But the major challenge to the monarch’s Mexican migration is the illegal logging that somehow persists in this protected refuge. Visitors can see evidence of encroaching open spaces from the trail to El Rosario. Biologist Chip Taylor, director of the educational outreach program Monarch Watch, reports that forest clear-cutting for lumber, livestock grazing and crop planting is dangerously carving back the edges of the wintering habitat. In the past few decades, Taylor says, the monarchs’ woodlands have shrunk by around 50 percent, and since the 1990s the butterfly population has dropped by about 30 percent. Standing under an orange nimbus of fluttering monarchs wouldn’t be the moment to ask Taylor why we should care about this ornamental creature, aside from its obvious emotional value. Taylor’s answer is simple: that emotional bond is the reason we should care.
“The monarch’s showy migratory behavior,” he explains, “makes it the ‘panda bear’ of the insect world. One of its functions is simply to get our attention. When we see 25 million butterflies per acre, each hanging from a branch protecting the creature beneath it, we’re seeing a pageant of life and death in the natural world.”
That pageant, Taylor will tell you, “bears an important warning for how we treat the rest of our planet.”
Domain of the Devil Fish
Gray Whale Migration
As with the monarch butterfly, another regular Mexican visitor has become a public relations point man for the rest of the earth’s biota. The gray whale’s popularity with nature buffs and tourists has earned it recognition as a member of the animal world’s celebrity elite, the charismatic megafauna.
Whaling ship crews first discovered dense pods of gray whales crowding bays and narrows along the Baja California coastline during the mid-19th century. The ensuing slaughter lasted many years, until the entire population was nearly eradicated. The hunt was no free ride for whalers, however: cornered in shallows, protecting their offspring, the gray whales fought back violently, shattering boats and injuring sailors. The whaling men nicknamed their fierce quarry the “devil fish.”
Since the late 1970s the grays’ mating and calving grounds off the Baja peninsula have been designated permanent places of refuge, as well as a maritime tourist zone, all part of the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve. The whales can now conduct their breeding and calving rituals unmolested. They also commune, sometimes at arm’s length, with hundreds of commercial ecotourists who venture out in professionally skippered pangas (small boats).
Laguna San Ignacio, Scammon’s Lagoon (ironically named for an illustrious whaling skipper) and Magdalena Bay are the principal sanctuaries that permit such intimate access. The locales are fairly remote but reachable by car from various locations on the peninsula, such as La Paz or Loreto. To see the whales close up—these creatures can reach 50 feet in length—as they lift their enormous flukes, or “spyhop,” to inspect their surroundings, is a thrill few travelers ever forget.
To Minneapolis resident Sharon Toll, a recent visitor to one of the lagoons, yesteryear’s devil fish are anything but fierce. She remembers her skiff making a “gentle approach” to a mother whale and calf. “We were never intrusive,” she says, “and always left contact up to the whales. The female, who could have capsized us with a flick of her tail, rubbed her back against our hull. It seemed almost affectionate.”
The impact of gray whale tourism on the native communities of Baja is largely positive. It conforms to a growing paradigm: ecotourism, properly regulated, contributes to local infrastructure, and everyone benefits—visitors, scientists, residents and especially the animals.