New Freeway planned for San Ignacio Lagoon

New Freeway planned for San Ignacio Lagoon

The Touch

The Touch

San Ignacio Lagoon is the birthplace of a remarkable chapter in the relationship between whales and humans. The lagoons along the western coast of the American Continent, from San Francisco Bay in the north to Bahía Magdalena in the south, were all once breeding and birthing areas for the Eastern Pacific Gray Whales.

Shipping activities, harbor construction, oil extraction and processing and other human enterprises chased the whales out of many of their historic haunts (such as San Francisco and San Diego bays). Currently the only remaining breeding and birthing lagoons are the lagoons of Baja California – Guerrero Negro, San Ignacio, and Bahía Magdalena.

Of course decades of commercial whaling also played into this decimation of safe habitat and almost put the gray whales out of business. It was in fact these very lagoons where some of the most voracious whaling occurred; whalers would go into the lagoons, attack the vulnerable baby whales and then capture and kill the mothers when they came to rescue their babies. This was a dangerous game for the whalers because unlike many baleen whales, the Gray Whales will attack their aggressors. One out of four whalers in the gray whale industry was either killed or maimed in these encounters – crowning the gray whale with the ominous name of “devilfish.”

Nonetheless the whaler’s strategies were so effective that by 1946 there were only a few thousand remaining whales, and commercial exploitation of the stock was no longer viable (and thus banned by the International Whaling Commission).

It was in San Ignacio Lagoon that this bloody history turned a page. In 1972, Pachico Mayoral, a fisherman in the Ejido of San Ignacio was out in his panga when a gray whale approached and began bumping and contacting the panga. Knowing the history and the dangerous behavior of these devilfish, Pachico was terrified. It seems that the devilfish tormented Pachico for hours; bumping and lifting his boat, scratching her belly on the hull, and peering over the gunwales into the boat.

It was during one of these “peering” maneuvers that Pachico gathered his courage and reached out to touch the beast. He says he felt “safe,” – that he realized that the whale ment him no harm.

When he finally returned home his family and community did not believe him. It took a few more encounters for the people to understand that within the whale’s living memory of the slaughter, these animals were forging a different relationship with the humans.

This relationship has blossomed into what is one of the most successful interspecies environmental businesses ever:  every year thousands of eco-tourists head down to the lagoons of Baja to meet the “friendly whales.”

I have been taking small groups to the lagoons over the years on what is almost a pilgrimage for some; to meet and interact with the baby whales and their mothers. These journeys are always transformative, and also just plain delightful.

We have been to both Bahía Magdalena and Laguna San Ignacio, though I have preferred the later because the bumpy dirt road across the desert has discouraged the concentrations of tourists you find in Magdalena. This lends to a more intimate experience in San Ignacio.

This will soon be changing though, because the highway department has begun construction of a paved road from the nearest town of San Ignacio to traverse the 60 km to the lagoon, and then head south to connect with the paved road at La Purisima.

The paved road will be a significant asset to the residents of the lagoon, improving access to commerce and tourism. The road will also significantly improve access to medical services for the residents of the lagoon. This road will change the relationship between the humans and the whales – and the human experience of the whale encounters – by dint of the fact that once the road is complete you can just blow out for an afternoon encounter and be back in town by evening.

Once the road connects to La Purisima, it will also become a preferred route for automotive and cargo traffic running north and south between the U.S. Mexico border and Cabo San Lucas because it bypasses the current, and fairly treacherous M-1 that runs between San Ignacio and Loreto.

This raises my concern that once the paved road becomes a main thoroughfare for heavy traffic, that seismic scale vibrations from the road will transfer low frequency noise into the lagoon and potentially compromise the habitat for the Gray whales.

In order to address this concern Ocean Conservation Research has put together a program determine the potential acoustical impacts of the road, measuring low frequency acoustical transmission characteristics of the lagoon/land interface where the road will flank the lagoon.

As with any non-profit we are spending more time gathering funds than doing the actual work. As of July 2009 we’re still shy of the complete budget, but research partner Aaron Thode has placed some hydrophones in the test area to get some benchmarks.

For a more detailed account of the project, see: San Ignacio Lagoon Freeway. Of course if you would like to support this project or participate, just contact me through info@OCR.org

New York Times article on human/whale relationships

Baby Love

Baby Love

This week New York Times features and article ostensibly about our relationship with whales, woven around a visit by the author to the “friendly whales” of San Ignacio Lagoon.

The article (requiring a free NYT login) is here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/magazine/12whales-t.html

It also features some OCR colleagues, friends and allies such as Ranulfo Mayoral, a fantastic birder and the brother of Pancho Mayoral, the lagoon guide for our annual whale trip to Baja. NRDC Biologist Elizabeth Alter, Sperm whale expert Hal Whitehead, and San Ignacio Lagoon project partner Aaron Thode are also featured.

(see: http://ocr.org/research/impacts/SanIgnacioFreeway.pdf )

The article is a longish but informative read. It speculates about why the gray whales are reaching out to humans; it discusses whales’ higher order emotional behavior and communication skills.

It also comes concurrently with an essay in Nature this week by behavioral biologist Frans de Waal[1] about “anthropodenial” – an unfounded rejection of the continuity between humans and other animals. Perhaps we are arriving at a nexus between biologists and traditional story-tellers?

If you enjoy the article and would like to visit the friendly whales, we will be heading down to San Ignacio Lagoon in March of 2010. Book early, as we can take 12, and we already have five committed.

Let me know if you want to be on the short-list by sending a request to info@OCR.org


[1] Author of “Chimpanzee Politics” the benchmark 20 year behavioral study of the community dynamics of a captive group of chimps in the Arnhem Zoo.

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