Love and Death and the Leviathan's Lair

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, July 1999

Love and Death and the Leviathan's Lair
At first glance, the fight seems both easy and familiar. Baby whales, good. Rapacious multinational conglomerate, bad. But on a scouting trip among the gigantic grays of Mexico's Laguna San Ignacio, only one thing is quite clear: sometimes being green is not all black-and-white.

By Bruce Barcott
Photographs by David Emmite

The desert holds its sweet, night-chilled air late into morning. And I am without a jacket, damn it. I turn the Jeep's heater up to full roar and shiver against the cold. I'm in Mexico, driving at dawn across the waist of Baja California, where it juts into the Pacific like a jagged barb. The early-morning sun washes the Vizcaíno Desert in a deceptively lush hue of green and illuminates los altares, the roadside shrines that seem all too common along the Transpeninsular Highway. It's Holy Week. The cardon cacti are sporting their spring boutonnieres, traffic is steady in both directions, and to the west, several hundred gray whales that come to mate and calve in the Baja lagoons are beginning to depart on their 5,000-mile migration north to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. I am barreling at speed limit and a half toward the tiny town of San Ignacio because there's not much time left this year to make species-to-species contact with the heavyweight champion of the warm-blooded vertebrate class. In the parlance of the locals, I'm coming to spend gringo cash to pet the big ones.

I've also come to find, somewhere in this 10,000-square-mile desert, a man named Ari Hershowitz. Hershowitz, the whales, and the surreal landscape of natural salt flats surrounding San Ignacio sit at the epicenter of what is fast becoming one of the world's most well publicized environmental battles. In 1994, a company called Exportadora de Sal, S.A. de C.V. (ESSA)—a joint venture of Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation and the Mexican government—submitted plans to create an enormous $120 million salt-making facility on Laguna San Ignacio, an environmental preserve and the only one of Baja's three gray whale nursing lagoons still untouched by industrial development. Local fishermen protested, Mexican environmental groups cried foul, and before long the lagoon was an international cause célèbre. Mass mailings bent on turning whale calves into the baby seals of the late 1990s ("Save the gray whale nursery!" "We must stop Mitsubishi from destroying the last refuge of these magnificent animals") went out by the thousands. The campaign on both sides is high profile and high tech, with Web sites ( versus, letter-writing campaigns, and guided tours designed to sway your opinion and (in the case of the opposition) open your checkbook.

It reads like a playwright's satire of a green campaign: Rapacious corporation boots cuddly calves from nursery. But the battle for Laguna San Ignacio isn't just about whale calves. It's about sustainable fisheries and Mexican politics, the limits of ecotourism, and wrangling over who gets to decide what constitutes environmentally friendly capitalism. And that's too much to pack into a direct-mail campaign.

No environmental group has been more alarmist in its defense of the whales (and more savvy about raising funds in their name) than the National Resources Defense Council. The NRDC has taken out full-page ads in the New York Times slamming Mitsubishi. It has convinced UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to investigate the proposed saltworks. In 1997, the NRDC staged a series of celebrity visits to San Ignacio; the guests included Glenn Close, Jean-Michel Cousteau, and Robert Kennedy Jr., who works as a lawyer for the group. And it has taken the unusual step of dispatching a staff member to stay in San Ignacio and organize opposition to ESSA's plans. That would be the elusive Ari Hershowitz.

"Can you have him call me?" I asked an NRDC official before I left for Baja.

"Well...I can try." She paused. "It's hard to predict when he'll check in."

A flurry of international calls led me to believe that Hershowitz, a 26-year-old former Cal Tech neuroscience grad student, might be somewhere in San Ignacio on the day I planned to drive out. Just to be sure, I called a local tourism cooperative where, I have been assured, they know Ari well.

"Ari?" said the woman on the other end of the line. And then, confused: "Quien es Ari?"

