About marianamarml

Experiencias, viajes y pensamientos

Petting whales

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I finished my field work at Guerrero Negro a couple of weeks ago and I even arrived and  settled in Monterey, CA ready to keep working on my thesis. I didn’t have the time until now to write about my last days in Baja, where I had one of the best experiences of my life.

I was lucky enough to be invited twice to a whale watching tour at Laguna Ojo de Liebre. On my first trip, I had the boat for my own which allowed us (me and the driver) to stay in the areas we wanted. It was amazing how in one of our stops for admiring the sea and the dozens of water jets coming out of the whales, a mom whale used us for teaching her baby that the boats are nothing to be scared of. Repeating the same pattern 4 consecutive times, the mom was guiding the calf around the boat, making a whole 360º turn around us, then approaching and passing only a few centimeters underneath the gig, going out on the other side and making the whole thing again. Being witness of a teaching and learning process on these animals is an indescriptible feeling, a deep reminder of how amazing nature is.

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As grateful as I could be for being in such magical place, we kept the journey going to another part of the Laguna. Here, as if I was not amazed enough, the best thing happened to me. A curious whale that was swimming alone decided to come close enough to be pet. I have heard by different people that the whales that have been there before and that go back the next year, they tend to approach to boats because they are curious of people.

Thanks to all the existing restrictions in the lagoon, the whales are not scared of us. The protected area obliges fishermen to take out of the lagoon all type of traps, nets, and fishing gear in general before the whale season starts. Also, the lagoon is divided in three areas so the cooperatives that have permits for tours are spread all over the place without stressing certain areas. Furthermore, the reserve restricts the number of permits, the working hours and the number of boats per day at the lagoon. In fact, after 3pm no one can be inside the lagoon so the whales can rest for the rest of the day. As a result, not only whales like to be touched, but the number of arrivals is increasing every year. In fact in 2014 the number of whales at the beginning of February was around 700; this year it doubled reaching 1,460 whales and the number will keep increasing until the beginning of April when they’ll leave the lagoon after giving birth.

The ecological success of this marine protected area is easy to be seen. After interviewing different actors I have no doubt that the salt exporter industry and the biosphere reserve have made a surprisingly good relationship for working together on the conservation of the place, being an outstanding example of how such opposite poles can coexist without a problem. But things are still needed in terms of social aid, specially the fishermen sector. Changes in water temperatures ended with the main fishery of the place, the mussel called “Mano de León”. The effort needs to be focused on new projects on the area for giving alternatives to this sector of the community.

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Conservation and industry

Didn’t think I was going to blog this soon, but yesterday it was quite an interesting day!

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I was lucky enough to empathize with the manager from the Environmental Department of the ‘ESSA’ salt marsh industry, who asked a co-worker to give me a tour of all the facilities. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, maybe big containers and large buildings with incompressible machines and a lot of salt. But surprisingly for me, as they produce salt via evaporation, they are spread out along 32 thousand ha. of desert and valleys within the 72 thousand ha. they own. Given its extension, the tour took around 4 wonderful hours of beautiful landscapes, thousands of birds, enormous pinkish ponds, white mountains of salt, sandy roads, wetlands and one or another surprise.

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For example, during cold season, the turtles cannot hold the temperatures and die. Later, when the high tide comes, it leaves all the corpses on the muddy ground along the shore. Since its a protected area, people cannot just take out the carcasses as if nothing happened. Therefore, the result is a sad but visually beautiful landscape of various dead turtles with pinkish watery backgrounds. As sad as it might sound, this is just a tiny part compared to all the amazing things happening here.

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ESSA built several wetlands as part of their filtration process which made the habitat suitable for thousands of birds. In fact, three of the migratory species are now residents of this area! How cool is that?! Furthermore, the grey whale arrives every year to the lagoon where ESSA has been extracting the salt for 60 years now; and nevertheless, it doesn’t represent a problem to this enormous marine mammals. Actually the company works together with the environmental authorities and the park rangers in plenty of environmental projects including saving whales beached on the shore. Unfortunately, sometimes is not possible to help them.

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Guerrero Negro was created as a town because ESSA needed workers. They built the houses, the schools, the roads, and with the time this was taken by the government and it became part of the state. The company is still a pillar of the economy here, it arrived even before the protected area was established. Thanks to ESSA’s concern for the environment, Guerrero Negro is a unique example of how the industry and the conservation can be coupled and work together for preserving nature.

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Desert, sea and planes

Vuelo a Guerrero NegroI knew that getting to Guerrero Negro was quite complicated. I knew that I was supposed to take a plane to a city in the middle of the desert in the northern part of Mexico. From there, I would need to travel in a really small plane to Guerrero Negro if I wanted to avoid renting a car and driving between 10-11 hours along Baja. I knew this, but I didn’t know that Hermosillo, the city in the desert, is not that “touristy.” Not touristy to the point that when I arrived to the hotel, before even saying “Hello,” the girl at the front desk asked “Are you Mariana?” The funniest part is that it happened twice, also when I arrived to the airline’s front desk at the airport.

With such a welcome, I was more than excited to start my field work and it had to be. The little plane turned out to be smaller than I thought (7 passengers including myself). We flew at a very low altitude, close enough to see kilometers and kilometers of the spectacular desert and its mountains, to cross the marvelous Gulf of California with its islets and islands, and to see a bit of the Baja Peninsula’s landscape. I’m excited for the days ahead as I need to talk to a lot of people and discover why this Marine Protected Area is so successful despite having one of the biggest salt marsh industries in the world, and at the same time being the most important sanctuary for the grey whale in North America. Will keep you posted!