Changing Planet

Gray Whales Saved Off Baja California

By Mark J. Spalding, President, The Ocean Foundation

It’s gray whale migration season on the west coast of North America.

Gray whales make one of the longest migrations of any mammal on Earth. Every year they swim over 10,000 miles roundtrip between Mexico’s nursery lagoons and feeding grounds in the Arctic. At this time of year, the last of the mother whales are arriving to give birth and the first of the males are making their way north—11 have been sighted in the first week of watching the Santa Barbara channel.  The lagoon will be filling with newborns as the birthing season reaches its peak.

A gray whale breaches off Baja California. Photo: The Ocean Foundation

One of my early major marine conservation campaigns was to help with the protection of Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California Sur, a primary gray whale breeding and nursery estuary—and still, I believe, one of the most beautiful places on Earth.  In the late 1980’s, Mitsubishi proposed establishing a major salt works in Laguna San Ignacio.  The Mexican government was inclined to approve it for economic development reasons, despite the fact that the lagoon has multiple designations as a protected area both nationally and internationally.

A determined five-year campaign drew thousands of donors who supported an international effort that was implemented by a partnership that included many organizations.  Movie stars and famous musicians joined with local activists and American campaigners to stop the salt works and bring international attention to the plight of the gray whale.  In 2000, Mitsubishi declared its intention to withdraw its plans.  We had won!

In 2010, the veterans of that campaign gathered at one of the rustic camps of Laguna San Ignacio to celebrate the 10th anniversary of that victory.  We took the children of the local community out on their first whale-watching expedition—an activity that provides the winter livelihood for their families.  Our group included campaigners such as Joel Reynolds of NRDC who still works on behalf of marine mammals every day, and Jared Blumenfeld, who has gone on to serve the environment in government service.

Also among us was Patricia Martinez, one of the conservation leaders in Baja California whose commitment and drive carried her places she could not have imagined in defense of that beautiful lagoon.  We traveled to Morocco and Japan, among other places, to defend the lagoon’s World Heritage status and ensure global recognition for the threats it faced.  Patricia, her sister Laura, and other community representatives were a major part of our success and remain a continuing presence in defense of other threatened places along the Baja California peninsula.

Watching gray whales in Baja
Watching gray whales in Baja. Photo: The Ocean Foundation

Looking to the Future

In early February, I attended the Southern California Marine Mammal Workshop. Hosted by Pacific Life Foundation in partnership with The Ocean Foundation, this workshop has been held in Newport Beach each year since January 2010.  From senior researchers to marine mammal veterinarians to young Ph.D. candidates, the workshop participants represent an array of government and educational institutions, as well as a handful of other funders and NGOs.  The focus of the research is on marine mammals in the Southern California Bight, a 90,000 square mile area of the Eastern Pacific extending 450 miles along the Pacific Ocean coast from Point Conception near Santa Barbara south to Cabo Colonet in Baja California, Mexico.

The threats to marine mammals are diverse—from emerging diseases to shifts in ocean chemistry and temperature to fatal interactions with human activities.  Yet, the energy and enthusiasm of the collaborations that emerge from this workshop inspires hope that we will succeed in promoting the health and protection of all marine mammals.  And, it was gratifying to hear how well the gray whale population is recovering thanks to international protections and local vigilance.

In the beginning of March, we will toast the 13th anniversary of our victory in Laguna San Ignacio.  It will be bittersweet to remember those heady days because I am sorry to say that Patricia Martinez lost her struggle with cancer at the end of January.  She was a valiant spirit and a passionate animal lover, as well as a wonderful sister, colleague, and friend.  The story of the gray whale nursery of Laguna San Ignacio is story of protection supported by vigilance and enforcement, it is the story of local, regional, and international cooperation, and it is the story of working out the differences to achieve a common goal.  By this time next year, a paved highway will connect the lagoon to the rest of the world for the first time.  It will bring changes.

We can hope that most of those changes are for the good of the whales and the small human communities who depend on them—and for the lucky visitors who get to see these magnificent creatures up close.  And I expect that it will serve as a reminder to remain supportive and vigilant to ensure that the gray whale success story remains a success story.

