Saturday, June 1, 2013

Baja Bye-bye, Part Two

(Scroll down to 5/28 for Part One)                                                  
      "There's a spout!...two!" Winter whale-watching season is officially over, but there they are, making rainbows with mighty exhalations of seawater, two dark, glistening finbacks sleekly cleaving the surface, apparently indifferent to our presence. Then, as effortlessly as they have appeared, they sound, leaving telltale slicks on the surface where their flukes have driven them toward the bottom. "Ah," adds Fernando Arcas, "they're gone."
      I've come to Arcas for another point of view on the impact of development in Loreto. He wears a padded windbreaker and two pairs of glasses on strings looped around his neck: one pair for seeing up-close, the other for blocking the Baja sun that bounces off an undulant sea like intermittent strobes. Slightly ominous against a cottony pink sky is the dark profile of Carmen Island, one of five off the coast of Loreto in the 1,300-square-mile Bahía de Loreto National Park, established in 1996. The park was initially patrolled by only one agent of Profepa, the government enforcer of environmental law, and Arcas was instrumental in hiring two more with funds from the nonprofit Grupo Ecologista Antares (GEA), of which he's the executive director. GEA was established with help from various environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy and Wildcoast, and works for the preservation of marine and desert ecosystems.
     Arcas's deep-keeled fiberglass panga, Rebelde (Rebel) II, is fitted with a ten-foot observation tower bolted to the forward deck. For 26 years he's been studying marine mammals, not as a biologist, but as a devoted amateur: sperm whales, finbacks, blues, humpbacks, orcas, dolphins, and most things living within this broad, blue view. All of them are, in his opinion, threatened by too many people. "Only 15,000 live in Loreto now," he says, indicating the green line of palms in the distance. Old Loreto's picturesque traditional stucco houses face the malecón and the little marina. "In ten years there could be 120,000. Imagine what this coast will look like then."
     His office in Loreto, a modest structure a few blocks from the playa, is an enthusiast's careful collection of local marine flora and fauna and exhibits explaining the life cycles of sea organisms. Schoolchildren are regularly taken to GEA headquarters to be introduced to the wonders of the bay, and broader educational programs are undertaken there. Putting visitors in close proximity to sea mammals is both a growth industry and a way to bring more support to GEA and Loreto's national park.
     Whales move people emotionally by their mass, majesty, and apparent indifference to boats and brightly dressed observers bristling with cameras. The whales' aura of invincibility, however, is an illusion. "There were once many whales in San Diego Bay, and they're all gone," Arcas tells me. The colossal drop in the populations of fish and other species in the Sea of Cortés, including sardines and plankton upon which whales feed, he estimates at 80 percent. "It's a problem of overfishing and pollution."
     Any large-scale resort affects the quality of wild waters, he adds, and that includes Loreto Bay south of town, in Arcas's view. "What they're doing with the estuary is more like a Disney water park. Desalination won't solve their long-term freshwater problems. For one thing, de-sal is very expensive to run, and they're not talking about electricity from windmills anymore. Even if that worked, what would they do with all the brine from desalination? Dump it in the water and the bay will die."
     Loreto Bay is just one of many new resorts on the drawing boards. Add to those proliferating cruise ships that already stir up the bottom of the bay. "I'm not a scientist," Arcas says, "but I collect useful information," like the acoustical monitoring of whales' heartbeats to gauge their reaction to the number and proximity of boats. "The number of heartbeats rises in direct proportion to how close we get. That's an indication of stress. We have only a few pangas on the bay now. What's going to happen when there are a thousand?"

