Saturday, March 4, 2017

Camp Report: Joel Connelly


Writer Joel Connelly of the SeattlePI online paper's Baja Whale Article

Baja: 5 days with gray whales, 5 days without Donald Trump


BY JOEL CONNELLY, SEATTLEPI.COM STAFF
Published 11:09 am, Thursday, March 2, 2017

Online Article:  CLICK HERE


BAJA, MEXICO -- Wild, undisturbed and protected Laguna San Ignacio, in Baja California about 700 miles south of San Diego, is a whale-rich, Trump-free environment.

At last weekend's count, 228 gray whales (with 68 of them newborn) populated the isolated, salty 220,000-acre lagoon. They will soon leave for a 4,000 mile migration that will take them up the Pacific Coast -- with a few stopping in Puget Sound -- to feeding grounds in Alaska's Bering Strait and the Chukchi Sea.

Gray whales are undocumented immigrants from Mexico who contribute much to our wonder at nature. They need no extreme vetting. They are charming, non-violent and intelligent in their interaction with eco-tourists who stay in camps with local fishing families and venture out onto the lagoon.

The whales are bottom feeders, but not in the style popularized by Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. They are instead trusting. Mother whales nudge their recently born young up next to boats, as if to encourage curiosity.

Laguna San Ignacio offers more than the company of marine mammals. It provides distance and relief from the 24/7 news cycle and never-ending confrontations between an ego-driven president and a citizenry that wants rule by law and not edict.

Trump tweets, and anguished anti-Trump Facebook screeds, cannot reach this land of tidal mudflats, do not penetrate the mangroves and evaporate over miles of salt flats. The Santa Clara Mountains provide another barrier.

Heads clear here. "This is our five days a year to be unplugged," joked Susan Berta of the Whidbey-based Orca Network, which does an annual pilgrimage to the 6.2 million acre Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve to which whales repair between New Years and early April.

The 45th president would be crestfallen were he to learn that our group enjoyed largely Trump-free conversations for five days. Eco-tourism draws interesting people. Our group had been places, done things, interacted with fascinating wild creatures. I zoned in and out, welcoming the opportunity to do some reading for enjoyment.

The scene out on the lagoon this past weekend, for about four hours each day, sounded a little like the craps tables at a Las Vegas casino.

"C'mon baby!" eco-tourists shouted as whales, mothers-and-babies, approached the skiffs, splashing the water by way of invitation.

Cries of "Come to mama!" were frequently heard. One boatload struck repeated refrains of that most American song, "You Are My Sunshine!" in a Mexican lagoon, hoping to draw close curious whales.

Our party was blithely unaware of the Best Picture mix-up at the Oscars, or news that the 45th president would not attend the White House Correspondents' dinner. Or reaction from self-important White House correspondents. Nor did we know whether Saturday Night Live was an original or a repeat.

What was there to gossip about? Well ...

The male gray whale has a long, pink sexual organ that was twice glimpsed during mating rituals: Youthful 1970's whale researchers gave it the nickname "Pink Floyd" which has survived in the present.

Laguna San Ignacio has a far better supporting cast than any contender at the Oscars.

Start at the outhouse, really the outhouses, at Campo Cortez. With no trees around, ospreys -- the "eagles of the sea" -- have nested atop places where two-legged visitors go to relieve themselves. An angry raptor rises from her nest and circles overhead.

The salty, nutrient rich, fish rich lagoon waters draw brown pelicans, each with a proboscis even longer than that of a certain Seattle radio talk show host. Bottlenose dolphins cavort in the water. Black turtles populate the eel grass. Coyotes prowl along the shore.

The lagoon is shallow, so shallow you can watch string rays go flitting by, a reminder never to swim barefoot here. The Affordable Care Act may be on the agenda in Washington, D.C. Various remedies for a sting ray encounter -- boiling salt water has high support -- are the medical talk of Laguna San Ignacio.

That the gray whales are here in such numbers is itself remarkable.

The great marine mammals of the Atlantic Ocean were hunted to extinction in the 1800s. Perhaps only 100 survive in the western Pacific off waters of Korea, Japan and Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.

By 1947, only 69 gray whales were counted in Laguna San Ignacio, and only 101 to the north in Scammons Lagoon, named for a New England sea captain who slaughtered whales while writing about their habits and mothers' fierce loyalty to their young. (The lagoon's name has recently been change to Ojo de Liebre Lagoon.)

But the hunting of gray whales was banned in 1946, and an estimated 1,000 gray whales pass through Laguna San Ignacio at some point each winter. As many as 20,000 migrate up the "Left Coast" each spring.

The latest threat came in 1994, when Mitsubishi and the Mexican government proposed to build the world's largest salt works at Laguna San Ignacio. The project would have sucked up 6,000 gallons of salt water a second, created 124,000 acres of salt ponds, and extended a 1.2 mile long dock into lagoon waters.

This was to have been done to the last totally undisturbed gray whale breeding area on earth. They outcry began with fishing families at the lagoon, extended to the Group of 100 -- intellectuals in Mexico City -- and extended to such groups as the World Wildlife Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council.

A local as well as international outcry saved the lagoon, in a country known for rule by a paternalistic political machine. Mitsubishi received 750,000 anti-salt mine letters.

Mexico's then-President Ernest Zedillo came to visit, brought his family and went out onto the water to witness the whales. He then vetoed the salt mine, citing the "national and world importance and the uniqueness of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve."

So, the whales are at peace. Gray whales run to 50 feet in length, and can scoop up and filter 65 tons of food -- amphipods, krill and tiny fish -- a year.

The whales offer peace to those with whom they spend time. It is a quality time in delightful company.

An urging to readers. Find other offline excursions that offer respite from the 24/7 news bombardment, the travails and controversies, the need to resist. Raft a river, do a multi-day beach hike, head for a mountain lake. It'll be good for the soul, and your head will benefit.