Ari Hershowitz,
NRDC's man
on the scene
in San Ignacio

The village of San Ignacio is, literally, an oasis in the desert. A spring-fed lake provides water for 1,200 residents and for hundreds of date palms that shade the town like a grove of parasols. In the village square outside the eighteenth-century church, old men gossip and argue in the shade. Children play foosball with armed soldiers next to a snow-cone stand. You can check out the latest Jackie Chan release at Video Club Premier and buy a cold Tecate and a Cuban smoke at Mercados Mayoral López, but you can't cash a traveler's check, señor. There's no bank, no hospital, and the Pemex station may or may not have gasoline today.

After striking out on my first question—nah, he don't know no Ari—a fruit seller points me to the offices of Ecoturismo Kuyima. The local tourism cooperative occupies the prime real estate abandoned a few years ago by the town's last bank. The symbolism is appropriate. San Ignacio is a three-industry town: agriculture, fishing, and lately, whale tourism. The dollars and deutsche marks still flow through the corner building on the plaza.

After booking a whale-watching trip, I step into the telephone exchange next door and find the line occupied by a thin, dusty, bearded gringo in a Yale cap and Tommy Hilfiger sneakers.

"Hi," this fellow American says. "I'm Ari Hershowitz."

Gracias a Dios.


Whale of a welcome
at Camp Kuyima's
mess hall

As environmentalists go, Ari's a strange cat. His style is much more community organizer than ecozealot. If you catch him in San Ignacio, he's likely to drag you out to see the wildlife mural painted by local schoolchildren on the side of a mechanic's shop—a project he helped organize and of which he is button-busting proud.

Over a plate of huevos rancheros, Hershowitz marks up my map of the lagoon and gives me his save-the-whales pitch.

"Exportadora wants to build the saltworks up here," he says, indicating an enormous expanse behind the lagoon. "And I'm not exaggerating the scale of it." There are essentially two ways to produce salt: mine rock-salt veins or evaporate it from seawater. ESSA's plans for San Ignacio call for flooding an enormous natural salt flat with seawater, and then letting the sun and desert wind evaporate it into an ever-more-concentrated saline solution. After about 18 months, drivers will move in with enormous harvesting combines and scoop up the salt. The crystals will then be carried by conveyor belt to a mile-long wharf jutting out into the lagoon, where the salt can be loaded onto freighters.

ESSA currently runs an evaporation facility on the Ojo de Liebre lagoon at Guerrero Negro, a town 87 miles north of San Ignacio. It produces nearly eight million tons per year—the largest and most productive saltworks in the world. The San Ignacio facility, on a lagoon one third the size of Ojo de Liebre, would yield even more salt because it sits on ideal terrain: bone-dry, impermeable, and scorchingly hot. Salt—sodium chloride—is a key ingredient in chemical manufacturing. Hence Mitsubishi's interest in Mexican salt. More than half of ESSA's annual output is shipped to Japan for industrial use.

Apart from the effects of the saltworks on the lagoon's ecosystem, what most worries Hershowitz is the population that the new industry will attract. ESSA says it expects to create 200 new jobs around the lagoon. Hershowitz estimates the total population influx at closer to 6,000. "The current population around the lagoon is only a few thousand," he says. "You're tripling it in two years? Where do you put the people and new infrastructure?"

Actually, this sounds like a pretty square deal for the locals—good jobs, better roads, health care, and sanitation. But then you find out that the proposed saltworks would operate within the Baja equivalent of Yosemite. Laguna San Ignacio is contained within the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, the largest environmental preserve in Latin America. Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid set aside the reserve in 1988, designating some areas as "core zones," in which no commercial activity could take place, and the rest as "buffer zones," in which only environmentally friendly commerce would be allowed. ESSA's proposed saltworks is within the buffer zone. "The law also contains a clause that says only activities that are beneficial to the local community are allowed," adds Hershowitz.

This is the crux: How beneficial would the saltworks be to the community? The local economy is tightly linked to the local ecosystem: fishermen to the local fishery, ecotourism to the whales and the commercial value of a pristine coast. The battle over Laguna San Ignacio may require a new kind of environmental work—not merely stopping an industrial project, but sticking around to create and sustain an alternative to those 200 jobs.

