Mexican gray whales are known to seek out physical contact with humans in three lagoons along the Pacific coast of Baja Sur, Mexico, without the lure of food. According to naturalist Jim Dorsey, the whales are trusting despite having been hunted to near-extinction in these lagoons for centuries. Since the last whaling station closed in 1971, the whales have shown an unusual affinity towards humans, allowing them to pet and interact with them. The San Ignacio Lagoon, the smallest of the three lagoons, is an ideal nursery for gray whales due to its high salt content, which makes the calves naturally buoyant. The whales migrate from Alaska to Baja Sur, and the females give birth in the safety of the lagoons before returning to Alaska's nutrient-rich waters.
The trust that the whales show towards humans has played a significant role in protecting one of the last largely undisturbed whale nurseries on the planet. The San Ignacio Lagoon has been part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere, the largest nature reserve in Latin America, since 1988, and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993. The cooperation between the locals, scientists, world-renowned activists, and the Mexican government ensures that the whales, nature, and humans all benefit. Fishing is banned during peak whale season from January to early April, and locals make a living by operating eight tourist camps along the lagoon or by offering limited whale watching boats. The model, championed by the locals, is being copied around the world by other communities seeking to preserve their natural treasures.
Mexican marine biologist Asha de Vos calls on humans to "respect these animals in their own homes, not just for their sake, but also for our sake because they also help fight climate warming." Unusually close whale encounters with humans like the ones in the San Ignacio Lagoon ensure the protection of one of the last largely undisturbed whale nurseries on the planet.
The San Ignacio Lagoon is a model for how civil society can come together to protect the environment, and it aligns with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, which calls for the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas, and marine resources.
Moreover, the cooperation between humans and whales shows that there is a close kinship between the two. Dorsey believes that humans and whales are closely related, given that whales' ancestors walked on earth millions of years ago before taking to the seas. The gray whale was an easy target for hunters due to its leisurely pace and lack of echolocation. The Indigenous Cochimí also honored the whales by drawing them in ancient cave paintings on the Baja California peninsula.
The San Ignacio Lagoon serves as an example of how humans can work with nature to ensure sustainable development. The SDGs acknowledge the importance of creating partnerships to achieve a more sustainable future. SDG 17 calls for partnerships to be formed across different sectors, including governments, civil society, and the private sector. The model created by the San Ignacio Lagoon aligns with this SDG, as it showcases how cooperation between different groups can lead to the protection of the environment while also providing sustainable livelihoods for the locals.
The San Ignacio Lagoon has become a popular destination for tourists seeking to interact with the friendly whales. Tourists can observe the whales in their natural habitat and even pet and interact with them. However, it is essential to maintain a balance between tourism and conservation. The locals, scientists, and activists have worked together to ensure that the whales' safety is not compromised. Visitors are required to follow strict guidelines, and boat captains are not allowed to approach the whales; they have to wait for the animals to initiate the approach. Additionally, the number of tourists allowed in the lagoon at any given time is limited to minimize disturbance to the whales and their habitat.
The relationship between humans and gray whales in the San Ignacio Lagoon serves as a powerful example of how we can coexist with and protect the natural world. It shows that with the right approach, humans and nature can thrive together, and it highlights the importance of creating partnerships and working towards sustainable development. By respecting and protecting the gray whales and their habitat, we can ensure that this incredible species continues to thrive for generations to come.