Reinventing the whale

Environmentalist Stanley Johnson makes a new 50-tonne friend off the coast
Baja California, where eco-tourism has helped bring blue whales back from the brink


Reinventing the whale

Environmentalist Stanley Johnson makes a new 50-tonne friend
off the coast of Baja California,
where eco-tourism has helped bring blue whales back from the brink

Close encounter … Stanley Johnson (yellow jacket) comes face
to face with a grey whale. Photograph: Alex Mudd

‘I can promise you the trip of a lifetime." It was my first
evening on board Searcher and the speaker was the vessel’s captain, Art Taylor,
a rugged 50-year-old Californian. Four times a year for the last 15 years, Art
has been taking a maximum of 24 passengers on board his 95ft vessel on 12-day
whale watching and nature tours around Mexico’s
Baja peninsula, at 800 miles one of the longest and narrowest in the world.

During that first briefing session, Art ran through the essentials. The
accommodation would be comfortable – with air-conditioned cabins. The food
would be plentiful, the crew skilled and knowledgeable. For those of us who
wanted to see a desert environment, Baja California
was sans pareil. On half a dozen occasions, we would be landing from skiffs on
the mainland or on one of the islands and we would have a chance to hike
through the wilderness, keeping a wary eye out for rattlesnakes, scorpions,
tarantulas, centipedes and sandflies.

As for those of us who wanted above all to observe marine wildlife, we
would, Art hoped, return home satisfied.

He ticked off the species we would be most likely to encounter. Seals and
sea lions, dolphins, pelicans, ospreys, humpback whales . . .

"You may even get to see a blue whale," he said. "We usually
do on these trips."

I have to admit, when I heard that last claim I was incredulous. As far as I
knew, the blue whale, the largest creature ever to exist on the planet, was
effectively extinct, its population driven to such low levels by decades of
commercial whaling that it could never recover.

Was Art joking, I wondered?

Five days later, we had just finished lunch in the salon when we heard the
captain’s voice over the loudspeaker.

"Blue whale on the surface. Two hundred yards at one o’clock."

As I rushed to the bow, I heard a great swooshing noise. In the water just
in front of the boat, I saw an immense blue-grey shape. The column of spray
must have reached 30 or 40ft into the air, rising straight up like some
gigantic geyser.

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We stayed with that blue whale for three-quarters of an hour that afternoon.
It spouted two or three times more as it moved slowly through the water ahead
of us. Rob Nowajchik, Searcher’s resident marine mammal expert and on-board
lecturer, told us what was happening: "After three or four spouts, he’ll
be getting ready to dive."

I could see that the leviathan now seemed to be hunching its enormous back.
The head was already under the surface and the dorsal fin had appeared.

"He’s going to fluke!" Rob said.

A blue whale fluking at a distance of not much more than 100 yards is one of
the most awe-inspiring sights I have ever witnessed. Ahead of us, the water
boiled and churned and then, suddenly, we found ourselves once more looking at
an empty ocean.

There is luck in this, of course. But there is also judgment. Experienced
whale watchers look for the whale’s footprints, unnaturally smooth and glassy
patches of water caused by the upward pressure of the flukes on the water
column. With clear seas and an animal the size of the blue whale, you can
actually see the outline underwater long before it rises to the surface.

Still, as Searcher continued south, rounding the Cabo San Lucas and entering
the Sea of Cortez,
I found myself wondering whether that one sighting of a blue whale had been an
accident. Seeing one specimen, however splendid, didn’t mean that the species
as a whole had been clawed back from extinction.

The Sea of Cortez,
otherwise known as the Gulf of California, runs up on
the inland side of the Baja California
peninsula. Biologically, it is one of the richest bodies of water on the
planet, supporting 900 species of marine vertebrates and 2,000 invertebrates.
Searcher steamed north among some of the many islands that, collectively, have
been designated a world heritage site. Around 4pm
on Sunday April 1, we were off the northern end of San
José island when we had a blue-whale experience that
made that first afternoon’s sighting seem like nothing more than the hors
d’oeuvre. We found ourselves in the presence, not just of one blue whale but as
many as 20.

At one point, a whale actually swam right under the boat. Its head emerged
one side of the vessel while passengers were still leaning over the rail on the
other side watching the tail.

"Must be a juvenile," Rob said, standing next to me. "It’s
not big enough for an adult."

I found myself uttering a quiet prayer of thanks. Here at least, I thought,
in Mexico’s Sea
of Cortez, the blue whale must be
breeding. If the species could bounce back here, maybe it could bounce back in
other parts of the world as well.

During our time on the Sea of Cortez,
we didn’t just see blue whales. We saw humpbacks and sperm whales as well as
fin and bryde’s whales. The whole enchilada.

And the two days we spent with the grey whales in their lagoon breeding
grounds on Baja’s Pacific coast were, for many of those on board, as memorable
as that magical afternoon we spent with the blue whales in the Sea
of Cortez.

On our way south from San Diego, Searcher had encountered at various times
at least 10 grey whales, heading north on their annual journey from the lagoons
of Baja where they mate and breed, to their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea,
6,000 miles to the north off the coast of Alaska.

This is one of the world’s most spectacular migrations. The grey whale may
not be as large as the blue whale (around 40 or 50ft in length as opposed to
100), but it is nonetheless one of the great denizens of the deep. Hunted
virtually to extinction in the 19th and 20th century, the grey whale has made
an extraordinary recovery, and the population is now around 18,000.

Around 10am one morning, after
waiting for the tide to rise, Searcher crossed the sandbar which separates San
Ignacio lagoon from the open sea. Here each year, the grey whales come to
calve, the warm waters of the lagoon providing an ideal nursery for their young
who, as it were, find their feet here before accompanying their mothers on the
long journey north.