Ari Hershowitz knows it. There is, he says, plenty of pro-Exportadora sentiment in town. "You'll hear people say there's no fuente de trabajo here, no fountain of work," he says. "And many people in town already work for the saltworks, commuting up to Guerrero Negro. The restaurant we're in is owned by the son of the right-hand man at Guerrero Negro." He points to the sign for Rene's restaurant, and I notice that the R is shaped like the cartoon whale in ESSA's corporate logo. "Most people in town don't have much connection to the lagoon. They've never been there." He answers my look of amazement: "You'll see why when you ride out there."

Journey's end for one leviathan; Big gray area:
a bumpy ride to the beach; plenty more salt where that came from

The naturalist Joseph Wood krutch once described the roads of Baja as filters. They separate the intrepid, he believed, from the common traveler: "The rougher the road, the finer the filter." The road that lies beyond the rusting LA LAGUNA: 59 [km] sign at the edge of town acts as the lagoon's first line of protection. Only those willing to endure an hour and a half of molar-jarring ruts will reach the water. The deep washboard meanders through the desert for nearly 30 miles before opening up into a natural salt pan, a platter of flatness toasted hush-puppy brown and scraped clean of vegetation.

It wasn't until I saw the salt flat that I realized why I'll never be an executive at Exportadora de Sal. I looked and thought: World land-speed record! The ESSA guys looked and thought: Amigo, we could make some kick-ass salt here!

ESSA had been considering expanding into Laguna San Ignacio since the late 1980s but didn't submit a proposal to the Mexican government's environmental agency until 1994. After the proposal was rejected, the company redrew its plans to make them more whale- and lagoon-friendly and financed an unprecedentedly thorough environmental-impact assessment, hiring scientists from two universities in Mexico and from San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Their report, due in September, holds the fate of the project in its pages. ESSA officials have repeatedly pledged to discontinue the project if the scientists advise against it. ESSA's bold public pronouncements indicate that the company, at least, is confident that the report will give its saltworks the green light.

The whale season is almost over, but the lagoon's fishermen are still running tourists out to see the grays in 20-foot skiffs called pangas. Outside their trailers and corrugated tin shacks hang signs: BEST WHALE WATCHING ASK HERE. I stop by the home of Francisco "Pachico" Mayoral, the old fisherman who, according to local legend, was the first to pet "the friendlies," as the strangely sociable whales are called, back in the 1970s. He's not home, so I continue south past piles and piles of scallop shells. It's as if an army of fishermen had descended on the lagoon, scooped out the entire population, and dumped the shells in thousands of four-foot mounds. Which, I later learn from the local boatmen, is pretty much exactly what happened.

I arrive at the Kuyima compound in time for dinner with a dozen carousing German tourists and a sun-bleached American named Bob. To prevent a commercial free-for-all, the Mexican government issues a limited number of whale-watching licenses to the local fishermen. Of the 23 licensed operations around the lagoon, Kuyima is the Cadillac. Most guests are put up in tiny plywood cabanas a few feet from the tidemark, and meals are cooked in a spacious palapa complete with videos, books, souvenir mugs, and complimentary wet bar.

Halfway through dinner, Bob leans over and confides, "I've got probably the best underwater shots of whales in the world." He says this in the same way a heroin dealer might open negotiations for a taste of his finest China white—but then, Laguna San Ignacio's economy of whale access is a seller's market. Wanna pet a 70,000-pound gray? Step right up. Need photos, video? Bob's got 'em.


One of the lagoon's friendlies flirts

Pepe, a tourist from Mexico City in a Lion King cap, spots the first one.

"Está una!" he cries out from the bow.

We can't see the gray, but 20 yards to the north a fine mist of whale exhalation curls and dissipates in the midmorning air.

