Whale Watching and Preservation of the Environment in Central Baja California, Mexico

Jeffrey S. Smith, Associate Professor; Department of Geography; Kansas State University
Lorna K. Hill, Photographer and Naturalist; Connemara, Ireland
Rodrigo Manterola Gonzalez, Entrepreneur and Naturalist; Mexico City
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2019.62.3f


Worldwide the whale watching industry has become big business, generating about US$2 billion in tourism sales each year (Black 2009; The Australian 2010). Nowhere is this more evident than along North America’s Pacific Coast. Here the focus is on the annual migration of gray whales. Hundreds of businesses, employing thousands of people, from Alaska to Baja California capitalize on tourists bent on seeing these gentle giants of the ocean. Likewise, dedicated websites enable enthusiasts to vicariously follow pod activity and monitor changing conditions all along the eastern coast of the Pacific Ocean (see Journey North 2018).

Gray whales (Eschrichtius Robustus) are not the largest whales in the sea. Nor are they the fastest swimmers or the deepest divers. Instead, there are two main reasons why gray whales stand out. First, they are bottom feeders. Unlike all other whales, gray whales skim along the bottom of the ocean on one side of their body. As evidenced from the scars on their bodies, most gray whales are right sided (Dedina 2000; Swartz 2014). As they scoop up material along the continental shelf, the whales stir up sediments where an abundance of nutrients and proteins have settled. This disturbance is vitally important to the food chain and the health of the ecosystem because it allows other sea-dwelling creatures to consume the smorgasbord of free-floating food.

Second, gray whales are noteworthy because of their annual migration. Each year gray whales make a round trip journey that covers more than 20,000 kilometers (12,500 miles). Scholars assert that the gray whales’ annual trek is among the longest of any mammal on Earth (Dedina 2000; WDC 2018). Because they are bottom feeders, gray whales prefer to stay within two to three miles of the shore as they migrate. This makes them particularly popular among tourists because day-trippers can take small boats out to gaze at the whales while maintaining a safe distance from shore. When gray whales feel comfortable and not threatened, they exhibit a generally inquisitive, friendly, and playful demeanor (Friedlander 2010). This adds to their tourism appeal.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the growth of the whale watching industry in the lagoons of central Baja California, Mexico. Each year thousands of tourists descend upon these remote, isolated bodies of water to engage in an unparalleled experience. This article illustrates that not only does the whale watching industry fulfill the interests of international tourists, but it has been instrumental in the preservation of the local environment and the diversification of the local economy. Our paper focuses on the lagoons of central Baja California, Mexico where the whales breed and give birth. We begin with an overview of the gray whale’s annual migration, followed by a discussion of historical human-whale interactions in the eastern Pacific. Next, we present the rise of whale watching tourism in Laguna San Ignacio. Finally we highlight how the local environment and economy have benefitted from whale watching tourism.

Figure 1: Gray whale breaching. Notice the pointed rostrum (snout). Photo by Lorna K. Hill

The Gray Whales’ Annual Migration

Physiologically, adult gray whales are ideally shaped for long distance migration (WDC 2018). Despite being as much as 15 meters (50 feet) long and weighing up to 40,000 kilograms (45 tons), gray whales have long sleek bodies and a tapered head that is pointed at the tip; a shape that closely resembles a submarine (Figure 1). Their powerful fluke (tail) enables the whales to easily cut through the water at speeds of 8 to 10 kilometers per hour (5 to 7 miles per hour). The average adult is covered by as much as 25 cm (10 inches) of blubber (body fat) that not only keeps them warm, but adds buoyancy and provides a constant source of hydration.

A Gray Whale: Source and more info at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/gray-whale

Each autumn the eastern gray whales begin their annual migration from their feeding waters in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas. Beginning in mid-October as ice begins to form, pregnant mothers lead the trek south. They are followed by juvenile and adolescent males and by December the older males bring up the rear of the migration.

