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Battle of the Giants

[whitespace] Man leaning over side of boat
Richard Sobol--IFAW


In 1985 the nations of the world reached a rare moment of accord and outlawed whaling--a move driven by the inexplicable sympathy humans feel for cetaceans. Now our connection to the biggest mystery in the natural world is once again threatened as Mitsubishi, the world's largest industrial group, encroaches on the gray whale's last wild refuge.

By Eric Johnson

'THERE'S its belly. That one looks like it's rolling over on its back or something. OK, now there's its side ridge, you can see that very clearly." Nancy Black, the marine biologist aboard the Point Sur Clipper, is speaking into a tinny PA, describing what is essentially marine mammal foreplay, taking place less than 30 yards off the boat's starboard bow. Two California grays, each better than 40 feet long, have been wandering around for more than half an hour--"meandering," the professionals call it--and we've been meandering around with them.

"We're getting a really good look now at what is probably some mating behavior," Black tells us, a motley crew of 25 whale-watchers gripping the rail in rapt silence 10 miles out from the wharf in Monterey.

Every five minutes or so, the whales surface together, blow seawater 10 feet into the air in a wide 'V' and loll around each other in huge slow motion. This time, it looks like they might get serious, but then they undulate into a slow dive, flip the 6-foot span of their tails in the air and disappear.

"OK, they've shown their tail flukes, so they'll be down for five or six minutes," Black says--a refrain she has repeated after each dive, on a mission to impart a rudimentary education in whale biology. "That flat area in the water is called a fluke-print," she says, prompting a Japanese woman to point it out for her 7-year-old daughter.

The man steering this boat, Richard Ternullo, the Clipper's captain, seems to know exactly where the whales will come up. When I ask him what it is that allows him to accomplish this--the Echosounder depth finder, the Loran radar or some sixth sense--he points to his $10 fisherman's sunglasses. "They're polarized," he grins. "I can see 'em."

There is, regardless of the captain's modesty, probably some ESP at work. Ternullo has been leading whale-watching tours in Monterey Bay for 25 years. Not much past 40, he is nevertheless the unofficial dean of cetacean tourism in the region.

Earlier, on our way out to this place he calls the "whale track," which is five miles past Point Pinos--the southernmost tip of the bay--Ternullo told me that he has seen big changes in these waters since he first took the helm of one of his family's fishing boats.

"We'd see a few grays, back when I was about 15. There were maybe 10,000 altogether," he said. "Now there are 25,000. It's one of the world's greatest endangered-species success stories."

The Eastern Pacific gray, also known as the California gray, is the only whale species to have experienced such a complete recovery since commercial whaling was banned in 1985.

The dramatic comeback is due, in part, to a behavioral characteristic specific to gray whales. Each year, all of them make a 5,000-mile pilgrimage from their feeding waters in Alaska to one of four lagoons on Mexico's Baja California peninsula. The whales, which practice what biologists term "promiscuous" mating habits, know they can find romance in these subtropical waters. It's been an efficient reproductive program.

But now that may come to a halt. One of the biggest of those breeding-and-birthing grounds, Laguna San Ignacio, lies at the heart of a heated controversy. The salt company Exportada de Sal (ESSA), co-owned by the Mexican government and the Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Corporation, plans to build the world's biggest salt-evaporation mine right on the banks of the lagoon.

Black and Ternullo, along with scientists and environmentalists from around the world, fear that gray whales may be facing a serious threat--less than four years after being removed from the endangered species list.

"The lagoons are important, because the whales know that there are specific places where they can find a mate," Ternullo explains. "I don't know what the Mexican government is thinking. I just can't figure it out."

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Whale Watching: A guide to viewing sea life along the Central Coast.

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LAGUNA SAN IGNACIO is located on Baja's west coast, 600 miles south of San Diego. Getting there requires navigating two hours of treacherous road through an area which ESSA describes as barren and worthless. On the company's Web site, a page labeled "Physical Characteristics" describes the place only as containing "thousands of acres of level, virtually lifeless areas."

