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Whales and Angels in Marine Protected Areas

• June 11, 2010 • 2:00 PM

Mexico’s Sea of Cortez has always had a wealth of whales, but even protected areas can’t stave off other pressures on the leviathans.

Voyage of Kiri blogger Kristian Beadle finds that even though Mexico’s Sea of Cortez has been a haven for whales, their numbers are still falling, which can have myriad impacts on both whale and man.

Location: On the Sea of Cortéz, in Bahia de los Angeles, the water is smooth like a lake. We are camped in a palapa on the beach, and nobody else is around.

Conditions: It was a very still, hot day. Then an offshore wind suddenly swept down from the mountains like someone turned on a massive fan.

Discussion: The radio bellowed about the forests of Transylvania, dark and cool, with shimmering lakes where vampire crypts lay hidden in forgotten monasteries. Nothing could be further from our reality — out the window I saw an intensely bright and dry earth. But there was no stopping it, we were both sucked into the audiobook of The Historian.

“I should pick more geographically appropriate stories,” I mentioned to Alyssum, as a Bulgarian village scene escalated in drama. Yet, the sheer contrast made our desert surroundings appear even more remarkable, our minds unwilling to take for granted what our eyes were getting used to. And then story and reality seemed to merge.

…this used to be a grand forest, until a hellish fire scorched the peninsula, and the trees grew back confused and twisted, reclaiming territory in a climate gone dry. What used to be cypress trees were now cirios, curling their crispy tentacles towards the sky; the pine trees had transformed into endless expanses of stubby copalquin, or elephant trees, which dotted the hillsides like cotton-mouthed geriatric patients hunched over each other. The apocalyptic fire had blazed even the water, which cremated the soggy lake shore into the impossible azure of the Sea of Cortéz. Devastated islands and headlands of sandy rock lay crackling in the heat, rising out of the mirage-like water. The cosmic work was not only an exercise in color but in shape: flat and blue, surrounded by land, steep and yellow…

A sign alerting us to the protected areas as we approach town. (Kristian Beadle)

That was my first sight of the Sea of Cortéz. The spell evaporated with the heat, but the view did not: This was the stunning road to the small town of Bahia de los Angeles. The vampires, if they were ever here, have long disappeared and given way to environmental angels, as this place is bordered by every type of marine protected area. The Biosphere Reserve of Gulf Islands, the San Lorenzo Marine Archipelago National Park and the Isla del Golfo Protected Area show the importance of the region’s islands and coastline. It is also recognized as a World Heritage site and has multiple Ramsar Convention wetlands of international importance.

Until a few years ago, there was no paved road or electricity in this town of 500 people. Now, the angels of the bay are singing a soft tune of ecotourism to safeguard this stark paradise. But who is taking care of it?

Just seven rangers and five local staff at the National Commission for Protected Areas (CONANP) are in charge of the region. In the midday heat, after having the best fish tacos (fresh corn tortillas, fresh fish, fresh salsa) yet at a roadside stand, I met Elizabeth Arista, program manager at the CONANP office. In her vivacious manner she explained that the commission monitors several key species: including the five kinds of sea turtles present in the area (which feed, not nest, locally) and the Heermann’s seagull, whose breeding ground in low-lying Isla Rasa attracts nearly the entire global population of the bird.

Whales, however, are the magnet for many scientific researchers and visitors, which migrate to the nutrient-rich waters around the aptly named Canal de las Ballenas (Channel of Whales). Although closer encounters with gray whales attract visitors to other lagoons in Baja, the diversity of whales in Bahia de los Angeles is unsurpassed. Blue whales and finback whales, the world’s largest and second largest animals respectively, both feed in the channel. The whale shark, the world’s largest fish, seems to enjoy relaxing inside the bay next to the town itself.

The interest in whales has given local fishermen an alternative form of income by doing ecotours and conservation work, such as setting up marker buoys. Support has come from an innovative social program funded by park revenues: Community members propose sustainable development projects, and if they can cover 20 percent of the project budget, the park finances the rest. Besides whale tours, the community has put together workshops for shell handicraft by women, and sea turtle rehabilitation.

Raul, a local fisherman, is doing fiberglass repairs on his pangas. Raul is one of four fishermen licensed to take tourists to see the whale sharks from up close, and does conservation monitoring. (Kristian Beadle)

Although the waters are marine protected areas, fishing is allowed (except in special reserves) with permits for local fishermen only.

“Our biggest problem is illegal fishing from Sonora,” Arista told me. Fishing vessels come across the Sea of Cortéz from mainland states to exploit the area’s marine wealth. At night, from our palapa camp we could see a string of distant lights. “Those are squid fishermen that come from afar. This is the first time we’ve ever had squid in these waters, so there are no regulations for that fishery here.”

Were climatic shifts like this year’s El Niño responsible for the squid presence? “The squid are brand new to us and are still being investigated. Gray whales, however, did stay outside the bay this year, presumably because the water was warmer. They don’t need to come in close to shore when they can find warm water outside.”

A more ominous climatic sign is appearing on the other coast, where in a remarkable phenomenon, the entire population of eastern Pacific gray whales migrates from feeding grounds in Alaska to birthing grounds in Baja every year. In the famous lagoons of Baja’s south coast, where the gray whales come to mate and give birth, far fewer whales are appearing. The park office in Guerrero Negro, which overseas activities in the three lagoons, said that El Niño-driven water variation does affect whale nursery. However, officials speculate that bigger problems are occurring: the whales are going hungry. Many whales observed this year were emaciated, with ribs showing, as if due to starvation. This year only 560 whales entered Laguna Ojo de Liebre (the northern-most lagoon), whereas the average is 900 to 1,400, and up to 2,300 have been seen.

The decline is a troubling trend that has been occurring for the last four years. Is the population crashing?

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri

One theory is that the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, as a result of global warming, has reduced the numbers of shell-less crustaceans, or amphipods, that the gray whales eat to fatten up for their yearly migration to Baja. A lone gray whale was even spotted in Israel, two weeks ago, for the first time in centuries (Atlantic gray whales were hunted to extinction in the 18th century), possibly lost after mistakenly crossing the now relatively ice-free Northwest Passage.

The ecological causes are still being debated, but the social impacts are already felt in Baja. Locals who are now making a living from tourist dollars are concerned about the whales. “It was quiet this year. I hope they come back,” told me a fisherman who does part-time whale tours. The Bahia de los Angeles still has its fair share of natural wonders, but when it comes to ecological instability, changes in faraway places like the Arctic might affect people in unsuspecting ways.

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Kristian Beadle
Kristian Beadle works with coastal conservation and eco-entrepreneurship. He is embarking on a 3,000-mile climate education and research tour, called the Voyage of Kiri, starting April 2010 from California to Oaxaca in southern Mexico. The program will focus on "how climate will affect our coastal water resources" and discovering sustainable business solutions. He is a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and recent graduate of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For more information, see www.voyageofkiri.com .

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