MEXICO CITY — Some 40 years ago a poor fisherman named Francisco Mayoral, who lived on the shores of San Ignacio Lagoon, halfway down the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur, stretched out his hand to touch a gray whale that raised its head out of the water alongside his wooden panga.
Mr. Mayoral, who went by the nickname Pachico, would liken this milestone to the birth of his first child.
“I didn’t seek out the whale, she came to my boat,” he remembered. “I was fishing with my friend and suddenly the whale came out and curiosity got the better of me and I touched her gently and saw that nothing happened. The whale went under and came out on the other side of the boat and I felt more confident and I began to stroke her and rub her head, and nothing happened.”
This transcendental encounter was, sadly, not emblematic of the troubled relationship between humans and whales.
In the 19th century gray whales — which can reach a length of 50 feet and a weight of 35 tons — fought capture so fiercely that whalers dubbed them “devil-fish.” The whales were hunted nearly to extinction until the International Whaling Commission adopted a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling.
Pachico helped to protect the whales by convincing other fishermen that they had nothing to fear from them. Soon they were ferrying tourists into the lagoon — the last pristine breeding and calving ground for thousands of gray whales that migrate every winter from their feeding grounds in the icy Arctic seas to the warm refuge of the lagoons and bays along the Baja California peninsula.
Pachico lived in a sand-floored hut with no electricity, phone service or mail delivery, but somehow, in 1994, he got information about a plan by Exportadora de Sal, an enterprise co-owned by the Mexican government and Mitsubishi, to build a giant salt-processing plant on the shores of the lagoon.
He passed this information on to an American graduate student studying gray whales, who called me from Baja.
The proposed plant would produce seven million tons of salt annually, flooding 116 square miles of tidal flats and dense mangroves and pumping 6,000 gallons of saltwater per second out of the lagoon.
Each month oceangoing freighters would dock at a mile-long pier jutting into Bahia de Ballenas (Whale Bay) — right in the path of whales heading for the lagoon — to take on salt brought by conveyor belts across the desert from evaporation ponds and a million-ton salt pile.
As head of the Group of 100, an association of artists and writers concerned about the environment, I denounced the project to the press, and then managed to get a copy of the project’s environmental impact assessment.
I was shocked to see that a mere 23 lines out of 465 pages were devoted to the gray whale.
Six days after I published an essay entitled “The Silence of the Whales” in the Mexican newspaper Reforma, the government decided that the saltworks were incompatible with the conservation of the surrounding Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, which includes the lagoon.
But the company’s owners were not about to give up. They maintained that the project could be altered to accommodate the environmentalists’ concerns, and kept up their fight. Meanwhile, groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the International Fund for Animal Welfare joined our cause.
One evening in 1997, during a visit to the lagoon, a young fisherman told me that Pachico wanted to meet me. A grizzled man with leathery skin, he shyly took my hand and related his historic encounter with the whale.
He’d say to me, “Let’s go hunt whales, bring your binoculars, bring your camera, so you can take them away and leave them there.”
Caressing a gray whale is among the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
The Group of 100 was about to make public a petition to the Mexican government — signed by dozens of writers and artists, including numerous Nobel laureates — when, on March 2, 2000, President Ernesto Zedillo suddenly and grudgingly canceled the plan for the salt factory.
The fight to save San Ignacio Lagoon was the greatest environmental battle ever in Mexico, but it was not the last. Although conservationists working with the government have been able to protect 150 miles of shoreline and thousands of acres of federal land around the lagoon, the gray whale is still threatened in its feeding grounds by offshore gas and oil development, and by climate change everywhere it swims.
Grass-roots activism has become more perilous in Mexico, as a result of the breakdown of the rule of law in areas where the drug cartels are influential. Some advocates have defended forests, farmlands and rivers at the cost of their own lives, with the killers never brought to justice.
On Oct. 22, Pachico, the man who used to say he would give his life to save a whale, died of a stroke at the age of 72.
This winter, when the gray whales return, his sons will be taking visitors out into the water to the thrill of watching up close — and, with luck, even touching — this magnificent creature with whom we share the oceans of the earth.