Every year, eastern Pacific gray whales migrate thousands of miles from Alaskan waters to lagoons off the Baja California Peninsula, the longest mammal migration on Earth. Gray whales visit the lagoon to mate; one year later, the mothers return to the same waters to have their calves. Most Alaskan gray whales are actually born in Mexico.
Located in the southern region of the Baja California Peninsula, Laguna San Ignacio is the planet’s last undeveloped, pristine gray whale breeding lagoon. The lagoon is now permanently protected due to conservation efforts by several organizations and activists, including WILDCOAST.
In 2005, WILDCOAST helped facilitate a conservation easement that permitted ecotourism for the local community in Laguna San Ignacio while protecting the lagoon’s delicate ecosystem and visiting gray whales. The land had once been slated for development by the Mexican Salt Exporting Company, a joint venture between the Mexican federal government and Mitsubishi.
WILDCOAST’s Executive Director, Serge Dedina, and conservation NGOs such as NRDC worked together to stop the construction of the massive salt industry development in Laguna San Ignacio, proposed by Mitsubishi and endorsed by Ernesto Zedillo’s presidency. This has allowed the lagoon to thrive and to remain wild.
Additionally, a conservation alliance formed by WILDCOAST and NGO partners supported the direct conservation of an additional 300,000 acres of land on the northern shore of San Ignacio Lagoon through an innovative conservation concession. For the past three decades, the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance has worked to assure the long-term protection of Laguna San Ignacio’s ecosystems and support sustainable community development initiatives. The Alliance includes as members WILDCOAST, Pronatura Noroeste, International Community Foundation (ICF), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Ejido Luis Echeverría Alvarez, Laguna Baja ARIC, and the Comunidad Maijanu Ecological Reserve.
The following three stories, written by the environment journalist Ernesto Méndez and the cameraman Carlos Vázques for Excelsior and Imagen TV, have had international coverage in California and Mexico, reaching millions.
Getting to the lagoon is a challenging task. Located in very remote southern Baja, reporters and our team traveled across the entire Baja California Peninsula, from North to South, in three days.
There are several ways to get to San Ignacio Lagoon from Mexico City. All of them are complicated for different reasons. Due to several roadblocks in the planning process, we decided to travel by bus through the transpeninsular highway.
This specific highway traverses the Baja California Peninsula from North to South via a single lane on each side, spanning some of the most scenic and impressive landscapes on the planet. At sunrise, we saw the Baja desert for the first time. The scenery was magnificent. We saw vast plains, giant cacti, lush desert plants, and wildlife.
On the way down, we passed through several pueblos, or small towns, with ten or fifteen houses along the highway and some old RVs that locals use as permanent households. Each village was uniquely characteristic.
The town of San Ignacio is the literal definition of a desert oasis.
The magnificent Indian Laurel trees provide thick shade from the summer sun. The historic town began at the steps of Misión San Ignacio, the very ground of ancient times when the Cochimi Indian cave painters lived in this Gulf region. Date palms introduced by the padres line the lazy river. In the morning, a solitary traveler comes early for a cup of rich Mexican coffee to watch the town slowly come to life. All is quiet except for the excited birds.
We arrived just before noon and hopped in a van for an additional hour of adventurous driving through dirt and rocky roads. Finally, we reached base camp. A unique eco-camp nestled in a quiet corner of the lagoon with stunning scenery was Antonio’s camp, one of the first ecotourism camps in Laguna San Ignacio. Antonio is one of WILDCOAST’s oldest friends.
We took the first boat with a guide named Daniel, Antonio’s son, to look for whales. San Ignacio Lagoon is famous not only for its unique state of conservation but because here, an interesting phenomenon occurs: mother whales, along with their calves, come close to boats, allowing people to touch and play with them.
Sergio Martínez, a researcher from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur, states that mothers leave their calves with the boat when they are tired. At the same time, they stay nearby, so the calves can play with the people on the pangas while they rest.
The weather was not in our favor. Overcast skies and a fierce wind dampened the conditions for whales to come within proximity for a more extended period. Regardless, an impressive characteristic of the lagoon is that we didn’t have to look for the whales to see them. They were everywhere. We could
witness whales and calves spouting or breaching almost everywhere we looked. A true sight to behold.
We returned to base camp, where we were grateful to connect with Raúl López, the local president of Ejido Luis Echeverría Alvarez (ELA), for a chat and an interview. An ejido is a collective land cooperative managed by rural communities in Mexico. It includes collectively held land owned as equal shares by all ejido members and individual parcels owned by each ejido member. In this case, the ELA is part of the 140,000-acre conservation easement on the southern shore of Laguna San Ignacio.