Ten years ago, however, six million acres surrounding the lagoon were designated the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve--in recognition of its pristine environment and importance to wildlife--making it the largest nature preserve in Latin America.

Peregrine falcons thrive there, as do endangered pronghorn antelope and black sea turtles. It is home to one of the West Coast's largest brown-pelican rookeries. But as far as nature-lovers are concerned, the whales are what the place is really about.

Mitsubishi and its Mexican partners propose building a 103-square-mile salt-evaporation project--the largest of its kind in the world. It would require pumping millions of gallons of water from the lagoon out across an area the size of San Jose.

The salt left behind after the evaporation process would be scraped up with bulldozers and trucked to a mile-long pier at the mouth of the lagoon. It would then be shipped by barge to Japan and the United States, where it would be used in producing plastic and road salt and in other industrial processes.

The second largest of the Pacific grays' four "nurseries," San Ignacio is the only one that is still completely undisturbed by industrial development. Because of its isolated location and untouched environment, the place affords a unique opportunity to experience gray whales in their wild habitat. The whales in the three other lagoons shun people.

Anyone who has seen film footage of friendly grays approaching boats has witnessed the scene at San Ignacio. Even from aboard the Point Sur Clipper, whale-watchers remain at a slight distance from the grays. Unlike humpbacks, which are often extremely gregarious, grays rarely approach boats in the open sea. But at San Ignacio, they seem to enjoy human company.

Mother whales routinely piggyback their calves up to skiffs so eco-tourists can rub their bellies. It appears, according to numerous accounts from the area, that they are exhibiting a kind of interspecies motherly pride.

Nathan LaBudde, an organizer with the Earth Island Institute who just returned from his fourth trip to San Ignacio, says the place's wild aspect allows for a rare communion with nature.

"You'll be out in the lagoon for 20 or 30 minutes, and the next thing you know, there's a whale right next to your boat," he says. "And it sticks its head out of the water and looks right at you. So you reach out and touch this immense creature; this warm, wet, rubbery skin, like nothing you've ever touched. And it's euphoric. You get giddy; you feel like a little kid.

"It's like you're awestruck, but there's no fear. Instead, you just feel the need to touch these animals. It's a very intoxicating feeling."

Richard Ternullo
Eric Johnson

Cruise Controller: Richard Ternullo, captain of the Clipper, has led whale-watching tours in the Monterey Bay for the past 25 years, spotting them with the help of polarized shades.


LABUDDE SAYS ONE day last week, the tiny panga boat he was in accidentally got between a mother whale and its baby. Ordinarly, he points out, that's a dangerous position to be in. In San Ignacio, he says, a historical accident has relaxed the animals' fear and allowed their innate curiosity to bridge the gap between the species, so there was no problem.

LaBudde and others who have been to San Ignacio tell the story of Francis Morales, a fisherman who initiated the interaction between whales and humans 40 years ago. According to the legend, Morales was out fishing when a gray approached his boat. At first, he tried to beat it off with a stick. "But then," LaBudde relates, "something clicked in him, and he realized he was witnessing a momentous event." He put down the stick, so the story goes, and began to stroke the whale's side.

Morales returned every day after that; other fishermen in the area followed Morales' lead; and other whales began to approach the boats in the lagoon. It sounds like a fairy tale, but LaBudde has videotape of encounters filmed last week that look like some kind of nature-world fantasy.

"This place is like Yellowstone," LaBudde says, "and building a massive industrial development there would be like putting a mine in Yellowstone Park."

The project's backers insist that the salt mine will not harm the environment. The ESSA Web site, which features more than 20 photos of gray whales in the lagoon, promises that the mine will have no impact whatsoever on the whales and will create a wetland, thereby increasing bird populations. The developers have even convened an international team of scientists to study the project in order to predict what will happen.

