looked at the wonders of nature with new eyes. And I wrote a book, Eye of the Whale, about following the migration of these majestic creatures from Baja to their Arctic feeding grounds.

On the morning of October 22, 2013, Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral died after suffering a stroke. He was probably in his mid-seventies. I received word from my friend Serge Dedina, founder of the WildCoast organization, who wrote in his Email tribute: “Pachico played a major role in uncovering the plans by ESSA/Mitsubishi to build a $180 million salt facility on the shore of Laguna San Ignacio, when he gave me and Emily the blueprints to the project in early 1994. It was a courageous act, considering that he lived in a wooden shack with sand floors at the edge of the Lagoon and helped to launch a campaign that 20 years later resulted in the protection of more than 300,000 acres of lagoon habitat. It was never quite clear to me how he obtained a fresh set of blueprints for the project since he didn’t drive much, had no telephone, and his only way of communicating with the outside world was via radio.

“Whether he was assisting scientists or conservationists or inspiring his sons to continue the family business of conservation and ecotourism, Pachico’s insights into the Lagoon, the wildlife there (of which he was a keen observer) and its need for protection were invaluable.

“And we could always count on Pachico to provide a moving and inspiring quote about the need to conserve the Lagoon and its whales to the New York Times, LA Times and NBC News among other media outlets from around the world that featured his inspiring message of the need to live in harmony with whales and nature.

Here is a video from NBC Nightly News with Maria Celeste where Pachico was the subject of a story about ‘Making a Difference.’

“Here is how Pulitzer winning reporter Ken Weiss ended his feature story on Laguna San Ignacio:

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.”

Other tributes began quickly coming in. Emily Young, of the San Diego Foundation, wrote: “Pachico was such a wonderful, kind, and generous man whose love for the lagoon, whales, and the many people who knew him was boundless – his spirit certain lives on in the hearts of all those who were fortunate enough to know him.”

Beto Bedolfe, Executive Director of the Marisla Foundation, wrote: “This is a sad day but what Pachico started will live on forever. He made an incredible contribution to saving whales and nature and making life better for people.”

Fay Crevoshay, Communications and Policy Director of Wildcoast, wrote: “Pachico will certainly be missed. He was a lovely person, a great story teller, and you could hear his free spirit and boundless love for nature, the lagoon and his whales in his inspiring stories.”

Joel Reynolds, Western Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote: “This is the end of an era at Laguna San Ignacio. Pachico is one of those rare people I will always be proud to say I met, worked with, and admired for what he did for the lagoon, its communities, and our world heritage.”

Thank you, Pachico. I know in my heart that the whales will miss you deeply, too. – Dick Russell.