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The Footprint of a Whale

Environmentalists and Poets Fought Off a Baja California Saltworks. Now the People of Laguna San Ignacio Must Reevaluate Their Place in the Ecosystem.

April 29, 2001|DIANA MARCUM | Diana Marcum, a staff writer for the Fresno Bee, last wrote for the magazine about Palm Springs card dealer schools

The road to the whales eats cars. When Wallace J. Nichols, an American turtle researcher, broke down he was stuck for two days until a mechanic happened by. The mechanic was a friend of the notorious Gordo Fischer, known throughout Baja California Sur for poaching sea turtles. While the mechanic patched up the rock-blasted International Travelall in the garage of his San Ignacio home, the poacher and the conservationist sized each other up over cold Tecates. That's how things go here. One road. One lagoon. And a bunch of people with different ideas about how the lagoon should be used. Have a beer amigo and let me take the measure of my enemy.

At the ocean-end of the 37-mile, oil pan-piercing, axle-busting Baja desert dirt road, past fingers of cardon cacti, volcanic ridges and eerie, seemingly endless salt flats aglow in pale, winter light, is Laguna San Ignacio, the last unspoiled mating and calving grounds of the California gray whale. The route the whale pods take to these warm, peaceful waters is even more obstacle-strewn than the drive here. From the frigid waters of the Bering Sea, the cetaceans dodge oil tankers and fishing nets and swim by indigenous Siberians with rifles, then run a gantlet of diesel-spewing whale-watching boats while enduring the sewage discharge of Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and the San Diego-Tijuana area.

As late as March of last year, Exportadora de Sal S.A., or ESSA, a joint venture between Mitsubishi and the Mexican government, planned to build the world's largest saltworks in the Vizca'no Biosphere Reserve, which had supposedly been set aside to protect the center of Baja California and the surrounding waters. The $180-million project would have placed 116 square miles of dikes and ponds and a mile-long pier for cargo ships in the lagoon. Local fishermen protested. Their cause was picked up by the Group of 100, an influential circle of Mexican artists and intellectuals, and by a coalition of more than 50 environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Forty-six cities and towns, including Los Angeles, joined the California Coastal Commission in condemning the project. E-mails zigzagged around the world. Movie stars went on save-the-whale press junkets. In car-crazy Southern California, consumers sent boycott letters to Mitsubishi dealerships. But this was one of the world's largest corporations

in partnership with the Mexican government. It looked like it would be a long, lopsided fight. But, on March 2 of last year, then-President Ernesto Zedillo made the surprise announcement that his government was canceling the venture.

It was a great day for the whales. But some people who live on the road to the lagoon and on its shores felt that their hopes for a better life had been harpooned. A year later, the whales are back, but the locals say the tourist numbers are down. And the creatures who are arguably this ecosystem's most intelligent species find themselves squinting into the harsh Baja sun and contemplating anew exactly how they fit into this habitat. With the saltworks defeated, people are rearranging their alliances, reconsidering their livelihoods and reexamining their values.

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THE ROAD TO "THE FRIENDLIES" ENDS AT LA LAGUNA, POPULATION 30. Salt flats shimmer beneath the fog. Whales, turtles and dolphins are out there in the turquoise water and a fisherman named Pachico works on his boat while a puppy tries to untie his shoelaces.

Jose Francisco "Pachico" Mayoral, 59, was the first to pet a whale. In front of his home, atop a knoll, sits the very panga he was in that day.

In February 1972, Pachico and his partner, Santos Luis Perez, were fishing on the lagoon. Usually they were careful to keep away from the beasts that they knew could easily capsize their boat. But this day a mother whale surprised them. She came alongside and started rubbing against the panga. They were terrified, but over the next several minutes Pachico felt courage growing inside him and decided to touch the whale. He just felt, he says, that it was a good idea to pet a whale. Which he did for a half hour.

Santos, still Pachico's best friend, drops by to help tell the story. He also tried to reach out to the whale, he says, but his hand shook too hard with nervousness. The whale was marked by scars on her shoulders, so Pachico and Santos recognized her the many seasons afterward that she came to his boat.

The story made it into the American "Reader's Digest." Pachico has a carefully preserved copy. In this version of the tale, Pachico throws himself down and fervently makes the sign of a cross as the whale chases the panga. "Fantasy," he says. Because it is not a wise man who throws himself down and gesticulates wildly in a 20-foot panga chased by a 50-foot whale. But this much he says is true: Twenty-nine years ago, in this lagoon, a whale approached a fisherman and the fisherman reached out to pet the whale.

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