|AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE|
"Nature is loved by what is best in us....And the beauty of nature must always seem unreal and mocking until the landscape has human figures that are as good as itself."
|"Nature," Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson.|
"What happens to beasts can happen to man. All things are connected. If the great beasts are gone, men would surely die from a great loneliness of spirit."
|- Chief Seattle, Suquamish Indian tribe.|
In the months that followed, I set about to determine what other
factors lay behind President Zedillo's decision to cancel the saltworks
project. It proved to be a detective story with plenty of clues, on many
different fronts. Leaving San Ignacio Lagoon, I stopped in La Paz on the
drive back south and met with Jorge Urbán. The university professor
had been in charge of reviewing potential effects on gray whales for the
new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). His report had been in the
ESSA company's hands for several weeks.
While Urbán had concluded that no likely problems would affect
the grays inside the lagoon in terms of reduced salinity, changes in
water temperature, or noise he did foresee a potential impact during
building of a channel, where saltwater would be sent to pumps and then
onto the salt flats. He'd recommended that no construction take place
during the whales' winter season. Urbán also envisioned the pier
at Punta Abreojos as posing a hurdle during the migration, since the whales
travel closer to shore than the pier's three-kilometer extension into
the Pacific. "Also the big ships make noise, and would be a source
of potential oil contamination and physical injuries to the whales from
direct impacts," he said. He'd recommended that ship movements be
controlled allowed to move no faster than three knots once entering
the bay, turning off their engines and being pulled by tugboats inside
of three kilometers.
These things, of course, could be accomodated by the planners. Yet Julia
Carabias, the Environment Minister, told the Los Angeles Times
that what ultimately persuaded Zedillo was the effect of flooding tens
of thousands of acres of desert just inland from the lagoon, which would
have altered the landscape forever. Mitsubishi's Executive Vice President
James Brumm echoed this at a news conference in Mexico City immediately
after Zedillo's announcement, saying: "What we would have done is
flood salt flats. It wouldn't look natural. We came to appreciate a number
of arguments by people that this is an area that should be left as is
Later, when I met at IFAW headquarters with principal organizers of Mexico's
50-group environmental coalition opposing the project, attorney Alberto
Szekely said the government felt "betrayed" by the EIA, because
of its objectivity. I discussed this with Homero Aridjis, who said he
"heard from sources close to the government that there were many
factors." One of these, according to Homero, was financial. In December
1999, Zedillo had asked the ESSA corporation for an economic feasibility
study of the expansion and was allegedly shocked to learn that none existed.
Then the President discovered that the lion's share of the profits would
go to Mitsubishi "and he finally understood what we had been saying
since 1995," said Homero, "that the new saltworks would only
provide 200 jobs, of which a mere 50 would be for the local population."
Homero also pointed out that, around the same time, Mitsubishi Corporation
had been awarded a $278-million construction contract to build two new
thermoelectric power stations on mainland Mexico. The poet speculated
this "could be a consolation contract given by the Mexican government
to its Japanese partners."
In mid-February 2000, two weeks before Zedillo's announcement, Minister
of Commerce Herminio Blanco had flown to Tokyo for a meeting with the
Japanese Foreign Minister and the Mitsubishi hierarchy. There are differing
accounts of what transpired. According to Japanese TV journalist Teddy
Jimbo, "My sources tell me that Mitsubishi, including its very top
executives, was shocked to learn from Blanco about the President's decision,
but reluctantly accepted it." Homero heard an opposite story from
his Mexican sources, that "Blanco was told by the Mitsubishi people
that they wanted out of the project. Mitsubishi retreated because
they were feeling the effects of the boycott in the United States. They
have many different economic interests, and for them the marine salt was
very little proportionately and it was not worth risking the prestige
of the corporation any longer."