Victor Ramirez, our lanchero, turns the skiff toward the spot. "Allí esta la mamá," says our Kuyima guide, a young oceanographer named Sofia Gomez.

As Victor tracks on Pepe's sighting, we can see another gray whale mother and her calf cavorting with two other boatloads of tourists. The five ecoturistas in our boat stare at the scene and experience a rush of schoolyard envy: Why can't we share their whales? The fact that sharing is illegal—only two pangas may approach a whale at any time—does not dampen our jealousy. We drift and wait and drift and wait. A brown pelican glides by, tracing a level line three feet above the water.

Fffffwuhh. We hear her before we see her, a mother checking us out before approaching with her calf. Victor idles the motor. Our eyes dart starboard and port like soldiers uncertain where the enemy fire is coming from. Up at the bow, Pepe turns around and points down. La mamá signals her presence by boiling the water beneath us. The creature, well over 50 feet long, surfaces a few yards away, her dark back Jackson Pollocked with barnacles.

The fact that gray whale mothers in Laguna San Ignacio will actually nudge their calves toward human hands holds a special irony. Not so long ago, those hands held harpoons. Back in the whaling days—when American and Norwegian ships went after the great mammals with cannon-fired harpoons until the killing of grays was banned by the International Whaling Convention of 1946—grays were known as "devil-fish" for their ferocity when attacked. Charles Scammon, the leading nineteenth-century authority on Pacific whales and perhaps the only man in history to answer to the title "whaler-turned-naturalist," documented what would happen, as it often did in the Baja lagoons, when a whaler struck a calf first, to lure its mother within killing range: "The parent animal, in her frenzy, will chase the boats, and, overtaking them, will overturn them with her head, or dash them in pieces with a stroke of her ponderous fluke."

Just something to think about.

"Venga aquí, bonita!" Sofia calls out. "Come here, pretty one!" Everyone wants to see the calf. Sofia splashes the water with her hand, which is apparently the cetacean equivalent of enticing a squirrel with a nut. "Come here, bambina!"

La bambina arrives. Six feet of whale snout rises up and nuzzles the boat. We all lean to starboard, listing the boat nearly to waterline, and reach out to touch the one-ton baby. Around us the water turns from black-green to gray; mom's directly beneath us, ready to turn devil-fish if we mistreat her baby. The calf flexes her double-barreled spout and treats us to a mouthful of rank whale-spew. On a second pass I manage to put my fingers on her and feel her slick and surprisingly spongy rostrum. During their time in the lagoon, calves bulk up on mother's milk—80 pounds a day—which is 55 percent fat. Their blubbery bodies feel like a soft rubber spatula.

After a ten-minute massage from 12 human hands, the baby and its mother (who consented to our touch a bit less enthusiastically than her child) swim away. Victor points the panga toward camp and we bounce across the late-morning chop. We're drained. "Sometimes after they've gone," one habitual whale-toucher tells me later, "you almost feel like lighting up a cigarette."


The battle for Laguna San Ignacio is being fought with baby-whale-killer rhetoric, when in fact whales may be the last species to feel the impact of the saltworks. "All the information you hear is about gray whales," one fisherman and whale-watching entrepreneur tells me, "but you don't hear about the fish and the clams." And that's what the folks on the lagoon—who make their living nine months of the year dealing in seafood, not tourists—are really worried about. ESSA plans to pump seawater continuously out of the lagoon, at a rate of 6,000 gallons per second, and use it to flood 116 square miles of evaporation ponds. The fishermen fear that, along with all that water, ESSA will also be siphoning fish eggs, brine shrimp, and other biota crucial to the fishery.

