As residents have increasingly turned to whale-watching tours and ecotourism to make ends meet in Laguna San Ignacio, the number of whales using the lagoon has dropped. That has raised concerns among scientists that ecotourism may have unintended consequences, an unproven theory.
Tours in the Baja California Sur lagoon offer a different experience than trips from San Diego, where tourists are lucky to spot a few whales at a distance. In the lagoon, tourists get close enough to pet friendly whales, to be engulfed in their stinky spouts of misty breath — and to see scars carved by outboard motors.
As whale-watching tours increased in the lagoon in the 1990s, the number of whales using the lagoon decreased. Scientists hope to find out whether whales are affected by the underwater barrage of sounds.
Whales make sounds like bongo drums. Snapping shrimp sound like crinkling plastic wrap. Add boat engines and the wind, and beneath the surface, “it’s like a discotheque,” says Sergio Gonzalez, a graduate student from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur who is studying the lagoon’s whale population.
Two researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography examined underwater acoustics this winter but have so far not found any indication that whales react to pangas, the 20-foot boats fishermen and whale tours use. Researchers placed instrument packages on whales with suction cups to record the sounds the whale hears as well as its motion.
Aaron Thode, an associate research scientist at Scripps, says five pangas passed over a whale during an hour of monitoring without any reaction from the whale, which didn’t move until another whale called.
Concerned about the potential impact, the ecotourism companies along the lagoon’s shore have limited traffic to 16 boats at a time in the water. “We realized from the beginning that all resources have a limit on their use or exploitation,” says Manuel Gardea, a former fisherman working for Kuyima, an ecotourism company at the lagoon.
Gardea points to an essential shift occurring in the way the community perceives common rights. Local residents increasingly treat the lagoon with a sense of ownership, he says, to which outsiders do not have equal rights.
“People are starting to believe that it’s worth taking care of the resources,” Gardea says. “That perception is little by little changing. That will impact positively.”