Raúl shared the story of how our camp received its official name. ‘Antonio’s Camp’ is only a mere nickname; it is also known as La Freidora (or “The Fryer”). The term was coined years ago when locals used to hunt whales. La Freidora is where they extracted oil from the fat of dead whales for fuel lamps, soap, candles, or to sell.
The lagoon is now a Natural Protected Area, and the locals work in ecotourism and conservation. “When the whale comes to us, she gives us a lesson in love because of the forgiveness she gives us, humans,” Rául mentions. Antonio expresses how they used to be scared of the whales. Today, they are the community’s primary source of income due to ecotourism.
We woke up before sunrise and began our trek to El Dátil, a remote fishing community tucked away in a satellite lagoon of Laguna San Ignacio. We had planned an early departure to take advantage of higher tides to look for mangrove propagules (or seedlings). WILDCOAST works alongside a group of women in El Dátil, known as Las Mujeres de El Dátil, to protect and restore mangrove forests that help the community adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change such as storm surge, flooding, and sea level rise. The mangrove restoration that these women carry out not only helps sequester tonnes and tonnes of human-caused carbon but also helps enhance the ecosystem functions of the lagoon, which directly benefits the fisheries that their entire fishing village depends on.
We have planted 180 thousand mangroves around San Ignacio Lagoon, with an additional 40 thousand in progress. When we arrived at the village, we were greeted with waterproof boots and quickly jumped onto a panga with Las Mujeres as our guides. They took us through stunning mangrove canals to search for mangrove seedlings.
We searched for and collected propagules. The women showcased their findings to the cameras. At the same time, we learned how they identified healthy propagules in the trees, the collective effort to gather them, and a homemade instrument created to collect seedlings that were harder to reach.
Red mangrove seedlings are uniquely colored. These germinated seeds (called propagules) look like green and brown cigars and can be seen hanging from Red Mangrove trees in the correct season. They have a small ball-shaped cover on top that protects the sprout.
This cover falls or is removed before the seed is planted.
After gathering the seedlings, we went back ashore, waiting for the tide to drop to plant the seeds. We visited previous planting sites and found lively little mangrove trees.
The women scouted for a new planting area. They mentioned that it has to be an intertidal zone allowing water to submerge during higher tides. They showed us their method, which they have perfected over years of practice. The seedlings were planted as if they were mini trees, only a few centimeters into the mud, leaving most of the propagule above ground.
These seeds will grow to be a mature red mangrove tree, which in its lifetime, can capture the carbon emissions equivalent to roughly 8,000 miles driven by a passenger vehicle.
Foto: COSTASALVAJECoastal wetlands such as mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrasses are called “blue carbon ecosystems.” They can capture and store more atmospheric carbon than any other ecosystem on Earth, including tropical rainforests. In particular, mangroves can absorb ten times more carbon dioxide than tropical rainforests. Restoring degraded mangrove forests is an excellent example of nature-based solutions that help communities combat and adapt to the impacts of climate change. That is why WILDCOAST is working around the clock to protect and restore thousands of acres of blue carbon ecosystems and support communities like El Dátil to help train and equip them with the tools to defend their communities that are most at risk from sea level rise.
Mangroves can help coastal communities like El Dátil survive without being displaced by climate change. Working to conserve and restore these ecosystems directly supports women in the community, providing them with income that empowers them in their households, supporting a natural defense for their community in the face of natural disasters, and enhancing fisheries that contribute to the community’s economy.
We were finally blessed with sunny and calm conditions, an excellent whale-watching recipe.
One of the first sites we saw was three whales mating. For several hours, this “ritual,” as Daniel calls it, is accomplished by three whales, two males and a female. The males take turns: while one is mating, the other supports the female. Most of the time, one is a juvenile, learning the natural process firsthand.
While we observed this unique nature dance, a youth joined us and started playing with the boat. Afterward, a mother with her baby came to us as well. Around us, we saw dolphins, turtles, and several other whales! Making eye contact with them is one of the most astonishing things ever to experience. They look straight into your eyes and into your soul. It’s truly remarkable. A moment of pure connection reminds us that we are all the same in existence: we, too, are part of nature.
A different mother and her baby arrived at our panga and greeted our crew. As they said farewell to us, the babies started playing with one another as they slowly swam away from our boat with their mothers behind them.
San Ignacio Lagoon is a conservation success story that proves humans can live harmoniously with nature and provide income for their families by conserving their natural resources. The villages in and around Laguna San Ignacio know that the benefits of ecotourism and conservation far outweigh those of a salt mine or industrial development. The communities depend on the whales, and the whales rely on us to protect them. It’s a beautiful thing. We need more conservation policies like Laguna San Ignacio that promote environmental education, economic development, and the protection of our ecosystems.
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