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Byline: Nita Lelyveld
N IGNACIO, Mexico _ The fisherman's 22-foot boat bobs softly up and down. "Ballena, ballena" _ whale, whale _ "ballenita, ballenita," he sing-songs, willing a baby whale to come his way. One does, because this is a storybook kind of place. First a baby, then its huge barnacle-covered mother, nuzzling the boat's bottom, gently butting the boat's side. Again and again the whales dive under and return, poking their heads out as hands stroke their slippery-smooth, slightly rubbery skin.
Gray whales are everywhere in Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, so improbably plentiful it's hard not to laugh and gasp out loud. In the lagoon's shallow waters, whales give birth and nurse. In the warm waves, they swim with their young and mate.
"This place is a masterpiece of nature, like the Sistine Chapel, a cathedral of nature," says Mexican poet Homero Aridjis.
Each winter the eastern Pacific stock of gray whales returns to this spot, traveling thousands of miles down the West Coast from Alaska. To get here, they dodge tankers and big-city harbors.
There was a time when they were almost killed off by whalers, who found in the lagoons of Baja California abundant prey. Now there are more than 26,000 of the huge creatures, hunted by camera-wielding tourists.
It's easy to get emotional about touching a 40-foot whale. In fact, many people here don't just pet the whales, they kiss them. It was just such affection that turned the recent campaign to protect this lagoon into a massive international affair.
It all started in 1994 when the gray whale was taken off the endangered species list. That same year the world's largest producer of solar salt, Mexico's Exportadora de Sal, planned to set up shop along these very shores. Owned jointly by the Mexican government and Japan's Mitsubishi Corp., ESSA had big plans. The company, which already had a massive operation 100 miles up the coast, wanted to expand to meet projected Asian demand. The proposed $100 million plant would stretch more than 62,000 acres north and west of the lagoon.
The plan was to construct salt ponds that would be …