LaBudde says there is little need for scientific crystal-ball gazing. To demonstrate the development's potential impact, he points to another salt mine 50 miles up the coast.

The Guerrero Negro lagoon was once a major birthing-and-breeding ground for grays. In 1954, ESSA built an evaporation project there. LaBudde says that during the 13 years that the company shipped salt from the area, the gray whales abandoned it as a nursery--a claim that is backed by a member of ESSA's own team in a document on the company's Web site.

Steve Weschelblatt, a spokesperson for Mitsubishi International Corporation who has also been to San Ignacio several times, says the company will not go forward with the project unless its studies prove that it is harmless.

"We are absolutely committed to protecting the gray whales," Weschelblatt says, adding that he believes the salt mine can co-exist peacefully with the nursery.

LaBudde charges that while the company's public pronouncements put on a show of ecological concern, its official documents prove otherwise: He and other activists point to the 465-page environmental impact assessment ESSA filed with the Mexican government, which devotes only 23 lines to gray whales.

Gray whale and boat
Richard Sobol--IFAW

Cetacean Salute: Gray whales in their breeding grounds in the San Ignacio Lagoon often come right up to the sides of whale-watching boats.


THE SAN IGNACIO lagoon supports a fishery that provides a subsistence living to a small community. Several Mexican environmental groups say barge traffic and oil spills would damage the fishery and hurt the area's budding eco-tourist industry.

Mitsubishi, meanwhile, points out that the mine would bring 400 new jobs to the impoverished area.

While the environmentalists say there is local opposition to the project, they have little hope that local politics will protect the whale's nursery. That is because ESSA is run by the regional head of the Mexican Department of Commerce.

While Mexican environmentalists work on organizing in Baja, the Earth Island Institute is trying to focus international public attention on the Mitsubishi Corp. and its 158 sister companies, LaBudde says. The group is being joined in this effort by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which is run by Robert Kennedy Jr.

Mitsubishi, the largest industrial conglomerate in the world, operates under Japanese law as a keiretsu--a word that has no English translation and a structure that has no equivalent in American business.

Mitsubishi Corp. is the branch of the keiretsu backing the ESSA mine. The Mitsubishi Bank--the world's largest bank--provides the cash for the whole group. The popular brand names in the U.S., Mitsubishi Motors and Mitsubishi Electric, are technically separate from each other and also from the bank, the corporation and all their cousins. In addition to the firms that bear the company name, Mitsubishi also owns Nikon Camera, the Union Bank of California and scores of other familiar brands.

Steve Weschelblatt says the "family" metaphor works best.

"You shouldn't call it a conglomerate, because that indicates a relationship of ownership," Weschelblatt says. "Once upon a time, the companies were all connected, but they were broken up after World War II. Now it's more like a family, with shared traditions and common ancestors."

J.C. Callender of the Rainforest Action Network has studied Mitsubishi closely over the past 12 months. During that time, he ran the last leg of a nine-year boycott against the entire conglomerate by environmental groups.

Although he is highly critical of many of the Mitsubisi group's companies' environmental track records, Callender seems to have a grudging respect for the way the operation functions.

"They are simply the world's industrial leader," Callender says. "If Mitsubishi can be encouraged, persuaded or forced to pursue more environmentally responsible ways of doing business, they would pursue them with an aggressiveness that would put pressure on every other company in the world."

While Callender and his organization oppose the San Ignacio salt mine and support the campaign being waged by Earth Island and NRDC, he is in an awkward position. Just last month, Rainforest Action Network penned an agreement with the heads of Mitsubishi Motors and Electric that ended its boycott of those branches.

But he remains skeptical about the Mitsubishi family's overall commitment to the environment.

"Mitsubishi has a long track record of destructive projects," Callender says. "On every continent, they've participated in projects that are shameful."