Figure 2: Laguna San Ignacio. Photo by Jeffrey S. Smith

From December to April the majority of the gray whales spend their time in the bays along the coast of Baja California, Mexico. Three main lagoons are particularly appealing to the gray whales. In the south, Magdalena Bay is the largest and attracts nearly 2,000 whales each year while farther north, Laguna Ojo de Liebre hosts about 1,000 whales. The smallest is Laguna San Ignacio (8 kilometers wide by 26 kilometers long -- 5 miles wide by 16 miles long) where about 300 gray whales spend the winter (Figure 2).

For most of the winter the three lagoons see a frenzy of activity as the younger males seek out mating partners while the mothers give birth and nurse their young. The younger males are the most restless and they tend to visit all three bodies of water. Some tour guides suggest that the young males’ behavior is akin to the practice of bar hopping or pub crawls, popular among post-adolescent humans. Overall, however, the males of all ages spend less time in the bays than females.

Over generations, pregnant cows have found these three bays to be ideal nurseries for five geographic reasons. First, because of their natural configuration, the water in the bays is protected from severe storms thus safe for giving birth and raising young. Second, because the depth of the water in the bays is relatively shallow, the water tends to be warmer than the open ocean. Third, all three lagoons are remnant playas (Gill 1998) with limited freshwater recharge. Given the high evaporation rates in Baja California, the water is also higher in salt content. Therefore, when the babies are born without any blubber (just bone and underdeveloped muscle mass) the extra salty, warm water helps keep them afloat (Dedina 2000; Swartz 2014). Fourth, in the depths of the wide open ocean orcas are incredibly efficient hunters using a variety of techniques (PBS 2014). One approach is to attack their prey from below by ramming the victim at full speed. However, because the bays are relatively shallow orcas have a more difficult time attacking the whales and their young. Thus, the bays are relatively safe from their prime natural predator. Finally, the mothers use the changing tidal flows within the bays to train and strengthen the baby whales’ muscles. Throughout the day, cows and their calves swim against the tide as if they were on a treadmill. Over the course of four months each baby’s swimming muscles grow stronger and their lung capacity expands; ingredients needed for the long trek north.

In March the older males, followed by the younger males head back to the Arctic Ocean. By early-May the mothers and their babies are on their way north. The average life expectancy of a gray whale is 60 years. Over the course of their lifetime, gray whales migrate approximately 1.2 million kilometers (750,000 miles) which is equivalent to traveling from the Earth to the Moon, back to the Earth and back to the Moon (WDC 2018).

Figure 3: Gray whale “spyhopping.” Notice the whale’s eye above the surface of the water. Photo by Lorna K. Hill

A History of Human-Whale Interaction along the Eastern Pacific

Prior to the mid-1800s, whale hunting activity was incredibly dangerous, dependent on small boats and primitive weapons including crude pointed spears and hand-held knives (Ellis 1991). Many hunters died in the process and whales became known as dangerous creatures. Commercial whaling, started by the Dutch in the sixteenth century, accelerated in the mid-nineteenth century with advances in whaling technology. The introduction of large steamships afforded hunters greater safety against the behemoths of the sea while the new explosive harpoons eliminated hand-to-whale combat. More recent technological advances include air compressors and radar equipment.

In 1850 there were about 900 whaling ships worldwide and U.S. business interests owned more than 80% of them. By the late 1800s, American on-land whale factories were processing hundreds of whales each month. The U.S. whaling industry ranked fifth among all the sectors of the U.S. economy and generated about $10 million dollars and y (Economist 2015). Although port facilities along the Atlantic coast were home to some operations, the majority of U.S. whaling occurred along the Pacific coast. Whale oil is derived from the triglycerides that make up a large part of a whale’s blubber. Today, we associate triglycerides with bad cholesterol and something to avoid, but at the turn of the nineteenth century triglycerides were highly coveted. One account wonders which California Rush generated more revenue in the 1850s: gold or whale oil (Economist 2015).