Mitsubishi International's James Brumm, who oversaw the saltworks controversy
from his New York office and sits on the board of Mitsubishi Corporation
in Tokyo, was careful to steer a middle course. "Mitsubishi and Mexico
were proceeding on parallel tracks," Brumm told me. "As partners
we had independently come to the conclusion we were not going to move
forward, and it was a matter of who talked to whom first. Blanco's trip
to Japan presented the opportunity."
So we may never know just who blinked first, or why. This much, however,
is certain: by 2000, the issue had captured the attention of millions,
and it was not about to go away. IFAW's "Save Baja Whales" web-site
had received about two million visitors over a four-month period. In California,
the NRDC had prodded the Coastal Commission and 43 cities to pass resolutions
against the project. Polls taken in Mexico revealed public opposition
there to be at around 69%. High-powered Washington, D.C., legal and P.R.
consultants hired by Mitsubishi seemed unable to stem the tide. Brumm
conceded that the environmental groups had waged "a very effective
campaign," and that "obviously our strategy was not."
Another full-page ad against the project - arranged by Homero and including
nine Nobel Prize-winning authors - was scheduled to soon appear in Reforma
and the New York Times. Instead, IFAW took out an ad in the Times
on March 31, headlined, "To Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and
Mitsubishi Corporation: Thank You For Saving Laguna San Ignacio!"
Then IFAW President Fred O'Regan kept a second promise he'd made to Brumm,
should ESSA bow out: he took the Mitsubishi executive out for an expensive
lunch. There, when Jared Blumenfeld asked Brumm whether he thought the
project might ever be revived, Brumm would recall, "I think I said
something like, 'God forbid!'" At IFAW's invitation, he then brought
his wife and daughter along on a whale watching trip off Cape Cod. It
was, Brumm said, "just magnificent."
In Mexico, three months to the day after Zedillo's decision, on July
2 opposition leader Vicente Fox was elected to the presidency, ending
seven decades of domination by the Institutional Revolutionary Party,
or PRI. Andrés Rosental, another leader of the anti-saltworks coalition,
said afterward that all the Mexican people signing petitions against the
project represented "the first indication of a strong, pent-up desire
by civil society to participate in decisions like San Ignacio, and the
first indication of what later became a groundswell of the anti-establishment
vote to elect Fox." Particularly striking was that three of Fox's
closest advisers campaign manager Hector Elizondo, foreign policy adviser
Adolfo Aguilar, and Senate Environmental Committee chair Luis Alvarez
had all been among the politicians who came to meet with the local people,
and the whales, at San Ignacio Lagoon in 1999.
Ultimately, how much had the whales themselves influenced outgoing President
Zedillo? "Oh, hugely," IFAW's Blumenfeld believes. "Whatever
anyone says about all the technicalities, it was the whales." Or,
as Homero Aridjis put it, "For me, the nursery of the whales was
always sacred. This is not just an ecological victory, but a spiritual
The gray whales received a reprieve in another arena in 2000. First,
on April 20, as a Makah tribal canoe closed in on a gray whale not far
from where they'd killed their first one a year before, a young female
anti-whaling activist on a jet ski raced toward the crew. The noise and
movement of Erin Abbott's craft caused the whale to dive out of danger
from a harpoon throw. A Coast Guard boat proceeded to run right over Abbott,
who spent the next four days recuperating in a hospital with a broken
shoulder blade and fractured ribs. For violating the government's exclusionary
zone, she faced charges that could bring jail time and a fine up to $250,000.
But she had saved the whale and, on June 9, a federal appeals court in
Seattle rejected the federal Environmental Assessment that had allowed
the Makah to proceed with their hunt. The U.S. government's review, concluded
the judges in a 2-1 ruling, was "slanted" in favor of the hunt;
the National Marine Fisheries Service was mandated to look again at the
potential impact on resident gray whales and other environmental consequences
before the Makah could resume the hunt. "My whales have at least
a stay of execution," tribal elder Alberta Thompson said.