Weschelblatt insists that "the company is doing the best it can to only do things in the most environmentally responsible manner."

"They've learned to talk a good game," Callender concedes, "but we haven't seen any substantial action yet."

WESCHELBLATT SOUNDS sincere when he says Mitsubishi cares about the whales. But environmentalists and marine biologists are concerned about something else: the relationship between whales and people.

Perhaps because his love of nature is not restricted to the whale family, and perhaps because his love of science causes him to shun magical thinking, Bernie Tershy feels the need to clear up some things before talking about why people are so intrigued by whales.

"They're just animals," says the UCSC marine biologist and former member of the Sierra Club's board of directors. "They're not magic. They didn't come from outer space."

Tershy says he's seen "too many posters that show a humpback whale or a bottlenose dolphin floating in space, with a pyramid in there somewhere." He wants it made clear that studying mice is as important to him as studying bottlenoses. "Not to trivialize or demean whales, but when I try to figure out why people are so fascinated with them, I think the answer is not in whales; it's in people."

Once he debunks the myth that Whales Are Messengers of the Gods, however, Tershy is willing to 'fess up to his own deep fascination.

"There's no doubt about it that animals like bottlenose dolphins, orcas and sperm whales are highly intelligent," he says. "I've had emotional exchanges with these species in the wild unlike anything else I've experienced in all my years of field research.

"Orcas in the wild will look at you, and you can see the curiosity in their eyes. Sure, coyotes will look at you that way sometimes, too, but it's because they're curious if they can eat you or if you have some food they can eat. With orcas, I don't know what it is, but it's something else entirely."

Gray whales aren't like their tooth-bearing predatory cousins--baleen whales such as grays and blues, which filter-feed instead of hunt, do not have enormous brains or complex social structures. But they do elicit emotional responses similar to what Tershy describes.

Nathan LaBudde says his recent experience in San Ignacio has got him believing that "there's more to evolution than just biology."

"It felt to all of us there that we were sharing something important," he says. "It wasn't just that it felt good to be around these powerful peaceful creatures. I don't believe that it all came from us. It felt more like a shared experience. I don't know, maybe I'm just projecting my own feelings. It's a mystery."

Watching the massive mating display from the deck of the Point Sur Clipper, some of what Tershey and LaBudde describe was apparent. After the first couple hours out, we had learned, with Nancy Black's help, how to locate the creatures underwater. "Look for the green glow," she said, and sure enough, out of the deep, a huge, white-barnacled form could be seen rising, shimmering with wave-patterned greenish sunlight. As its blow spray refracted rainbows in the stiff wind, 25 tourists inhaled simultaneously.

Even the seasoned pros, both scientists, can't disguise their delight. On a tour two months earlier, they witnessed a rare event, something so incredible that describing it seems to strain their ability to appear objective.

"We'd been following a single gray, and it was acting kind of funny," Black recounts. "She was arching her back a lot, and then she went down. A few minutes later, a pool of blood floated to the surface, and then a calf came splashing out.

"It thrashed around up there for a couple of minutes," Ternullo says, and Black explains that "they're really clumsy at first."

"But they learn to swim quickly," Ternullo adds.

Stories like this clearly contributed to the unprecedented worldwide movement that led to the international ban on killing whales. Opponents of the San Ignacio salt mine are hoping a similar passion can be aroused around the gray whale nursery.

To underline the importance of the lagoon's protected waters, Black and Ternullo point out that the calf born in Monterey Bay this winter, whose mother left Alaska late due to El Niño, faced grave risks from predators. But in the final analysis, the issue may not be survival but the relationship between gray whales and human beings.

On a celebrity-media tour of Laguna San Ignacio last year, Robert Kennedy Jr. made no pretense of selflessness. "We are here for us," he said, the actress Glenn Close and her daughter at his side. "The whales enrich us culturally and spiritually. We are not here for the sake of the animals, but for humanity."

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From the April 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro.

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