Curious whales give boost to Mexican fishermen

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When the massive, barnacle-spotted head of a Pacific gray whale slid alongside Pachico Mayoral's wooden boat, he nervously reached out to touch it.

Like other fishermen, he usually beat his boat with a stick to try to frighten the giant mammals away, but for once he hesitated.

"The whale insisted, going from one side of the boat to the other, and at one point I was curious and, very gently, I stroked the whale's face. And nothing happened. It stayed calm," Mayoral said, driving a boat of tourists across the San Ignacio lagoon some 40 years later.

Mayoral's first encounter with a friendly whale set off the development of a small-scale whale-watching industry in the remote spot off Mexico's northwest Baja California peninsula, where gray whales breed and nurse their calves each year after migrating thousands of miles (kilometers) from Canada and Alaska.

"The whales came to us, we didn't come to them," said the thin 68-year-old, a smile spreading across his weathered face.

Mayoral and his family now run one of seven rustic base camps, using eco-tourism practices, such as solar and wind power and compost toilets, which welcome up to 3,000 visitors in a whale-watching season lasting around three months at the start of each year.

Their camp ironically lies at the site which locals say was used by whalers to fry blubber, when grey whales were killed for commercial uses in the 19th century.

Although a debate is now raging among some whaling nations to begin limited hunting again, the Pacific gray whales have been protected since 1947, and are at the center of a growing whale-watching industry.

Their numbers dropped by a third, from around 26,000, however, in the decades prior to the late 1990s.

Scientists say the decline was caused by melting Arctic ice impacting on their food chains, which include small fish, crustaceans, squid and other tiny organisms.

But the adaptable species, which has been around for some 120,000 years, is now slowly on the rise again.

- 'Their biggest threat is habitat loss' -

----------------------

At the peak of the whale-watching period, in February and March, boats carrying excited tourists stream along the wildlife-rich lagoon, following trails of spouting water.

Many whales, which can weigh up to 40 metric tons and measure up to 14 meters (46 feet), glide right by, but a few curious ones approach the boats, sometimes joined by playful calves.

The whale-watching companies work together, along with scientists and ecologists, to regulate their activities, with measures such as limiting the boats on the water and the areas where they can operate.

Their practices did not appear to disturb the natural behavior of the whales, marine biologist Steve Schwartz, who has been studying the lagoon for more than 30 years, told AFP.

"Their biggest threat these days is basically habitat loss and that's because of development," Schwartz said.

Activists recently celebrated a 10-year victory which saw Mexico's government drop plans, made with Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation, to build the world's largest salt evaporation plant nearby.

They are now pushing for more small-scale eco-tourism around the lagoon, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

"We realize that just because this area is a natural park it doesn't mean that a multinational corporation can't come in and buy it up because under Mexican law the land is still privately owned, or collectively owned," Serge Dedina, the executive director of the Wild Coast ecological group told AFP.

The group, along with other environmentalists, has built alliances with small landowners around the lagoon, and is seeking to put federal land under national park service jurisdiction, as well as advising ecotourism operators.

Not all locals have yet seen the benefits of the ecotourism drive, however, and some complain they are waiting for promised assistance.

Fisherman who lead whale-watching trips still struggle to survive for the rest of the year too.

Mayoral remains enthusiastic about his trips onto the lagoon, however, more than 40 years after his first encounter with a whale.

"Am I afraid now? No, not at all," he said as he steered a fishing boat full of tourists across the lagoon. "I wish I could swim with them."

"If we treat this resource well, who knows how long we'll have it for?"

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