Modern human-whale encounters in the lagoons of Baja California began in the mid-1800s when American whaler Charles Melville Scammon discovered the three bays almost by accident. According to oral tradition, for as long as local residents could remember, whales of all sizes would show up and spend the winter in the protected waters of the three lagoons. After hearing about this, in 1857 Captain Scammon went to investigate. He first entered the bay, later dubbed Scammon’s Lagoon (and later yet renamed Ojo de Liebre Bay), and found the hunting fairly acceptable. While talking with local fishermen, he learned that whaling operations would probably be more fruitful in the smaller, more confined waters of Laguna San Ignacio. There, mothers and their calves were easier to find. In 1860 he returned to San Ignacio Bay with six ships and found the whaling conditions ideal. He harpooned four dozen cows and filled hundreds of barrels of oil (Henderson 1972).

Ironically, while Scammon and his men were killing the whales the captain was consumed with studying them. As a self-trained naturalist, he collected a wide variety of data on the whales and in 1874 he published a book titled “The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America.” At the time it was a financial flop, but today the same book is considered a seminal read for anyone interested in mammals of the eastern Pacific (Swartz 2014).

Because of Scammon’s tremendous success, whaling operations in the three lagoons expanded dramatically. Whalers from throughout the Pacific region descended upon the three lagoons and within a few years San Ignacio Bay was void of whales (Henderson 1972). In Scammon’s Lagoon the hunting was so intense that locals began referring to the bay by a new name: Ojo de Liebre (Spanish for: “The Eye of the Hare”). So many whales were being slaughtered in that lagoon that the water turned bright red just like a jack rabbit’s eye. Whaling operations decimated the eastern gray whale population and by the 1930s there were less than a thousand gray whales left in the Pacific. It was clear to local fishermen that fewer whales were returning to the lagoons each winter.

During this era gray whales became incredibly feared. In his book, Scammon called them “the monsters of the deep.” Unlike the bowhead and right whales who succumbed without a fight, the gray whales were ferocious fighters. When assaulted, the gray whales (especially mothers) would attack the boat; many whalers were injured, maimed, and even killed. Because of this the gray whale was nicknamed “the Devil Fish” (Swartz 2014).

At its peak (late 1800s) whale oil commanded a price of $2.50 a gallon (Economist 2015). The demand for whale oil diminished with the advent of kerosene for heating and light and the use of vegetable oils for cooking. As demand fell, the price of whale oil dropped to $.40 a gallon which saved many whale species from imminent extinction (Dedina 2000; Economist 2015).

Following World War II there was a rebound in whaling operations as a number of European countries (especially Germany) and Japan were left destitute after the war. As an alternative to expensive kerosene, these countries went back to using whale oil for heating and lighting and whale meat for food. By the 1940s the International Whaling Commission (IWC) realized that the world’s whale population was quickly being annihilated. In 1946 the IWC established a minimum size and country quota for whaling operations (IWC 2018).

The peak of modern whaling occurred in the 1960s when about 35,000 whales each year were harvested. Baleen whales (e.g. blue, gray, and humpback) were the most hunted because they were slower and contained more blubber than the typical toothed whales. Some of the largest whales could generate up to $3,000 in profits (Swartz 2014). Plus, baleen whales have tended to be more docile when attacked (in particular, bowhead and right whales would rarely fight back). By the 1970s the world’s whale population was becoming obliterated and many of the great whale species were placed on the endangered species list (Dedina 2000). In 1986 there was an international moratorium on whaling with exceptions granted for research and indigenous rights. By 2016, only 1,400 whales were harvested worldwide and four countries object to the ongoing quota limits: Iceland, Japan, Norway, and Russia (IWC 2018). Today, six of the thirteen great whale species are still on the endangered species list including the blue, gray, and right whales. At current rates of hunting, the northern right whale is on a path to extinction by 2043 (WDC 2018).

Rise of Whale Watching in Laguna San Ignacio, Baja California, Mexico

Figure 4: Boat slowly approaching a baby gray whale. Photo by Jeffrey S. Smith

According to local residents, the first permanent settlement in central Baja California was established in 1910. Over the next seven decades the Mexican government conferred a number of ejidos (lands held and operated by a community of people) in the region. Most were fishing villages where their main source of income was derived from the sea. For as long as people can remember, the three bays have been ideal fishing waters, especially for grouper, sea bass, halibut, and blue crab as well as various clams and oysters. From October to December, the lagoons are also prime waters for trapping lobster. For decades, most of the catch has been exported to the United States (especially California) and China.

