The Wonder of Whales

Local fisherman load boats for whale watching.

Local fisherman load boats for whale watching.

In our last blog I wrote about the awe and wonder of touching grey whales and their newborn calves in San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, Mexico. That in itself is a complete experience, well worth the two day trip south from San Diego. However, that’s not the whole story. The area surrounding the lagoon provides an inspiring example of how people can learn to work together to live lightly on the earth, keep local control of life-sustaining resources in a globalized world, and at the same time, make a living.

San Ignacio Lagoon is a pristine environment, a World Heritage protected site and also part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, the largest wildlife preserve in Mexico, established in 1988. As we drove from the charming town of San Ignacio to the eco-resort near the lagoon, the surrounding environment appeared bleak and barren. It’s flat, sandy and windy with only an occasional cardon cactus or tenacious bush to break the monotony. Some of it is salt flats where nothing grows. However, it is home to a wonderful abundance of birds and wildlife, including ospreys, pelicans, herons, ibis, sea turtles, coyotes and pronghorn antelope. In the lagoon are sea lions, dolphins, scallops, lobsters, and of course, the whales in the spring. Mangroves that serve as nurseries for all kinds of sea life line the shore.

A grey whale spyhops.

A grey whale spyhops.

Up until 1988, this area had seen foreign tourism and fishing attempt to exploit the riches of the lagoon. Large, California-style whale watching boats brought tourists, and rich stores of fish and shellfish became depleted. Local landowners and fishermen were being pitted against one another by outsiders in competition for fishing rights and land development. Tensions ran high. The creation of the biosphere provided an incentive for local people to band together and come to an agreement about how to become the rightful stewards of these resources while at the same time providing a living for their families. By 2000, the local people had established a collective which worked with the federal government and environmentalists from throughout the country to create rules and regulations for the use of the lagoon and its environs. Today there is a balance in the Biosphere between preservation and sustainable development that benefits local people.

Kuyima eco-resort.

Kuyima eco-resort.

While great progress has been made in this area since 1988, challenges remain. Most people’s main source of income still comes from the vicissitudes of fishing–hard, unpredictable work. The eco-resorts, which are owned and run mostly by people from outside the area, provide jobs for boatmen, maintenance workers and cooks during the four month season. These businesses also train local people as guides and provide educational opportunities to the schools. They appear to respect, abide by and promote the regulations established by the local collective, and the relationship between the two entities seems mutually supportive (Kuyima (see below) is buying a state-of-the-art trash burner for the community). Still, when we visited the middle school, only one of the students we spoke with looked forward to becoming a fisherman like his dad. The others had dreams that would take them away from the community.

A nature lesson on mangroves at Kuyima.

A nature lesson on mangroves at Kuyima.

We stayed at an eco-resort called Kuyima, which means “place of light.” Carlos, the manager of the camp, described its mission as preservation of biodiversity, making human activities compatible with the land, and providing an example to the world for how to live sustainably. Kuyima consists of about 14 small cabins with just enough room for two narrow beds, a couple suitcases or backpacks, and a small night table. Immediately life seems simple and compact. There is also a camping area with sturdy tents and a dining hall. In both places, toilets and showers are across a crunchy courtyard of sand and shells. There is one composting toilet and three other toilets that can be flushed with one cup of water added before use (and they rarely smell). Electricity is turned off at 10 pm, and there is only one charging station for batteries and equipment in the community building,. The food is fresh and locally produced in nearby communities or the lagoon. As Carlos commented, “We could dismantle this place in a couple days and not leave a trace behind.”

We learn about how to take a shower at Kuyima.

We learn about how to take a shower at Kuyima.

Showering at Kuyima is a good example of how things work. A giant black bag holds solar-heated shower water. A guest takes a five liter bucket, fills it with hot and cold water to an acceptable temperature and steps into the shower stall with a dipper for a bucket shower. I was amazed to discover that with just five liters of water, I was able to wash my hair and feel perfectly clean and fresh. Here in San Diego these days we are experiencing a four year drought, and residents are mandated to limit their water use. State leaders are excited when we hear the news that we’ve reduced our use from 160 gallons per capita per day to 140! At Kuyima, I figured we each used perhaps 10 gallons each day. I realize there was no laundry or landscape water included here, but still it was pretty eye-opening!

Ospreys make their nests on posts provided by the community.

Ospreys make their nests on posts provided by the community.

Not a day goes by since my return that I haven’t thought about how I’m using the resources around me, especially water. I have experimented with two different methods of washing my face at night to see which one used less water, and I wash the dishes differently, too. Once when I was teaching 9th grade English and doing a project on the Rio Grande River with a science teacher, we thought about challenging our students to try living on just five gallons of water for a day. We didn’t do it, but now I wish we had!

What I learned during these few days of being an eco-tourist inspired hope for the future of our planet. Grey whales have changed their behavior with humans in just 60 years of being protected, and local communities can successfully fight the pressures of globalization without loss of livelihood. We can have a thrilling experience with nature, leaving behind a very light footprint on the environment. Living sustainably takes careful planning and isn’t always convenient, but it can be done. Let’s celebrate this good news!

questions-to-consider

  1. As less developed, pristine areas of the world such as Baja and San Ignacio Lagoon are “discovered” by tourism, what are the advantages and disadvantages for local communities?
  2. When you take a trip, what do you do to adjust to and learn about the environment around you?
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