ESSA's dubious waste-disposal record also has the locals jumpy. Last year Mexico's Federal Prosecutor of Environmental Protection attributed the deaths of 94 black sea turtles in Laguna Ojo de Liebre to a spill of toxic "brine" from the Guerrero Negro saltworks. On March 10 of this year, three Mexican environmental groups filed a formal complaint, demanding that the prosecutor bring criminal charges against ESSA. (This "brine" isn't the stuff pickles float in. It's a reddish liquid, high in magnesium chloride, that's left over after the salt crystallization process. Diluted with seawater, it's harmless; concentrated, it can be deadly to sea creatures.) ESSA disputes the charges, but was further embarrassed when officials investigating the brine release found that nearly 300 of the company's old marine batteries had been dumped in the lagoon.

It's easy to demonize Exportadora, especially when it has a faceless multinational corporate backer like Mitsubishi. But the fight for Laguna San Ignacio is full of thorny questions for environmentalists. Salt-making is a low-impact industry; seawater is an abundant renewable resource. We're not talking about an oil refinery or chemical-weapons plant. And ESSA is serious about keeping the jobs local. When I reached ESSA administrative subdirector Joaquín Ardura on the phone and asked about the suggestion that the company should consider alternative sites for the saltworks, he sounded frustrated. "Yes, of course there are other places," he said. "Australia, for example. But we are Mexicans and we want to grow in Mexico. We want to improve the living standards of Mexican people, not Australians."

But then there's the question of whether these highly touted new jobs are even wanted. The fishermen at the lagoon are not crying out for corporate employment. "I have found a really nice way to work," says Raul Lopez Gongora, president of the local land cooperative and a member of the Kuyima ecotourism co-op. "Part of the year I work with tourists, part of the year I raise oysters with my friends, part of the year I catch fish or dive for scallops. I am part of the companies I work with. I am part of Kuyima, I am part of the fishing co-op, and I am part of the ejido [land cooperative]. I am my own boss."

There is also the matter of fairness. In the early 1990s, when the Mexican government ordered severe limits on fishing in Laguna San Ignacio during whale-calving season (December through March), the fishermen adapted by shifting into ecotourism. "We looked for alternatives, like whale watching," says fisherman and Kuyima guide Manuel Gardea. "And now all of a sudden a big company with big money can come in and change the rules and create a huge industrial project? This is not equal."


I meet up with Ari the next day at a whale-watching camp a few miles south of Kuyima. It's Passover, and he and his mother, visiting from San Diego, have invited me to take part in their seder in the desert. The company that runs the camp, Baja Adventure Company, sounds like a slick package-tour outfit, but really it's just Maldo and Johnny and a bunch of safari tents. Maldo—Romualdo Fischer—fishes nine months of the year here for halibut, white sea bass, scallops, and lobster. His partner, Johnny Friday, is a San Diego shark diver who hooked up with Maldo five years ago.

Inside the tent, I drape my sleeping bag over a cot and emerge to greet my neighbor, Mrs. Hershowitz.

"Welcome to the neighborhood!" she says in a jokey New York accent. "How much did you pay?"

She ferries a plastic seder tray into the cook tent, along with a box of matzo, a lamb bone, and a boiled egg shattered by the lagoon road. While Mrs. Hershowitz talks with Johnny about the meal, I leaf through a 17-page booklet that ESSA officials recently dropped off at the whale camps. Proyecto Salitrales de San Ignacio, it's called. San Ignacio Saltbeds Project. The last page succinctly captures the company's argument. A photograph of a barren natural salt flat is captioned, "View of the saltbeds north of Laguna San Ignacio." Below it is a shot of a beautiful wetland teeming with avian life. It reads: "View of an evaporation reservoir in the Guerrero Negro saltbeds."

This is not an ecostupid company. ESSA's program to build osprey nesting sites has helped quadruple the bird's population at Guerrero Negro in the last 20 years. When ESSA started making salt in the late 1950s, 250 whales migrated to the adjacent lagoon. That figure now tops 1,700. "We make life," ESSA's director general, Juan Ignacio Bremer, is fond of telling reporters.