Figure 5: Tourists petting a baby gray whale. Photo by Lorna K. Hill

Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral is reported to be the first person to pet a gray whale. As a lifelong, local fisherman, Pachico knew the waters of Laguna San Ignacio better than most. In 1972 a friend and business associate from southern California flew down to pay him a visit. As the two friends toured the bay, a gray whale cow and her calf started approaching their boat. Remembering all the stories of the vicious whale attacks, Pachico became concerned and started banging on the side of the boat. The friend told him to stop making noise and see what happened. As the story goes, the baby whale and its mother came up to the boat allowing Pachico and his friend to reach over and touch them (Swartz 2014; Short 2016). That event precipitated the local whale watching industry.

Over the next two years other friends and acquaintances flew down or boated down from southern California to interact with the whales. In 1974, Pachico established the first eco-camp (environmentally friendly camping facility) and the whale watching industry started to grow (Swartz 2014; Fischer 2018).

Figure 6: Tourists interacting with a baby Gray Whale. Video by Jeffrey S. Smith

Even though there are considerably more gray whales that pass the winter in Magdelena and Ojo de Liebre bays, Laguna San Ignacio is considered the best place to whale watch because it is smaller and more confined. Thus, the whales are more concentrated and easier to encounter. The incredibly stable, 7 meter (23 foot) fiberglass pangas (boats) with outboard motors slowly approach the whales when they surface for air (Figure 4). As baby whales (6 to 7.5 meters – 20 to 25 feet long) entertain the human visitors with their antics (Figure 5), mother whales (the size of a standard school bus) use the bottom of the boats as effective back scratchers.

Figure 7: Camp Cortez with the “cabins.” Photo by Jeffrey S. Smith
Figure 8: Camp Punta Piedra offering tent accommodations. Photo by Jeffrey S. Smith

Today there are a total of seven eco-camps offering varying degrees of comfort; some feature wooden “cabins” (sheds) (Figure 7) while others invite visitors to sleep on cots in tents (Figure 8). All of the camps operate off-the-grid using renewable energy sources (especially wind and solar) (Figure 9). Likewise, they are self-sufficient; all food and water is trucked in from nearby suppliers while waste is either recycled or removed to an inland landfill.

Figure 9: Camp Cortez “off-the-grid” (solar and wind power). Photo by Jeffrey S. Smith
Figure 10: Mounds of discarded shells left during the overfishing era. Photo by Lorna K. Hill

In the mid-1980s word about the prime fishing waters spread and fishermen from other parts of Mexico (especially from the states of Sinaloa and Michoacán) began arriving in droves. The environment in and around Laguna San Ignacio rapidly began to change. As many as 120 boats per day plied the waters of San Ignacio Bay (Fischer 2018). Unlike the local fishermen who limited their catch to mature fish, clams, and oysters, the foreign fishermen scooped up all the seafood they could catch. It was clear to local residents that San Ignacio Bay was being overfished and the fishing industry was no longer sustainable. Evidence of the tremendous amount of seafood removed from the bay is evident on the landscape; there are hundreds of mounds of clam and oyster shells that were discarded after the meat was removed (Figure 10).

It is against this backdrop that the Mexican government finally acted. Realizing that existing regulations (first established in 1972 and revised in 1980) were ineffective in protecting the local environment, in 1988 Mexico’s President Miguel de la Madrid created Latin America’s largest nature preserve at 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres) (Gill 1998; Swartz 2014). El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve represents one of Mexico’s most ambitious efforts to protect the unique flora, fauna, and cultural heritage in the area (Figure 11). In 1993, UNESCO declared the nature preserve a World Heritage site affirming the Mexican government’s commitment to maintaining an environment where fishing, resource extraction (especially salt), and whale watching tourism are balanced against environmental protection (UNESCO 2018).