     Some seven hours north of Loreto, about halfway to the U.S. border, a new, empty highway leaves the main road and shoots eastward toward a gap in the Giganta range. It crosses a high valley dotted with blooming ocotillo and the weirdly drooping cirios trees that grow nowhere else on Earth. And suddenly there it is: a bay of such luminous blue that it seems lighted from beneath. This is the Bahía de Los ángeles, up to 3,000 feet deep and backed by huge Guardian Angel Island, floating on its surface like a sea-weary leviathan.
     Bahía de Los Angeles struck John Steinbeck as mysterious when the author passed through on a scientific expedition in 1940. Discovered by Francisco de Ulloa in 1539, on the last expedition financed by Hernán Cortés, it has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by the Mexican government and is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The close to one million acres include a rich maritime diversity—fin and killer whales, yellowfin, halibut, corvina, roosterfish, dolphins, whale sharks, and the threatened and endangered eastern Pacific green turtle—and are referred to as Baja's Yellowstone.
Four species of sea turtle are doing better in these waters than elsewhere in Mexico.
     "We still catch 50-year-olds in the nets," said Antonio Reséndiz, a voluble, barrel-chested marine biologist who has done research in Bahía for 30 years and on whose beachfront ramada locals and ex-pats often gathered at sundown for a beer or a glass of wine, among them two Californian expedition leaders involved in turtle protection who founded Baja and Beyond Tours. It was Reséndiz's tagged loggerhead turtle, captured off Bahía de Los ángeles, that swam from Baja to Japan in 1999, proving the sea turtle's formidable homing capabilities.
      But many turtles caught hereabouts, either incidentally or intentionally, made their way to the black market in Ensenada. And onto plates in Bahía. Despite the ban on taking turtles, some Bahians still consumed them as an antidote to colds and respiratory problems, and as a spiritual connection with the deep.
     Although Bahía's coastal waters and bordering desert are officially protected, several years ago Fonatur picked Bahía as one of the launching points for another of its grand visions, Escalera Naútica. According to this plan, American yachts would be trucked from the Pacific across the peninsula on a "land bridge"—that new, empty road I drove in on—to the Sea of Cortés so the long, difficult sailing and cruising passage around the southern cape could be avoided by deep-pocketed vacationers.
      However, despite Fonatur's long-lived determination to see its projects through, Bahía de Los Angeles was trying to avoid becoming the next next big thing. That's because the local ejido, one of thousands of landholding cooperatives set up after the Mexican Revolution for the redistribution of property to the rural poor, opposed it. Ejidos have controlled vast acreage in Mexico for almost a century, and in 1992 the Mexican Constitution was amended to allow individual members to sell. This caused an upheaval in the national real estate market, and in the ejidos, too, as people clashed over who owned what.
      "A plan already exists, agreed upon by everyone in town, that buildings will be no more than two stories high. Also, people have agreed that we want the town to remain as it is. We live here."
      Raúl Espinoza is Bahia's delegado—mayor—and he had taken time off from his duties to drive me in his dusty truck to visit a family of fishermen. "Since the bay and much of the coast are already protected, many restrictions already exist." A purposeful figure in a polo shirt, Espinoza headed the ejido in 1993 and oversaw the successful division of more than a million acres among 86 members, without major rancor.
      "We set an example for the rest of the country." And Bahía de Los Angeles had a common view of what this fragile shore should look like, he adds. When representatives from Fonatur and other government agencies came to Bahía to talk about large-scale development, "they saw that we oppose it. The harbor here is too shallow for a big marina, for one thing. I don't think Escalera Naútica will happen."
      We got out in front of a house whose rocky yard overlooked the bay. Three pangas parked out front were piled with nets. Two men sitting on the porch, Fermín Smith and his grown son, Eduardo, were said to be descended from a British sailor who made his way up the coast from Peru in the late 18th century, and they had blue-green eyes to prove it. Both men were fishermen. On occasion they caught octopus and squid, still plentiful, although no one went fishing every day, not anymore.
       The Smiths had adapted to the decline of the fishery here, as their counterparts had elsewhere, by taking out sightseers. But the Smiths also had a rudimentary camp out of sight behind Pescador Island, called La única: beds, hammocks, and meals for adventurous guests interested in close-in nature and the absence of amenities—a true Baja experience. A developer tried to buy the land from the Smiths to build a resort, and Fermín, acting on the advice of environmentalists in Mexico and the U.S., applied for a conservation easement on a portion of the property. It was granted, a first in Baja and maybe, says Espinoza, in all of Mexico.
        I asked Fermín why he gave up outsize profits on a proverbial beach in paradise. A man of few words, he fixed his turquoise gaze on Pescador, and said simply, "The place is very beautiful."

      The closest thing I found to a high-end, sustainable resort was about 12 miles south of Loreto Bay, was called Danzante, after one of the islands visible offshore: nine little rooms with a view, a common patio and rustic, round dining room of wood and stone, windows from floor to palapa roof with 180 degrees of visual access to Baja's extraordinary geologic and biologic treasures. The surrounding cacti, yucca, and other flora, and the broad expanse of mesquite-dense coastal dunes below, supported many of Baja's 200 species of birds, among them the ubiquitous hooded oriole. The mountains behind offered hiking, the few kayaks on the unpopulated beach a means of exploring other unpopulated beaches and guano-streaked rocks offshore.
      Guests got three good but simple meals, interesting conversation, and some solitude, while those wanting golf, a spa, "Zen" water features, and electronic nightlife went elsewhere. That was just fine with the owners, Lauren and Michael Farley. They took great care in creating what seemed to me a kind of third order of tourist destination, the first order being the low-end, high density chaos of a Cabo, the second the high-end, sealed off, resource-intensive leisure of a Loreto Bay.
      By contrast, Danzante's bathrooms were serviced by wheezing pumps, drinking water came in big plastic bottles, and battery-free flashlights required shaking to work. Local women and men had worked for years on this rocky perch, with its zero landscaping and one tiny swimming pool without an infinity edge. The night was heavy with mere stars. "We're about unplugging," Lauren says to me. "No phones, computers, television. Just this."
      Which should be enough for anyone, I thought. But Danzante has since been bought by a developer and transformed beyond recognition.

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