Yet later that summer, Japan sent its whaling fleet into the North Pacific
to resume hunting sperm whales and Bryde's whales - two still-endangered
species that were nearly wiped out prior to the 1986 commercial moratorium
- under the guise of "scientific research." Already, at a meeting
of the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES)
held in April in Nairobi, Japan had tried and failed in a vote of member
nations to downgrade the level of protection given to the gray whale
and two other species. A month later, genetic scientists in New Zealand
announced that gray whale meat had been sold commercially in Japan in
1999, falsely labeled as minke whale (140 of which, under the International
Whaling Commission's rules, Japan is allowed to harvest annually in the
Southern Ocean for stock research purposes). The University of Auckland
scientists were unable to determine whether or not the gray whale meat
came from the critically endangered Western Pacific population, the ones
being studied by Dave Weller's team at Piltun Lagoon.
Then, at the IWC's annual meeting in July, Japan and Norway flanked
by seven of their patron states and Denmark succeeded in blocking an
effort by other nations, including the U.S., to adopt a Southern Pacific
Sanctuary for whales. A Caribbean fisheries minister from Dominica resigned
after claiming that Japan bought his country's vote. Later that month,
the Japanese government gave the green light to its whaling fleet. In
August, the U.S. joined fourteen other countries in a diplomatic protest
to the Japanese. Then, on September 13, President Clinton directed that
Japan be denied access to allotments for fishing in U.S. waters and ordered
Cabinet members to examine other options, including possible trade sanctions.
By then, however, the damage had been done. Japan "harvested"
43 Bryde's and five sperm whales (as well as 40 minkes) before returning
to port. They claimed to be studying fish consumption by whales according
to Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research, cetaceans consume three to
five times the amount of marine resources that are harvested for human
consumption. U.S. Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta saw it differently,
that Japan was "paving the way for outright resumption of commercial
The looming question is whether the U.S. response has been compromised
or at least muted, due to having allowed the Makah to hunt gray whales
again, precisely what Japan began pushing for in the early 1990s. One
of the Makah's chief supporters, Eugene Lapointe of the IWMC-World Conservation
Trust, phrased it like this in a late September press release: "President
Clinton's threatened trade sanctions against Japan....reflects nothing more
than made-for-media campaign hype prompted by his political party's desire
to keep control of the White House." Meantime, the Vancouver Island-based
World Council of Whalers was gearing up to hold its Third General Assembly
in New Zealand.
If a large-scale resumption of whaling is one dark cloud on the horizon,
the impact of global climate change is certainly another. Toward the end
of April, I had joined National Marine Fisheries Service scientist Wayne
Perryman at Point Piedras Blancas in San Simeon, California. He was conducting
a seventh annual count of northbound migrating gray whale females with
their calves, supervising a professional team of four observers. They're
here from mid-March into June, as long as whales keep passing. They stand
watch in paired shifts, with high-powered binoculars, over the course
of a twelve-hour day. Thermal imaging sensors on loan from the Navy are
mounted on tripods and used to record data on the whales' nighttime movements.
Aerial censuses are periodically conducted as well, to make sure that
mother-calf pairs aren't migrating beyond range of the observers' sight.
They almost never do. This is an ideal spot to see gray whales, especially
mothers and their recently-born, most of which will pass very close to
the shore, in the lee along a bed of kelp.
Located on a point directly below the Hearst Castle, this is one of the
West Coast's most scenic locations. I'm leaning back in an elbow of a
rocky promontory overlooking the sea, hunkered down alongside Perryman
and against a 25-mile-an-hour wind from the northwest. About forty feet
below, huge waves send a jet-spray of seawater that falls just short of
drenching us. In the spring, huge flocks of Pacific loons settle in to
feed in these waters, a million or more passing through in the course
of their migration. Peregrine falcons nest near a group of sea lions,
and an elephant seal colony occupies a beach at the base of a small hill.
Behind me the meadows bloom with purple lupines, yellow mustard, and bright
Perryman explains that the gray whale mothers usually keep their calves
on the inside, between themselves and the shore, apparently as a protective
measure. "Almost ninety percent go by as a single unit," he
says. "You can tell they're calves just by their size and the way
they swim. At this point, they're still really transitioning out of dog
paddling. So the heads keep floating up out of the water. The cue that
they're coming, though, is the mom because we can easily see her blow
three miles away."
