Traveling Companions

Gray whales are leading tourists, conservationists, and business operators on a rocky voyage toward economic and environmental salvation

Lindblad is one of several lines offering "soft adventure" for seniors, primarily, though it is seeking to expand its reach into families. Of the three gray whale calving lagoons in the Baja, Lindblad offers access to both Laguna San Ignacio and Bahia de Magdalena. It also offers an easy target for travelers who equate cruise ships with hordes of duty-free shoppers and all experiences Disney. The anguish Doliber felt seeing the outline of a large ship upon the horizon is a tale oft repeated on the road.

And while the managers of Kuyima claim they do not wish to offer their customers the "Cabo San Lucas" vacation -- a holiday that clearly includes cruise ships in the port -- they gladly supply the fishermen who accompany Lindblad's inflatable boats.

But the issue of cruise ships is complicated.

Visitors prepare to set out in boats for a 
whale-watching tour in Guerrero.
Michael Lacey
Visitors prepare to set out in boats for a whale-watching tour in Guerrero.
Visitors prepare to set out in boats for a 
whale-watching tour in Guerrero.
Michael Lacey
Visitors prepare to set out in boats for a whale-watching tour in Guerrero.

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The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population. In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Baja to the Bering Sea to tell the complex tale of a creature whose 12,000-mile instinctual journey places it squarely in the path of myriad human cultural conflicts. The trek follows the competing interests of Indians, scientists, environmentalists, tourists, and local residents.

In this last installment of the series, Executive Editor Michael Lacey joins travelers in search of the gray whale to examine the burgeoning eco-tourism industry along the Pacific coast, the people who venture into the wild, and the impact of the whale-watching business on local communities and cultures.

Read Shades of Gray, A series documenting the perils, cultural conflicts and global and ecological warnings surrounding the gray whale

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The Coveys, who help fund research on killer whales, question whether the Sea Bird, with only 70 passengers, is really a cruise ship at all. If this is a bit of a quibble, they nonetheless raise a point.

On an earlier trip in northern waters, they both listened on hydrophones to killer whales and dolphins "talking to each other" as a more traditional cruise ship approached.

"They were drowned out completely," says June Covey. "All the talking stopped for some time. The sound of the whales and dolphins talking to each other had a profound effect on me. I had not realized the impact the ships had on them. I think the Lindblad Company is obviously a very caring company and try as much as possible to show people the wildlife without impinging on it too much."

Part of the caring involves the staffing of the ships.

Lindblad, which carries a complement of six scientists on each whale expedition, attracts passengers more interested in nature than shopping. And for some of its customers, a ship represents their only realistic hope of seeing gray whales.

Lindblad used to take its passengers overland from Santa Rosalia, on the Sea of Cortez, to San Ignacio and then out to the lagoon. Accessing the gray whales in this manner kept its large ships out of sight of other eco-tourists.

But according to Lindblad biologist Gary James, the rugged road trip was simply too brutal for many of the elderly clientele like Jean Simmons.

Traveling with her daughter from Wickenburg, Ariz., and her son from Boston, Mass., as well as their spouses, Simmons seems entirely at ease aboard the Sea Bird. The family is quick to volunteer this about their mother: Don't get her started.

Getting Simmons started is not energy intensive. She is heard to exclaim on more than one occasion about more than one group: "Oh, those people!!!!!"

On this trip, the Sea Bird is anchored in the northern reaches of Bahia de Magdalena when Stern and others board one of the ship's inflatable boats, which take passengers over to a barrier island that shelters the bay.

The Pericue Indians had left enormous shell middens on those sands. Today, the islands are mostly quiet. Moon snails eat the horned Venus clams by using an enzyme that eats through the shell. The poison paralyzes the clam, not that the clams seriously entertain thoughts of escape.

On the Pacific side of the island, Stern troops down to the carcass of a stranded, dead whale. It is a passable trek. He sits down on the sand and does not get up.

When his wife, who published a book in '94 about Japanese-American servicemen in World War II, became ill three years ago, she visited a trio of doctors, all of whom agreed that she had a brain tumor. The medical men suggested that they should saw off the top of her skull to get at the growth. Game enough, she asked for the names of patients who'd had this done and recovered fully. No such list existed, so Stern's wife opted to wait it out. She was dead in fewer than 90 days.

Now, Stern travels with a fellow docent, but he has hiked out to the whale on his own.

Stern strongly resembles Douglas MacArthur, and sitting there on the beach, the two of them, the old geologist and the dead whale, it would have been a potent image if you could have brought yourself to intrude with a camera.

In short order, the walkie-talkies of the Lindblad staff are crackling with the message that Stern cannot make it back. The aftereffects of hip replacement surgery have stranded him upon the beach.

Without any delay, and no sign of inconvenience, young crew members show up with an upright dolly on fat wheels. Stern is strapped in like a piece of luggage and off everyone goes. A young playwright from Indiana accompanies the crew and Stern as they make their way through the mangroves, and she offers pleasant observations that continue until everyone arrives at the inflatable that will take the geologist back to the ship.

"Someday, this sort of thing will happen to you, too," says Stern.

Whether from the deck of the Sea Bird or sitting in the small boat, everyone sees whales. Each boat that goes out into Mexican waters to search for the grays is joined by a local fisherman who sits while a Lindblad guide acts as pilot.

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