Located within the most remote area of México, the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, Laguna San Ignacio is a world-renowned example of strong management principles combined with conscientious eco-tourism that effectively protects a unique natural phenomenon. Our camp is built upon sound conservation principles, with safety, comfort, and accessibility as key components. Our placement on the shores of the San Ignacio Lagoon provides the perfect launch spot – the whale observation area is an easy, 15-min away! Take a kayak tour of the mangroves, where you may even spot a Mangrove Warbler! Many folks have enjoyed the lagoons rich waters for fishing trips, windsurfers have found perfect side-on-shore winds and flat water sailing, and scientists are attracted by many nesting bird populations (ospreys, pelicans, Peregrine falcons, and Oyster catchers all nest here), feeding sea turtles, and many invasive, native, endemic, and migratory species.

Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program

A project of The Ocean Foundation

The Ecosystem Science Program at Laguna San Ignacio, Baja California Sur, Mexico develops social awareness and community participation in the conservation of this unique marine protected area. The program promotes the use of science based information to support sustainable development alternatives that are in balance with the natural components of the region. The program focuses on monitoring the status of gray whales that winter in Laguna San Ignacio, the lagoon as a habitat, and its marine wildlife as an entire interrelated system.

Correlation between whale behavior and global warming

As polar shelves recede, the gray whales’ source of food (mostly amphipods, which are zooplankton, zoo-animal plank-drifter with pod-feet amphi-all around their body) moves north. If food is scarce the gray whales will normally arrive in Baja later than normal, and skinnier than normal. We saw these conditions in 2010. As our 2011 season winds down, we have seen amazing differences in the visiting whales. Over 400 healthy whales visited San Ignacio in 2011.

Gray whale populations only a fraction of historic level

Analyzing DNA samples from 42 gray whales, Elizabeth Alter (Stanford University), Eric Rynes (University of Washington), and Stephen R. Palumbi (Stanford University) found that DNA variation suggests a historical Pacific gray whale population of 76,000 to 118,000, well above the current estimate of 22,000 gray whales alive today.1 The results challenge the widely held belief that gray whale populations have returned to their prewhaling abundance and also shed light on the sensitivity of whales to climate change.

“Recent mortality spikes might signal that the population has reached long-term carrying capacity, but an alternative is that this decline was due to shifting climatic conditions on Arctic feeding grounds,” the authors write. The researchers say that a recent resurgence of birth rates “suggest[s] this population has not yet reached its typical long-term abundance but can continue to grow if current ocean conditions permit.”

“Ecological surveys of gray whale feeding areas on the Bering Sea shelf suggest that this area alone could support 90,000 whales annually,” they continue. “However, recent evidence suggests that gray whale feeding habitat may be declining as Arctic benthic prey populations are reduced because of changing climate in the Bering Sea.”

Given these findings, the authors suggest that gray whales should be treated as a “depleted stock” to reduce human-killing of the species from 417 to 208 per year. Hunting of 125 gray whales per year by indigenous populations is currently allowed by the International Whaling Commission.

Healthy whale populations translate to a healthy ecosystem

Alter, Rynes, and Palumbi say the recovery of gray whale populations would have significant implications for marine ecology. Gray whales play a key ecological role in their Arctic feeding grounds, stirring up sediment that increases nutrient cycling in the ecosystem.

“At previous levels, gray whales may have seasonally resuspended 700 million cubic meters of sediment, as much as 12 Yukon Rivers, and provided food to a million sea birds,” the authors write. “Decreased sediment reworking could dramatically change nutrient recycling, and create shifts in benthic species dominance.”

“Feeding by gray whales provides nutrient subsidies from benthic marine communities to terrestrial ones, including food subsidies for at least four species of seabirds that feed on benthic crustaceans brought to the surface by gray whale feeding,” they continue. “We calculate that a population of 96,000 whales could provide food subsidies to 1.03 million birds…. In addition, gray whales may have provided an important food source for predators and scavengers such as orcas and California condors.”

The authors say that given the chance to recover, gray whales could return to their historical abundance in feeding grounds along the coast of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and southeast Alaska, returning those ecosystems to better health.

1 DNA evidence for historic population size and past ecosystem impacts of gray whales
S. Elizabeth Alter, Eric Rynes, and Stephen R. Palumbi
PNAS September 18, 2007 vol. 104 no. 38