Then Perryman adds, wistfully: "But it's not as much fun to do this
in the bad years." 1999 had been one such, and this year looked even
worse as far as the numbers. "On a normal year at this time, you'd
expect to have seen a hundred cow-calf pairs. We've seen twenty-one. You
can stand out here all day and see zip."
Perryman hunches his shoulders against the wind, and continues: "I've
never seen whales that look as thin as some of the ones this year. We
had a juvenile going by yesterday that looked just terrible. The whale
looked pasty, washed out. It hung around, roaming back and forth, wasn't
swimming very well. With a few, I'm afraid their skeleton structure is
showing through their blubber layer."
All of this, unfortunately, was bearing out the belief of Perryman and
other marine scientists that something was very wrong on the gray whales'
feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. This seemed to be affecting not only
their body condition, but their reproductive capabilities. When I spoke
to Perryman again after the migration, his total calf count for the season
had reached only 96 the lowest figure since he started the survey, and
well below "the reasonable range to expect of somewhere between 350
At the same time, the count of stranded gray whales either found beached
or floating dead had by November reached another record number. It stood
at 360, well above 1999's previous known high of 274. The majority of
these whales had been detected in Mexico, with 207 found dead either inside
or near the breeding lagoons, an 83 percent increase over the year before.
The remainder of the tentative count on the northbound migration route
broke down like this: California, 57; Alaska, 56; Washington, 23; Canada,
15; Oregon, 2.
"...if the whales were starving in 1999, they were starving in 2000
as well," according to a draft scientific report for Cetacean
Research Management. The report went on to hypothesize that gray whales'
low body reserves and inanition was caused, in part, by "the depressing
effect of increasing water temperature over the last decade on amphipod
The probable chain-of-events with the grays' predominant food source
had to do, first, with the warmer Arctic temperatures which dominated
the decade and brought about a decrease in amphipod production. Then,
secondarily, came the reverse La Niña cooling trend of 1997-98,
which resulted both of the following summers in late-melting ice that
prevented the grays from reaching the feeding areas early enough and long
enough. Additionally, new studies are indicating that, in years when ice
is slow to recede, not enough food is available for the bottom-dwelling
amphipods. One hopeful sign is that, in 2000, an ice break-up happened
early - "so these animals going back with their tanks dead-empty
are at least going to be able to get to the feeding grounds," as
Perryman puts it.
In the Arctic, the general trend of rising temperatures has caused sea-ice
thickness to decline by more than forty percent since 1958; it's been
estimated that the Arctic's year-round icepack could completely disappear
within another fifty years. That would spell disaster for ice-dependent
wildlife such as walrus, bearded seals, and polar bears. It's quite possible,
too, that the Northwest Passage could open up, exposing cetaceans to increased
ship traffic. The prognosis for the gray whale's summer feeding habitat
is, overall, not good. A recent study for the World Wildlife Fund/Beringia
Conservation Program summarized the situation:
"Scientists studying global warming believe Arctic ecosystems and
their wildlife will be far more vulnerable to climate changes than those
at the lower latitudes. Temperate and tropical animals, fish, and plants
may be able to shift their geographic ranges northward to stay within
comfortable climatic ranges. But for temperature-sensitive wildlife living
near the poles even a modest amount of warming leaves no options. For
the 'organisms of the tundra and polar seas,' writes biologist Edward
O. Wilson, 'the North and South poles are the end of the line. All the
species of the high latitudes, reindeer moss to polar bears, risk extinction.'"
What might gray whales be trying to "say" to us? Here was Melville
in Moby Dick, describing having come upon a whale nursery: "The
young of these whales seem looking up toward us, but not at us...Floating
on their sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us. Some of the
subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond."
