Traveling Companions

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

In addition to Burton, owner Karen Ivey hired two biologists, Sue Rocca and Cindy Hansen, and put them all under the guidance of Peg Sullivan.

Of the 15 guests last March, 13 were women. When the first day of spring arrived, the brooms flew with the force of a chubasco sweeping across Punta Piedra.

Nothing nicer than a clean tent.

José Jesús Valera, left, and Raúl López are former 
fishermen who now operate the Kuyima 
whale-watching business in Laguna San Ignacio.
Michael Lacey
José Jesús Valera, left, and Raúl López are former fishermen who now operate the Kuyima whale-watching business in Laguna San Ignacio.
The Kuyima company operates a manicured camp 
with English-speaking managers.
Michael Lacey
The Kuyima company operates a manicured camp with English-speaking managers.


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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Brooms are a small thing, and Baja Discovery is a triumph of tiny attentions.

Its information booklet is the best of its kind: detailed, scientific, informative, and not so self-important that it can't feature a drawing of a gray whale singing Richard Berry's "Louie Louie."

The library is well stocked.

One leg of the round trip from San Diego to the lagoon is always aboard a remarkably spacious Convair prop, a meticulously maintained relic from an age when air travel was gracious. The couchlike seating is covered in a nurturing, nubby material. Custom.

In camp the solar energy works and the showers are hot. Tents are large, airy, and in good repair. The cots are cushioned with deep mattress pads upon which sit sleeping bags lined with clean linens.

The immaculate outhouses are rustic in the best sense of the word.

When the fishermen arrive in their fiberglass pangas to pilot the guests out into the lagoon, there is never any crowding, which allows everyone in the boat easy access to the whales. The physical contact between human beings and the leviathans is sustained, intimate, and as graceful as palpitating hearts will permit.

As royal terns dive into the fish boil off the panga's starboard, a mother whale passes beneath the skiff and playfully discharges a tuba blast of staccato bubbles. Just then an older woman reaches across the bulwark and rubs the baby calf's head, which is a good three feet above the waterline and 18 inches above the freeboard. The little whale and the visitor look into each other's eyes. The moment stretches, and then extends itself until the rubbery-skinned youngster sinks beneath the calm green waters. The traveler, face absolutely rapturous, raises her hand to her chest, the fingers splayed over her heart, unable to find her breath.

It goes on like this day after day. You have never heard such squealing from fully grown adults. Soon the whale calves are given names. Baby Face and Sparky visit daily.

It is always like this.

Rocca remembers a woman who battled and beat breast cancer. When the survivor bent over to touch the whales, everyone in the panga fell silent.

"This woman started sobbing," says Rocca, who describes the moment as her favorite memory.

Karen Ivey was a white social worker on the black side of Chicago when she fell in love with a Tucson adventurer who was forever beginning his Baja sojourns where the road ran out. When the marriage imploded, she took the whale-watching business.

Today, she runs the company, organizing anywhere from 12 to 15 trips per year. Fearful of flying, she also has a home in San Diego occupied by an army of cats that need her attention.

"I don't see the whales very often anymore," laments Ivey.

Instead, she has turned the camp over to Sullivan, a woman who learned to run things when she remodeled homes and worked as a painting contractor. Sullivan operates a garden design business in Portland, Ore., in the off-season.

But for the past couple of decades, when the whales have headed south, so has Peg Sullivan.

In the late '60s, she went to San Felipe, a beach town on the Sea of Cortez that still attracts the off-road, dune buggy crowd.

"I drank tequila and saw God," says Sullivan. "I remembered the tides and a full moon. We waded out to a barrier island and became surrounded by the water. Started coming back regularly in the early '70s. I love this peninsula. The light and shadow that happen here are like nowhere else."

Friends took her into the interior of Baja's rugged mountains to a place called Rancho de San Gregorio.

"It was the Garden of Eden to me," remembers Sullivan. "The water moved through hollowed-out palm trunks and bamboo. Over 20 to 40 years they'd packed in soil for gardens."

By 1985 she was leading mule trains into the Sierra San Francisco for travelers who wanted to see the remarkable pictographs painted on enormous cave walls by early dwellers.

Not everyone welcomed her moxie. As it does so often, particularly in the context of eco-tourism, the involvement of Americans, the mere musk of their presence outside of the States, raised red flags.

"I had a classified ad in a magazine on archaeology, and it provoked this incredibly snippy note from a guy in Australia about how Americans ruin everything with their attitude when they show up. Americans are the worst destroyer of sites. What safeguards had I put in?"

Eventually, the work burned her out.

Waiting on people, even those who fancy themselves low maintenance, generates a level of high exhaustion that is pandemic among those who run tours. Ivey herself often sounds as if she is at the end of her rope.

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