Almost as soon as we had entered the lagoon, we could see whales spouting
around us. The funnel of spray as a grey whale "blows" does not rise as
high into the air as that of a blue whale, but it is still a dramatic sight.
And the closer you get to them, the more remarkable these whales appear.

For a species that has absolutely no reason not to fear and loathe the human
race, the grey whale seems remarkably forgiving. Indeed, one of the remarkable
features of whale watching in San Ignacio lagoon is that quite often this seems
to be a two-way process. You can be out on the lagoon with a local boatman in
one of the licensed pangas when a grey whale, often with her calf, will push
alongside the boat. They will raise their huge heads right over the side of the
panga and you can find yourself, literally, eyeballing a 50-tonne monster,
which could, if it so decided, send your frail craft to the bottom of the sea
with one flick of its enormous tail.

I held out my hand to one animal as it approached us and felt the strange
rubbery texture of the hide.

There seems to be no evidence that the whales object to this close contact
and plenty of reason to suppose the opposite.

Our Mexican boatman that morning told us how a few years earlier, Mexico’s
then President Zedillo came to the lagoon with his wife and family. This was a
crucial moment. The Japanese giant Mitsubishi was pressing very hard for
permission to open a huge salt factory on the lagoon that could have threatened
the very survival of the gray whale.

"The President and his wife and kids, they come out in my boat,"
Ernesto told us. "The President’s wife, she kissed the whale right on its
head that day. I saw it. I was there. So the president, when he saw his wife
kissing the whale, he said ‘Right. No more salt factory. We keep the lagoon
just for the whales.’ And he announced the end of the salt project that very

This was not some apocryphal story. The Mitsubishi threat had been a real
one. With an $80 million investment, the company hoped to generate annual
revenues of $85 million. President Zedillo’s intervention came in the nick of
time. He left office the next day.

Whatever Mexico
may have lost in terms of direct investment as a result of his brave decision,
it has – I am sure – more than made up through the income generated by whale
watching in Baja.

But the story doesn’t end there. The international ban on commercial
whaling, which has been in force since the mid-80s, is coming under increasing
pressure. The battle between pro-whaling and anti-whaling nations was joined
again in May this year in Alaska,
when the International Whaling Commission held its annual meeting.

The Mexican government, proud of all that is has achieved in Baja, once more
took the lead among nations determined to keep the ban in place. As a result,
moves to end the moratorium on commercial whaling were defeated. As the
importance of whale watching as an alternative to whale catching is now
increasingly being recognised, we must hope that those countries which still
ignore or subvert the ban – such as Japan and Norway – will finally realise
that killing whales has no economic, moral or environmental justification.

Looking back at those 12 days on board Searcher off the coast of Baja
California, I can’t help thinking that Art Taylor’s
talk of a "trip of a lifetime" was amply justified. Eco-tourism is a
term much misused. But in this particular case, I think we all of us felt that
we were somehow helping to strike a blow that might in the long run – perhaps
the very long run – restore the whales to their rightful place in the ocean.

Way to go

Getting there

American Airlines (08457 789789,
flies Heathrow-San Diego via Los Angeles
or New York from £470 inc tax.
Discovery Initiatives (01285 643333, offers
12-day Baja whale-watching cruises in February and March each year from
£2,075pp including full-board, a contribution to the Whale and Dolphin
Conservation Society ( and a climate
care levy to offset carbon emissions, excluding flights.

Further information

Tourism Board: 00800 1111 2266,

Country code: 00 52.

Flight time: Heathrow-Los Angeles
11hrs, Los Angeles-San Diego 50mins.

Time difference: -8hrs.

£1 = 20.23 pesos.

* – * – * – * – * – * – * –
* – * – *


Día de decisiones en
la Baja, mejor dicho, el patio trasero de la tercera o cuarta economía del
mundo, ahí me lo “veriguan” y me avisan. Esta es fácil, será una elección por
el cartel de su preferencia. El más atacado según esto ha sido el “inge”, pero
los analistas dicen que los Baja Californianos ya no creen en eso de “más vale
malo por conocido…” y le van a dar una victoria hoy, para enterrar tres
sexenios de dominio azul en la mitad norte de la península.


Otros periodistas
(de los güenos, no de las caricaturas que se “watchan” en Radio o TV) se
inclinan por afirmar que es una elección negociada. Quesque el acuerdo son
algunas de las reformas estructurales, que los “párvulos” en Los Pinos no atinan
introducir, ni aún con todo el colmillo largo y retorcido de la Mayestra, como
las reformas a la ley de pensiones en el ISSSTE. Por cierto, dicen mis “whistleblowers”
que la profra anda muy movidita desde hace tiempo en la península, que desde su
“jacalito” en la bahía de San Diego le basta pa’ mangonear donde sea.


En fin, “probecitos”
Californianos, la que les espera, se van a sacar la rifa del “tigre” y no me
refiero al cartel que tiene como plaza a la “frontera más grande del mundo”.
Creo que la polaca no se les da por esos lares. Los vientos del cambio soplan
del sur, pero de eso les platico más tarde.



… junkie town.


"…I know she’s gonna stay IMPLANTED/in my MIND…" – Tonight SHE
comes (The Cars).






"…SHE helps me to BED/and then I tell her, as I turn out the lights/I
say my DARLING you were WONDERFUL TONIGHT…" – Wonderful Tonight (Eric




"…All the Boys think SHE’s a SPY/SHE’s got Betty Davis EYES/…" –
Betty Davis EYES (Kim Carnes).




"…I see your face at the MOVIES/I hear your voice on the RADIO/you’re
MAKING LOVE on the SILVER SCREEN…" – Suzanne (Journey).





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