Another view of a gray whale off Baja. Photo: The Ocean Foundation
Another view of a gray whale off Baja. Photo: The Ocean Foundation


Mark J. Spalding is president of the The Ocean Foundation

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Fernando Bretos

    Great article. These animals are such a great draw for Baja California and San Ignacio specifically. I have seen them here and it is a stunning place not just for the whales but for the dramatic beauty and pristinity of the bay. Keep up the good work.

  • Michael Stocker

    I’ve been visiting these lagoons since 1980 and we take our community members on an annual pilgrimage down there in March. Always a delight. When I first stared visiting back then the trek across the single track desert road took many hours. The road has gradually improved and as the pavement approaches the lagoon it may take 90 minutes from the town of San Ignacio.

    When we heard about the freeway going in we were concerned that the seismic vibrations from the heavy trucks on the road would be problematic for the whales, but as the main road is set back about 2 km from the lagoon this itself should not be a problem. But there will be a significant increase in visitors, and there will be a lot of heavy cargo trucks on the road, so the lagoon will lose it’s bucolic setting. I hope that wisdom prevails over the temptation of driving an economic boom from the influx of visitors.

  • Veronique Koch

    Congratulations for all of your hard work! It is refreshing and inspiring to hear a success story like this, something rare when it comes to environmental problems these days! Well done.

  • Constance Lewis

    What about all the trash coming from Japan? Will it harm the babies?

  • Roberto Blanco

    After several years trying to go, I was in Guerrero Negro, BCS last week. It took several flying hours, and much more driving with nothing but desert to get there, but once in the place the experience was worth seeing. I had the incredible chance to touch a big whale, an experience I will never forget.

  • Antonia Subira Butjosa

    Era el sueño de mi vida verlas, y vine aqui a la Laguna de San Ignacio, fue la vivencia más hermosa de mi vida. Saludos a los que lo haceis posible.

  • Michele Iannone

    all whales “must” be protected against human hunting.
    It’s easy to destroy, as well as it’s impossible to create, what the “human beings” are eliminating !

  • maria

    Do you know anything about the cruise ship port they´re planning to build in Lopez Mateos, the whale lagoon south San Ignacio?

  • maria
  • Karen Dyck

    Well written article.My husband & I R from Dawson Creek BC Canada .We have been coming down here the last few years This time for 3 months.We observed the blue whales in the Sea of Cortez & also interacted with the Gray mother whales & their babies in Magdalena Bay in the town of Lopez Mateos where they swim 1,000 of miles every year to give birth to their youngIt is amazing to watch the mothers come right up to the small panga boat that we were on.They push their young right up to the boat as if to say “look at my beautiful baby” They love their tummies being rubbed.Soon the mother will squeeze her way between the boat & their young to also get a rub They love being rubbed around their mouth & open wide when u do so,coming back for more .When we went to leave they again proceeded to the boat.We watched in awe as the baby looked us right in the eye then lifted its’ tail to give us a little shower& them returned with what I am sure was a twinkle in her eye for more rubs.Leaving these amazing mammals was so hard to do.We will be back soon in 3 weeks when our 4 grandchildren arrive .Harrison 10yrs.Griffin 4yrs. Bentley 2yrs.and the youngest Caleb 6 months who will not remember but we as grandparents will have many stories to tell as he gets older or until he returns to see them himself What a way to educate them for the 3 weeks that they R here.We have loved watching these wonderful creatures of the deep & will be back again next year.

  • Leo Buijs

    I read earlier this week that the cruiseship dock plan has been cancelled. Environmentally it was a bad plan. This will be good for the whales, harder for tourists to find them, they have to come down other then the ‘easy way’ on a cruise ship.

  • Meredith Pond

    I am heading to San Ignacio Lagoon next week for some time with the gray whales and their babies and the wonderful folks who live there. It’s the most magical place in the whole world for me. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to be there. Let’s hope that “the Big Road to San Ignacio Lagoon” will be a good thing for humans . . . to learn compassion and respect for the magnificent mammals, the gray whales.

  • ahmed salah

    i like ti national

  • ahmed salah

    i love national

  • Hector

    The salt works are not in San Ignacio Lagoon, but in Ojo de Liebre Lagoon. The best place for whale watching is Ojo de Liebre, but marketing of tour companies directed to US citizens have made believe that San Ignacio is the best place. I’m a Tourist Guide.

  • emma persson

    is this cool or what

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