The Laguna San Ignacio is a part of the El Vizcaino UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve in the Pacific Ocean on the west coast of Baja California. It is located in the Municipality of Mulege of the Mexican province of Baja California Sur. The nearest tourist destination is the town of San Ignacio on Mexican Federal Highway 1 (approximately sixty kilometers away). With about seven hundred permanent residents today, Juan Bautista de Luyando founded the oasis town as a Jesuit mission in 1728. For a slow, daytime only road trip, you can expect to spend a couple of days traveling nine hundred kilometers after heading south across the border at San Diego while following narrow, winding, and mountainous carreteras frequented by livestock and wildlife. The world is familiar with the resort town of Cabo San Lucas on the tip of Baja California and it is about eight hundred and fifty kilometers south of the lagoon. Air flights are the most popular ways to get close to the lagoon although travel by car, bus, and cruises provide other alternatives. Air travel destinations are more convenient and the closest are Guerrero Negro Airport (GUB) to the north and Loreto International Airport (LTO) to the south.
On the landside of the lagoon, the terrain is basaltic desert, indicating the volcanic past of the region. Towards San Ignacio, a lush growth of green date palms takes advantage of the oasis. There are several commercial endeavors underway but the continuing purpose of the town is to serve tourists and scientists as the gateway to the reserve. The lagoon (approximately 26 degrees north and 113 degrees west) is most famous for gray whale watching tours, often providing an opportunity to pet adult whales. Despite the desertification on land away from the salt water, the lagoon provides a rich environment for a wide variety of plants and animals on the shore and in the tropical Pacific Ocean water.
The World Heritage Site includes fifty thousand hectares of the surrounding landmass as a biosphere reserve. The 1994 desalinization factory plans initiated by the Mitsubishi Corporation mobilized activism by local residents and world organizations. National and international interests in keeping large developments from this wilderness have cited lush biological diversity and the uniqueness of the lagoon. For many, the importance of the lagoon for the birthing and early life of gray whale calves is paramount. Experts point to the lagoon as the only place on earth where gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are safe to recover as a species. This eastern North Pacific population numbers about 22,000 individuals and ecologists removed this subspecies from the endangered species list in recent decades. Populations in the Atlantic went extinct about three hundred years ago. Whalers still pursue the endangered western North Pacific population and their numbers are less than four hundred individuals.
Inside Mexico, various government bureaucracies protect local and national interests. The desalinization programs offer commercial rewards from the sales of both water and salt. The sunny locale requires industrial level development to control water flow, adding to irrigation efforts, and salt recovery operations. Dredging and staffing are two of the main aspects of the development that have raised concerns. Strict environmental controls implemented by the government include the rare step of involving international scientific interests in the reports used to plan future resource use. This is a continuing effort on all sides to make decisions about the best use of both land and sea in the area.
Because the area is so isolated, the tourist industry is small but growing. In this isolation, the gray whales successfully mate and are able to birth calves. With little ship traffic or noise from land-based industry, the whales seem to thrive. The whales can be very dangerous since they can grow to fifteen meters long and almost forty tonnes. There have been incidents where whales have damaged or destroyed boats but in the lagoon, most reports show the whales are at their most gregarious and friendly. While they still face the danger of fishing equipment entanglement, the more time they spend at the lagoon, the more likely they are to be friendly towards tourists.
Outlawed for decades, many nations ignore the international agreements prohibiting whaling. In their own national waters, meat and oil have commercial demand. In the eastern Pacific Ocean, it appears that whales do not face this danger. Fishing lines and noise are major contraindications to building stronger whale populations on this coast. Based on rare sightings, some scientists believe that the eastern North Pacific population may have established renewed populations of gray whales in the Mediterranean and Africa. So far, the remoteness of the region has ameliorated exploitation by the tourist industry. Some might point out that tourist travel is an environmental issue but that remains a wider concern than can be solved by biosphere reserves.
The El Vizcaino UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve remains valuable in protecting and developing this region. The requirements of the Mexican government and their attentions to the international community are laudable. Keep your eyes on the important, continuing efforts to protect the wilderness and provide opportunities for human economic growth in the region. The El Vizcaino UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve is making its contribution to the current situation and the future development of this area of Baja California.