Where Harpoons Once Flew

In 1995 I was traveling down the length of Baja in a 26-foot motorhome with my ex-husband. In the village of San Ignacio we heard tell of a lagoon many miles down a dirt track where gray whales came every year to mate and bear their young. Although it was late in the season, well into April, we signed up for a tour. A fisherman who spoke only Spanish drove us in an old pick-up down the long bumpy road to Laguna San Ignacio and helped us aboard his little panga. It was just Marcus and me and the fisherman, and we motored out into the lagoon.

We soon spotted dolphins leaping in buoyant, graceful arcs out of the water, but most of the whales had already headed north. When we finally came upon a mother/baby pair, the few other boats carrying tourists zeroed in on the same spot. Later I would learn that the lagoon is a sanctuary and that there are rules about approaching whales there – you’re not allowed to, must wait for them to come to you – but on this day there was a dearth of whales, so the boats with Norteamericano tourists to please swooped in on the pair and followed them. Very soon, though, Marcus and I asked our boatman to abandon the chase; we didn’t have the heart for it.

Back on shore, the fisherman’s wife cooked us a lunch of deep-fried fish and beans and tortillas. While we ate with the family in their small hut near the sea, they showed us photos to prove the stories they’d told of friendly whales, pictures of people leaning over the sides of pangas to pet whales that swam right up to the little boat. You had to come earlier in the year, we were told; by now most had departed the lagoon for their long migration up the Pacific coast to Alaska.

Two years later Marcus and I returned to Baja, in March this time, and made a beeline down to San Ignacio. The village was as we remembered –women patting out the most delicious tortillas in the world at the same little tortilleriaand children selling dates underneath the oasis palms shading the village square. We drove our motorhome down the long dirt road and slept on the shore of the lagoon where the sounds of whale spouts floated out to us on the sea breeze.  “I can hear Whale breathing,” I said.

We had arrived at the height of the season, and when the wind died down the next morning, we joined seven other people in a panga.  This year there was no skulking about in sly pursuit.  Before long a mother and baby swam up to us.  The fisherman cut the engine, and the mama sidled next to the boat. We stretched out our hands to touch her back, covered with barnacles, and I marveled.  In a place where my kind had once hunted her kind, a wild sea creature weighing ten tons was choosing to visit us, not coerced nor tempted by food, but choosing of her own free will.  What could her reason have been?  Curiosity?  The allure of connection?  I only know that after a while she dove back underwater and nudged her baby up to the surface for the same attention, as if saying, there are some interesting little creatures up there. Go on, check them out.

Mary patting a gray whale in Laguna San Ignacio

I treasure this photo of the mother whale and me in Laguna San Ignacio and the memory of that contact with a magnificent creature from another realm. She could easily have tipped our boat over, but she was polite and gentle – unlike the humans in the boat. In that profound moment the panga almost did capsize as we all strained over the edge of the boat at the same time, fighting for the prize of having our picture taken with a whale. 

I thought about that moment when I heard last month about a Cuvier’s beaked whale that washed up on shore in the Philippines. It was not a diseased or shark-bitten carcass, but a young animal that had starved to death – from eating plastic.

More than eighty pounds of plastic bags, rice sacks, and other garbage in its stomach made it feel so full it stopped eating. “It’s disgusting,” the biologist who conducted the necropsy said. This story made the international news, but like the human calamities that fill our headlines, it is not uncommon. In Thailand alone 300 marine mammals die each year from ingesting plastic. For those of us who eat seafood (with apologies to my vegetarian friends), it doesn’t take a marine biologist to figure out where microplastics in the ocean food chain end up.

“But the plastic I throw away or recycle doesn’t end up in the ocean, does it?” a friend asked me recently. “No, no,” I assured her, but privately I wondered, where does all the plastic swirling around the Pacific Gyre come from? Cruise ships maybe? Or countries that can’t afford to recycle? Surely not from my eco-conscious town!

My guesses were not far off. A recent report by Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment found that 20 percent of ocean plastic debris “originates from ocean-based sources like fisheries and fishing vessels.” The rest comes from land-based sources, and over half of that comes from “just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam … These countries …  are at a stage of economic growth in which consumer demand for safe and disposable products is growing much more rapidly than local waste-management infrastructure.”

In my part of the world this infrastructure is robust, and like me you have probably been dutifully recycling for decades. In the last year, though, I’ve learned that there are limits to what plastic can be tossed in the blue recycle bin. What exactly these limits are was a little vague for me, but after just watching the YouTube video Recycle Right! Santa Cruz, I’m starting to get a handle on it. First, everything must be clean. “Stretchy” plastic (e.g. produce bags, plastic wrap, bubble wrap) is okay if bagged and so are most containers (jars, bottles, jugs, and tubs), but “crinkly” plastic (e.g. potato chip bags), hinged food containers, plastic containers that can’t be cleaned (think lotion tubes or motor oil jugs), and other items like hangers, toys, buckets and nursery pots belong in the trash. To make matters even more complicated, every community has different rules, so check with your local waste management to know for certain what you can put in your blue bin.

Where does all this plastic end up? “For the past three decades, almost half of the entire world’s used plastic has been sent to China,” where small factories employing cheap labor converted it into “inexpensive, plastic exports like shoes, bottles, hoses, and gadgets,” but suddenly the Chinese don’t want our garbage any more. They are turning to more lucrative industries like tech, plus they want to cut down on the pollution that came with all that plastic. The New York Times reports that “While there remains a viable market in the United States for scrap like soda bottles and cardboard, it is not large enough to soak up all of the plastics and paper that Americans try to recycle.” American cities (and airports and parks) are scrambling to figure out what to do. 

Does this mean we should quit recycling? Definitely not! Technology may make it feasible to burn recyclables and convert them into energy, or recycling may simply become more expensive. There are options and possibilities, but as Lent began last month, the news stories about the dead whale in the Philippines and about China stopping the import of trash had one thing in common: we must rethink our use of plastic. 

Change has to occur at the global level, but it starts with individuals, you and I taking our reusable shopping bags to the grocery store and drinking water from our refillable bottles. Locally it heartens me that students at Foothill College drove the change to equip water fountains with bottle filling stations and that more and more restaurants are using compostable takeout containers and utensils.

And even at the global level change is possible. Gray whales were hunted almost to extinction, but by 1994 the population had recovered enough that they were removed from the endangered species list, and in Laguna San Ignacio these giant, gentle creatures make friends with humans. In a place where harpoons once flew, a mother who would have been prey let me pat her back and watch her baby play.

Epiphany

He could be Walt Whitman,

sitting here with a saw outside Bookshop Santa Cruz.

To the bashful but curious toddler in his father’s arms

he might look like a grandfather

the boy hasn’t met yet.

“How ‘bout I play you a song you know?”

Saw handle between his knees,

the old man bends the blade and guides a bow

across its flat edge.

Haunting tones float over us,

and the little boy recognizes the tune

at the same time I do.

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star …”

Played on a musical saw,

the humble notes are ethereal as starlight.

Does the old man know that 

today is the Feast of Epiphany?

Or is he, like father and child,

an unwitting king,

the three magi

offering their gifts here on Pacific Avenue?

Statue of a musical saw player
Photo courtesy of Ali Eminov