So it is at San Ignacio Lagoon. Never is there a moment's fear that the
whales will do us any harm. Their huge size makes them more sensitive,
not less. On the surface, externally, they are a mountain of mottled gray,
leathery skin and barnacles. Beneath the surface, internally, they are
as big as the imagination.
Imagine....What if lions in the jungle suddenly allowed you to pet them?
What if elephants suddenly slept at your feet? The Mexicans say the gray
whales are "tame." Yet they are not domesticated. We did not
"break" them like we might a horse. They tamed themselves
to come to us, their time-honored enemy, in the place where they
give birth. And, mysteriously, it feels that this is how it should be,
the way it used to be. The commonality is primordial. We are molded
of the same clay. Eschrichtius robustus. Homo sapiens.
We are thus, in a phrase, biblically bound. Beyond Genesis and the Book
of Job, we are told in Matthew XII: "For as Jonas was three days
and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of Man be three
days and three nights in the heart of the earth." And D.H. Lawrence,
in a chapter on Moby Dick that concludes his Studies in Classic
American Literature, informs: "...in the first centuries, Jesus
was Cetus, the Whale. And the Christians were the little fishes."
Our Western culture is, of course, not alone in the symbolic meaning
ascribed to the leviathan - "bigness, largeness, the mass that moves
upon the seas," as the Tse-shat peoples of Vancouver described the
gray whale. The whale sustained and took care of the ancient peoples.
The shamans knew. In trance states, a trained shaman could go to the whales
and communicate with them. Western man does not understand the nature
of "a god" in the same fashion. Except, it seems, in our subconscious.
Moby Dick again, as the hunt approaches, as Captain Ahab wrestles
with the demons of his inner being:
"'What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it;
what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor
commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep
pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly
making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not
so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab?'"
Lawrence writes: "What then is Moby Dick? He is the deepest blood-being
of the white race; he is our deepest blood-nature. And he is hunted, hunted,
hunted by the maniacal fanatacism of our white mental consciousness. We
want to hunt him down. To subject him to our will."
In more recent times, it is our psychoanalysts who have addressed this
dilemma we have fashioned for ourselves, especially since the advent of
industry and high technology. "Man feels himself isolated in the
cosmos," wrote Carl Jung. "He is no longer involved in nature
and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto
had symbolic meaning for him. Thunder is no longer the voice of a god,
nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no
tree means a man's life, no snake is the embodiment of wisdom, and no
mountain still harbours a great demon. Neither do things speak to him
nor can he speak to things, like stones, springs, plants, and animals."
James Hillman, in an essay titled Animal Kingdom, elaborates:
"The reading of living form, the self-expressive metaphors that animals
represent, is what is meant by the legends that saints and shamans understand
the language of animals, not in the literal speech of words as much as
Which brings us, once more, to the gray whale, the whale that despite
our history in seeking to destroy it, wants to live closest to us. If
they are being forgiving toward us, the implications are enormous. This
is surely, in part, why they touch us so deeply. Like gray whales in their
lagoons, human beings too must seek solace, a centering focal point, a
place to go that remains relatively untouched and pure. A place to remind
ourselves of our basic nature, not surrounded by all we have built.
So do we commune with the whales at San Ignacio.
The fight to protect this "sacred nursery," a fight which captured
the attention of so many direct contact with these whales or not represents
something beyond environmental awareness or fervor. What is hurting them
is hurting us. As the oceans go, so go we. Can we survive global warming?
Noise pollution? The wanton carelessness about our habitats? Can we pretend
to endure anything that the whales cannot? Can we come to grips with the
suicidal tendency to destroy what sustains us? Is this what the gray whales
are reaching out to communicate?
The answers to these questions are as yet unseen, hidden, perhaps entwined
in our unconscious, in the great mystery of our relationship with these
most majestic of nature's creatures. It may only be a mystery because
we don't yet have the senses to perceive it, though we bump into it occasionally
in the dark. And we glimpse it, at the rippling edge of life, bursting
startlingly above the surface - in the eye of a whale.