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February 03, 2011

The Whales of Laguna San Ignacio

California gray whales are making their annual trip south to the placid waters of Laguna San Ignacio

I was surfing Seaside Reef in Encinitas the other day and about a mile offshore a whale breeched. When it landed there was an explosion of foam. A few days later I was driving through the Tijuana-Ensenada ghost condo corridor on my way to a meeting with several Valle de los Cirios landowners. As the road snaked its way along the cliff side above La Fonda, I snuck a peek at the deep blue Pacific. Directly in my vision another whale breeched. Several others surfaced for air. They were all headed south.

In a few days time they will reach their annual migration destinations of Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Laguna San Ignacio and Bahia Magdalena. Some will make their way to the azure waters of the Sea of Cortez. Watching them trickle south made me realize how intertwined are the ecosystems of our Pacific coastline. The natural environment doesn’t yield to international borders or mega-industrial developments. The California gray whales that I saw crossed the waters of three different countries. They swam beneath oil tankers and the flight path of planes departing LAX. They cruised by the Tijuana Sloughs and the Coronado islands. And now they are making their way into their last undeveloped breeding grounds on the North American continent.

Relentless survey work and monitoring by our friends of the Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program are showing that the whales are arriving skinnier and in fewer numbers. In 2010, Laguna San Ignacio saw its lowest count in 15 years. Our tremendous impact on the marine environment, from overfishing to rampant coastal development, from Alaska to Central America, has had an obvious effect on our local marine wildlife, including the California grey whale. The unspoiled ecosystems and habitats that remain are essential for their survival.

That is why WiLDCOAST and partner organizations are working diligently to take places like Laguna San Ignacio off of the development agenda.  In 2010, we reached a major milestone in the preservation of the lagoon. Mexican government and Mitsubishi conglomerate ESSA rescinded its concession on the northern shore of the lagoon which for decades it planned on converting into the world’s largest salt extraction facility. In turn, Mexico’s National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (CONANP), with logistical and technical support provided by WiLDCOAST, obtained jurisdiction of 299,108 acres of federal lands where ESSA held its concession, giving CONANP sole authority to carry out its conservation mission in the area.

This was a major victory but the Baja California Peninsula is a reoccurring target for grandiose, degrading and often ludicrous development ventures.  Fortunately, WiLDCOAST and CONANP are continuing efforts to conserve the lagoon and surrounding shoreline.   Through the conservation of the region’s Federal Maritime Terrestrial Zone, or ZOFEMAT, which is the first twenty meters of coastline throughout Mexico, CONANP and WiLDCOAST are working to protect 290 miles of shoreline around the lagoon. Additionally, WiLDCOAST and the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance are negotiating the purchase of 18,200 acres of pristine lagoon shoreline.

Thanks to the conservation minded locals of the lagoon and the whales that visit every year, Laguna San Ignacio has become a global model for sustainable alternatives to development. It has become the world’s most intimate whale watching experience with a number of camps offering comfortable and reliable accommodations and services. Check out or if you are interested in experiencing the whales of Laguna San Ignacio first hand.