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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Matt's Whale

Air Date: Week of

No one can say for certain what will happen to the whales of San Ignacio Lagoon if the saltworks is built. A simliar operation in a nearby lagoon has changed the behavior of local whales, but hasn't driven them away. Still, the plant would likely alter the lagoon in ways that are immeasureable by science or economics.Living on Earth contributor Matt Binder has visited San Ignacio several times and has this commentary.


CURWOOD: It's difficult to predict would happen to the whales of San Ignacio lagoon if the salt works is built. A similar operation in a nearby lagoon has changed the behavior of local whales, but it hasn't driven them away. Still, a salt plant would likely have some impact. Living on Earth contributor Matt Binder has visited San Ignacio several times, and has these impressions.

[Boat deck sounds. Engine starts.]

BINDER: I went to San Ignacio lagoon with a friend 5 years ago, in my old Volkswagen bus. It's one of the most out-of-the-way places I've ever been, 600 miles through the desert down the Baja peninsula, then 40 miles on a narrow, dirt road that we had to drive almost entirely in first gear. At the end of the road, a pristine bay, about the size of San Francisco Bay, where I live, but with a population of about 600 people instead of 6 million.

[Sea bird cries]

BINDER: I'd already been to Baja's 2 other, more accessible whale breeding grounds, in Magdalena Bay, further south, near a big shipping port.

[Boat engine revs up]

BINDER: Aggressive whale-watching boats zoom through the whales' favorite lounging spots at 30 miles an hour. I saw one come within inches of smashing right into a whale, that had come up for a quick breath of air. The whale went into an emergency dive, and the last I saw of it was its tail fin, leading its whole pod back out to the safety of the open ocean.

[Boat engine fades]

BINDER: The third lagoon, at Guerrero Negro, to the north, is near a city of 6,000, dominated by another huge Mitsubishi salt operation. And there, too, high speed whale watching is common.

[Boat engine running]

BINDER: Each time I've gone back, there've been fewer whales to watch. So this time, my friend Carlos and I chose San Ignacio lagoon.

CARLOS: Here we are.

[Car doors close]

BINDER: We stopped at the first house we came to, in a tiny fishing village at the edge of the bay.

[Man speaking Spanish]

BINDER: The man who lived there, Chema, [name?] told us he was a whale guide, and would take us the following morning at high

[Man speaking Spanish]

[Boat puttering, docking]

BINDER: The next day, the 3 of us piled into his fishing boat and eased out a narrow channel, then drove 15 miles to the whale calving and mating area.

[Boat pulling out]

BINDER: Chema found his favorite spot, and began calling to the whales.

[Whistles, water sloshing against boat]

BINDER: But Chema never turned the motor completely off. When we asked him why, he said the whales wouldn't come if the motor wasn't running. So there we sat. But Chema, knew what he was doing.

[Heavier slaps of water against boat]

BINDER: Within a couple of minutes, a mother grey whale, about 50 feet long, and her 15-foot-long month-old baby approached, and swam right under our boat, gliding like two submarines, just a couple of feet below us. A few minutes later, another pair swam toward us, or it could have been the same two, but this time, the mother turned on her back, stopped directly under our boat, and surfaced.

["Whoa, jeez, we're half out of the water! The whale just lifted us up!" and water sloshing sounds]

BINDER: She repeated her trick another couple of times, balancing the boat on her stomach, and then moved away a bit to let her baby play with us. The baby came up near the side of the boat and spy-hopped, slowly surfacing until the tip of its snout was 5 feet in the air, and its huge eyes were just above the water's surface.

["Look at its eye."]

BINDER: Its left eye was looking straight at me from 4 feet away.

[Whale blowing, water sloshes]

BINDER: The baby edged closer, and closer to the boat, and I reached out and patted its head.

[Whale blowing, patting sound]

[Woman murmurs to baby whale, "And you, do you want to jump into the boat?"]

BINDER: Then it opened its mouth and seemed to be inviting me to touch its tongue. I thought it, might be a trap--you know how kids are--

[Sound of whale surfacing, spouting, bellowing]

BINDER:--but I knew I'd never forgive myself if I didn't stick my hand in that whale's mouth. So I poked my hand in as quickly as I could, and just brushed its tongue with my fingertips. It didn't bite my arm off. In fact, the baby whale shuddered with pleasure, I thought, like I had tickled it, and kept its mouth wide open.

[Whale spouts, bellows]

BINDER: So I reached my hand in, and laid it on the tip of its huge tongue for a second, and slowly pulled it back out.

[Whale breath]

BINDER: Another shudder, and still the mouth was wide open. So I stuck my arm all the way in that whale's mouth and petted its tongue from throat to tip.

[Water slapping against boat]

BINDER: It was soft, and warm, and pink, and smelled like milk. I longed to hold it in my lap and read it a bedtime story.

[Oh, no, does he want to come in? You want to jump in the boat?]

[Low laughter]

BINDER: Before I could regain my composure, maybe the baby got bored, or its mother just wanted to move on, but the baby whale closed its mouth, slipped underwater, and disappeared. We stayed out there another hour or so, and a few curious whales came by, but none offered a peep down its throat.

[Boat moves away]

BINDER: The next day at high tide, I hitched a ride from some fishermen, to a small island where Chema told me osprey live.

[High-pitched bird cries and cheeps]

BINDER: It happened to be peak breeding season, and since there were no trees, only cactus on the island, the 50 or so osprey nests were on the ground. I later learned how unique this site is, too.

[Chirps and cheeps]

BINDER: I crouched down near a nest to record the baby's squawking, but this didn't go over very well with the parents, who started to dive bomb me, talons extended.

[Bird cries, and "Oh, one just tried grab my hand, I guess I'm too close! Ok, ok!"]

BINDER: I moved away, and everyone settled down.

[To bird, "Sorry," and bird cries, further off]

BINDER: As I sat on the beach, waiting to be picked up, I thought about how few places there are like this lagoon, where humans and wild animals can interact so intimately. Obviously, it's because of the way the local people, like Chema, have grown to understand and treat those animals, and I think that's what's most at risk in this plan for the huge salt operation, even in the unlikely event that they could avoid oil spills, collisions between whales and salt tankers, and other direct risks to the wild life. The hard-won trust between animals and humans at San Ignacio lagoon will probably be lost.

[Bird cries, whale breaths]

BINDER: Right now, almost all the locals earn most of their living from tourism, but I don't think that the people immigrate there, to work in the salt factory, will have much respect for the local ways. This lagoon, I'm afraid, will become just like the other two in Baja. The whales may still come, but they'll be constantly trying to avoid humans, rather than using us as tongue scratchers.

[Wave sound, whale breaths, whale "moos"]

BINDER: For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder.



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