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ECOLOGY VS. ECONOMY

The rhythm of their blows sounded across a calm sea. "A mother and calf. They're fin whales," said marine biologist James Ketchum. "The mother is about 70 feet long. The calf is really curious."

Ketchum was describing the event from the bridge deck of the Don Jose. Ketchum is working on his master's thesis at the university in La Paz, on Mexico's southern peninsula of Baja California.

The whales he pointed out, and the plentiful exotic fish and other life underwater, were the reasons a boatload of tourist divers came to Baja. The future of this kind of tourism is being debated, as fishermen want to pursue their generations-old livelihoods and investors want to develop the coastline with hotels and restaurants.

"Hopefully they will declare the areas around Los Islotes and El Bajo a no-take zone," said Tim Means, whose ship we were on.

"The fishermen have to agree not to fish those "no-take' zones," continued Means, an expatriate American and founder of Baja Expeditions, a pioneer eco-tourism organization company.

"That will enrich breeding and get more fish started. In Loreto, further up the coast, they began a similar program, and the catch improved."

Sustainable development is important so that the people of Baja retain a stake in profits from eco-tourism.

The 690-mile-long Sea of Cortez averages 92 miles wide and is at places 11,700 feet deep. It separates mainland Mexico and the Baja peninsula and is one of the most biologically diverse marine resources in the world _ the underwater life is astounding even to experienced biologists and divers.

Onshore, vast stretches of beach and coastline remain as they have for eons. Uninhabited islands retain their natural beauty without the blight of development.

A California sea lion rookery at Los Islotes island is fascinating to observe from a launch or from underwater: Babies cavort with divers, big bulls bark and defend their territory.

"This is a special study area," said Means. "We've been visiting the Los Islotes sea lion rookery for 30 years (he has lived on the Baja more than 30 years). Most rookeries you can't get close to. They are used to people here _ having no fear of humans is a learned behavior."

Visitors can see that some sea lions have pieces of fishing nets caught around their necks.

"Biologists will come out and try to cut that netting free," Ketchum told these visiting divers.

Sea birds nest on the islands, leaving guano trails over the rocks. Cactus plants somehow manage to hold onto the barren cliffs. Young adult pelicans balance themselves on the rocks, having hatched on Los Islotes the previous season. Frigate birds and boobies, terns and cormorants squawk amidst the bark of sea lions.

One of the areas that Means described as slated to be a no-take zone is El Bajo. Located about 10 miles off the island of Espiritu Santo, its underwater mountains rise up to 50 feet above the surface.

Green moray eels seem to live in condos in the rocks; it is not unusual to count 10 in crevices. Large grouper abound. Fishermen with hand lines work the area from outboard-powered launches. This sort of small-time fishing has not destroyed the character of the small mountain that draws a large number of species to the protection of rocks.

One of the most attractive underwater areas is around the small rock island of Las Animas. The name is derived from superstition that spirits haunt the sheer rocks that rise from the water.

In the shallow reaches underwater, shovelnose guitarfish conceal themselves in sand. On rocky ledges, scorpion fish hide themselves, closely blending into the rocks as they wait to snatch a meal of some passing fish.

In deeper water, amberjacks continually swim around the pinnacles. Jacks are curious fish, and in areas where they have not been menaced by spearfishers, they come to inspect divers.

Electric rays and stingrays blend into the sandy bottom.

South of La Paz, the large island of Cerralvo provides sheltered anchorage, and nearby rocks offer opportunities for shallow diving. Colorful nudibranchs _ sea slugs without shells _ wave colorful exposed gills like bouquets of feathers.

Sea lions inhabit the nearby La Reina rock and jump into the water with divers. The rock is in the middle of the channel, where visitors often spot sailfish, sharks, large predatory fish and sea turtles.

Baja Expeditions runs whale-watching cruises in winter and land-based excursions to explore the exotic desert flora and fauna. Means' vision is to protect the wilderness areas on land and underwater so that more newcomers can enjoy them.

"It all depends on the cooperation of divers who know what's happening here and who can work change by voicing their opinions.

"The Galapagos has tourism. That could happen here.

"There is a common interest among the people of Baja and the world (to continue) using this natural resource and . . . make the resource available for people to enjoy," he said.

The object is "convincing local politicians that conservation and protection of these natural resources is the road to go rather than building multimillion-dollar hotels that construction people make the money off of . . .

"Every manta ray you see out here is more valuable alive than dead. A fisherman can sell the meat of one manta for $20 or $25: fillets from the wings. Every manta ray is worth thousands in tourist dollars."

Freelance writer John C. Fine specializes in articles on wildlife, ashore and on the water.

If you go

GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights to La Paz from the Tampa Bay area. Several airlines fly to Mexico City, and Aero Mexico provides flights into La Paz from major cities. For information call toll-free 1-800-237-6639.

BAJA EXPEDITIONS: This is the only company offering live-aboard tours, on the Don Jose out of La Paz. It also offers whale-watching cruises, sea kayaking and diving. Call toll-free 1-800-843-6967; e-mail to travelbajaex.com; the Web site is www.bajaex.com. Baja Expeditions' U.S. office is at 2625 Garnet Ave., San Diego, CA 92109; call (858) 581-3311, fax (858) 581-6542.

WHERE TO STAY: Los Arcos Hotel in La Paz is modern yet intimate, with rooms surrounding a courtyard and swimming pool. Call toll-free 1-888-289-2252 or 1-800-347-2252.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Mexican Tourism Office, toll-free 1-800-446-3942. The closest Mexico regional tourism office is located at 21 E 63rd St., New York, NY 10021. Call (212) 821-0314, fax (212) 821-0367. E-mail: mexicantourismboard-ny.org. The Web sites for Baja: www.bajalife.com and www.lapaz-tourism.com.

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