Sometime around 6 p.m. the Brandt's cormorants return to their roosting grounds, thousands strong, on Isla Pelícanos in the middle of the lagoon. They fly in enormous flocks on the horizon, constantly swirling and re-forming like ink dropped in a tidal sway. An onshore breeze tickles the eelgrass caught in the mangroves and delivers the scent of decay. Just over the next rise I can see a shadowed lump on the sand. It's a beached gray whale, its skin stretched and hardened by the sun so that it looks like a fiberglass model of itself.

It's a reminder, this Easter and Passover, that life itself makes death with no help from us. Of course, human beings are the ones who have made sure that gray whales (population 26,600 and rising) are no longer an endangered species. Yet over the next few weeks, as the whales head north, a number of dead grays—as many as 52 by one count—will wash up on beaches along the migration route. This is not a shocking figure, but it is significantly higher than usual, and researchers are at a loss to explain it. The bodies are carried by the tide onto beaches up and down the Pacific coast, just like this one on the shore of Laguna San Ignacio.

I walk over and take a look. Seagulls have pecked out the whale's eyes and bored holes in its fluke. There's something sacrosanct about the beast, pale belly up and mouth split in a macabre baleen smile. I can't bring myself to touch it.

Ecotourism is sometimes promoted as the salvation of places like Laguna San Ignacio, where the Earth's wild spaces are threatened by encroaching industrialization. But it's naive to think that every local economy can swap natural-resource income for tourist money. Laguna San Ignacio is the very model of an ecotourism economy: It's well managed, hyper-ecoconscious, has little impact on the marine ecosystem, and sustains a balance between providing human access and leaving the biosphere reserve undisturbed. It employs mostly local cooks, guides, and boat operators. Yet it remains a three-month business, bringing in money to mitigate the loss of the winter fishing season. Ecotourism simply cannot match the economic firepower of 200 full-time salaries.

One option San Ignacio does not have is to drop the "eco" and go full-bore tourist, as is happening at Bahía Magdalena, Baja's third gray whale nursery, 150 miles south. (A 4,900-acre resort—complete with hotel, marina, and golf course—is planned for the bay, which lacks the environmental protections of Guerrero Negro and San Ignacio.) Indeed, for San Ignacio, the real issues may be community character and sustainability. Right now, it's a pleasant, even beautiful place to live; but one possible future is represented by Guerrero Negro, once a lonely desert outpost, now a sprawling company town of 13,000 people.

Everything I've seen here seems a far cry from the war on the whale nursery portrayed in the NRDC's direct-mail campaign. It's not really about the whales. What's left to settle is the question of whether mining salt for ESSA is intrinsically better work, and more environmentally sensitive, than fishing with the folks in the local co-op—but that's not the kind of debate that attracts celebrities and donations.


"Why is this night different from all other nights?" Ari Hershowitz looks up from his copy of the Haggadah to see if there are any takers. The rest of us stare back blankly and adjust our yarmulkes. We improvise our way through the ceremony—salsa on matzoh for the "bitter"—and the free-flowing Manischewitz sets off a rambling discussion of religion, oppression, and the meaning of life. Maldo and Johnny bemusedly observe, joining in only when Mrs. Hershowitz asks for a referee.

"What do I think?" Johnny offers. "I believe in hot apple pie, tropical paradise, and a cold beer. Beyond that, I'm stumped."

Ari ends the ceremony with a passage from Psalm 104. "This is a little unusual for a seder," he says, "but I thought it was especially appropriate for our setting. 'How many are your works, O Lord! There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number. There the ships go to and fro, and the Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.'"

He does not read to the end of the section, which includes the line, "When you take away their breath, they die and return to dust." Outside the tent, a full moon sparkles on the rising tide and coyotes ramble on the fringe of camp. On a calm night you can hear the whales breathing across the lagoon. But tonight the breeze carries their echo out to sea. This season's calves depart the nursery, following their mothers north to the Arctic feeding grounds. Most of them will make it. As they leave, saltwater laps at the margin where the desert meets the sea and turns the leviathan left behind to dust.

Bruce Barcott's profile of climber Alex Lowe appeared in the March issue.

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