Figure 11: Government sign informing visitors that they have entered the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Jeffrey S. Smith

Ensuring an environment conducive to whales (and hence the whale watching industry) was at the center of the Mexican government’s efforts (Fischer 2018). El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve strictly regulates visitor comportment (Figure 12). There are limits on the total number of people and group size allowed in Laguna San Ignacio (a ranger stands on shore counting the number of people in each boat) and CONANP (Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas – National Commission of Natural Protected Areas) requires each visitor to purchase a daily use permit (ca. US$20 / day) and be accompanied by a government-approved local guide (CONANP 2018). There are explicit restrictions on permitted activities during the breeding and calving season (e.g. no swimming with or chasing the whales, no more than two boats can simultaneously approach a whale).

Figure 12: The government sign reminding visitors that the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve is an environmentally protected area. Photo by Jeffrey S. Smith

Visitors arrive by both automobile and plane. Many tourists fly in from southern California or Los Cabos, Mexico to enjoy a single-day, whale watching trip. Others commit to a multi-day package (usually five days) where they spend around $2,000 to stay in one of the eco-camps (Figure 13). In 2015, the owners of three of the more remote eco-camps that specialize in multi-day trips pitched in to upgrade the dirt landing strip so that foreign tourists would be more inclined to visit their camps (Figure 14).

As of March 2018, between 750 and 800 people live on five ejidos in the immediate area around San Ignacio Lagoon. During the whale watching season (mid-January to early-May) nearly all of the households derive their income directly or indirectly from tourism. For the remaining months of the year residents subsist on fishing-related activities.

Of particular interest is how the local population regards whale watching tourism versus the fishing industry. As Maldo Fischer (owner of Camp Cortez) explained, one of the most important aspects of the whale watching industry is that it gives the lagoon a chance to rest and recover. During the whale breeding and calving season, the Mexican government permits only two fishing boats to ply the waters at any given time. This could lead to significant financial hardship. However, local residents have fully embraced this regulation because they have an alternative source of income (whale watching tourism). In fact the fishermen have come to appreciate the fact that the fallow period (downtime) gives the lagoon a chance to breathe. During those four months, the fish population is able to rebound. Local fishermen (also working as boat drivers for the whale watching tours) indicate that the fish population has not yet returned to pre-1980 numbers, but the size of their catches has stabilized at sustainable levels.

Figure 13: Camp Cortez at sunset. Photo by Lorna K. Hill
Figure 14: The newly improved, dirt landing strip. Photo by Jeffrey S. Smith


Like generations before them, thousands of eastern gray whales make the annual, long-distance migration between the icy, nutrient-rich waters of the Arctic Ocean to the warm, protected bays of Baja California, Mexico where they breed and give birth to the next generation of gray whales. In centuries past, humans had an adversarial relationship with the whales, harvesting their meat and blubber for personal profit. As the whale population rapidly decreased, people realized that an important element of the sea was being lost. As an indicator species, the loss of the gray whales portended disaster for life in the eastern Pacific.

By the 1970s, numerous efforts undertook to protect the habitat gray whales frequented. In Baja California, Mexico, the government set aside Latin America’s largest nature preserve (El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve) for a whale sanctuary and to protect the environment from further destruction. In Laguna San Ignacio, local fishermen whose annual catches had steadily decreased embraced tourism, specifically whale watching, as a complement to fishing. Today, during the annual breeding and calving season (mid-January to early-May), residents of the region rely on the whale watching industry as their main source of income. Each year several hundred visitors descend upon the bay to interact with the whales (Figure 15).

Overall, this arrangement has been a tremendous financial and environmental success. For eight months each year the local fishermen harvest modest catches that are exported to the United States and China and earn them a decent living. During the whale watching season, the vast majority (at least 85%) of the local population switch hats and assume jobs that support the tourism industry. Because of strict federal regulations combined with a local commitment to protect the environment, during those four months the bay’s fish and sea life population is able to rebound. The financial relief that the whale watching industry brings enables local fishermen to engage in a sustainable use of the local environment.

Figure 15: Baby gray whale being pet by tourists. Photo by Lorna K. Hill


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