TALE OF A WHALE
This is the time of year when thousands of gray whales travel from the Bering Sea, down the Pacific Coast to their breeding grounds in the lagoons of Baja California, there to mate, calve and cavort in the sun. Years ago people were content to watch from the shore as the weeks-long procession of grays passed, delighting in the occasional sighting of a plume of spray from a blowhole or sunlight briefly illuminating a great expanse of back.
In recent years, however, whale watchers have become more aggressive. Last season, some 2,000 of them went to Baja, where they followed the whales in chartered boats to the lagoons to observe the goings-on at close range.
While the whales are moving through American waters they are protected to some extent by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which stipulates that anyone convicted of "taking or harassing" a whale can be fined up to $20,000 and/or jailed for a year, and by the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Getting within 100 yards of a whale is considered harassment. So is causing a whale to change its course. Beyond that, harassment is loosely defined and open to interpretation.
In 1972 the Mexican government closed Scammon's Lagoon, one of the three principal breeding areas, to everybody except scientists with permits, and limited entry to the "nursery" to two boats at a time. But San Ignacio Lagoon and Magdalena Bay farther south remain open to tourist boats.
No one knows whether the whales actually are being harmed by all this well-meaning curiosity, but scientists on both sides of the border are concerned. In November the Mexican government announced that all lagoons would be closed to tourist boats this year, but then, in December, the ruling was rescinded. Walter Ocampo, a regional director for Mexico's Department of Fisheries, hopes that on the basis of his recommendation at least the regulations governing tourist boats will be clearly defined next year.
Meanwhile, Dr. William C. Cummings, chief scientist at the San Diego Natural History Museum, is worried that the migration itself, as well as the mating and birthing in the lagoons, may be disturbed. Whale watchers by the tens of thousands, he says, go out from San Diego between December and March to watch the whales swim by. "The people operating the charter boats don't want to bother the whales," he says, "but given the situation as it is, there is potential for doing harm and it should be investigated."
Scammon's Lagoon was discovered in the 1850s by Charles Melville Scammon. Captain Scammon led whalers to his find and launched a period of hunting that by 1937 had reduced the gray whale population to 100. Fortunately, the grays survived their 19th-century pursuers and grew in number to some 12,000. Now the question is whether they can survive their 20th-century admirers.
The 1979 calendar of national AAU events has arrived, and its listing of 25 sports is led, alphabetically at least, by something called acrogymnastics. For fans irredeemably mired in the past, the AAU explains (parenthetically) that acrogymnastics used to be "Trampoline & Tumbling."