A wordless encounter

Francisco Mayoral, a poor Mexican fisherman who saved the grey whale, passed away last month.

Some 40 years ago a poor fisherman named Francisco Mayoral, who lived on the shores of San Ignacio Lagoon, halfway down the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur, stretched out his hand to touch a grey whale that raised its head out of the water alongside his wooden panga. Mayoral, who went by the nickname Pachico, would liken this milestone to the birth of his first child. "I didn't seek out the whale, she came to my boat," he remembered. "I was fishing with my friend and suddenly the whale came out and curiosity got the better of me and I touched her gently and saw that nothing happened. The whale went under and came out on the other side of the boat and I felt more confident and I began to stroke her and rub her head, and nothing happened." This transcendental encounter was, sadly, not emblematic of the troubled relationship between humans and whales.

In the 19th century grey whales which can reach a length of 50 feet and a weight of 35 tonnes fought capture so fiercely that whalers dubbed them "devil-fish." The whales were hunted nearly to extinction until the International Whaling Commission adopted a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. Pachico helped to protect the whales by convincing other fishermen that they had nothing to fear from them. Soon they were ferrying tourists into the lagoon the last pristine breeding and calving ground for thousands of grey whales that migrate every winter from their feeding grounds in the icy Arctic seas to the warm refuge of the lagoons and bays along the Baja California peninsula. Pachico lived in a sand-floored hut with no electricity, phone service or mail delivery, but somehow, in 1994, he got information about a plan by Exportadora de Sal, an enterprise co-owned by the Mexican government and Mitsubishi, to build a giant salt-processing plant on the shores of the lagoon. He passed this information on to an American graduate student studying grey whales, who called me from Baja.

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