TO MITSUBISHI San Ignacio Lagoon Saved
By Jeff Pantukhoff 



It’s March 3, 2000 and I’ve just awakened to the sounds of blows outside my quaint cabana at Kuyima, a small eco-tourism camp which is nestled in the heart of San Ignacio Lagoon. As I peer out the window, some 50 yards offshore, is a gray whale and her newborn calf, frolicking in the lagoon’s warm shallow waters. A squadron of pelicans passes overhead and I can’t help but notice that the lagoon is unusually calm for this time of day. 

The camp is also very still, but I had expected that as I am the only one here with the exception of the camp staff. The small group of six people I had been hosting, as well as all the other guests who were here, had left the day before after spending four magical days with the whales while getting lost in the beauty and serenity of this very special place. 

Now I was preparing for a large group of 55 people to arrive later this afternoon. I had a charter plane of 25 arriving from San Diego, another plane due in from Mexico City with 20 on board, and the rest by land. The group included journalists and film crews from the U.S., Mexico, and Japan, along with celebrities Robert Kennedy Jr., Jean Michel Cousteau, Angelica Aragon and the leaders from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and those representing more than 50 Mexican environmental groups that made up the International Coalition to save San Ignacio Lagoon. 

Over the next four days, we were to hold an international media event in our ongoing campaign to ensure the world’s largest salt plant would not be built here…here in this whale sanctuary, this bird sanctuary, this International Biosphere Reserve, this United Nations World Heritage Site. As ludicrous as it sounds, the threat was very real and if anything, the joint venture between Mitsubishi Corporation and the Mexican Government, known as ESSA, seemed more determined than ever. They had just released their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that claimed the salt plant would have little or no effect on this pristine lagoon ecosystem. Yeah right, we knew they were going to say that…they had paid millions for the study. But there was no denying that the plant would have dramatic impacts on the surrounding lands of the lagoon. All one had to do was go to ESSA’s existing salt plant at Scam-mon’s Lagoon to witness the devastation for themselves. 

As I made my way to the Palapa for breakfast, I was nervous. This event needed to go off without a hitch. I wanted everything to be perfect. As I walked in, Manuel, the camp director was looking at me with a very serious look on his face. 

“Have you heard the news?” he said.

 I just stared back at him. My mind began racing…”What’s wrong? Something’s wrong…There’s something wrong with one of the planes, Our supplies aren’t coming…Oh God, the trip is ruined…” 

”Jeff, are you ok?” Manuel said, temporarily breaking my panic. 

“Yeah…What news?” I asked. 

“President Zedillo made an official announcement that there would be no salt plant built here at San Ignacio Lagoon.” 

I heard the words and once again just stared back at Manuel, this time in total disbelief. “Are you sure? I asked. 

“Positive” replied Manuel. “It’s over.” 

I hugged Manuel and ran outside to the shore of the Lagoon and sat on my favorite rock. Whooooshh, Whooooshh. Whale blows once again. The gray whale and her calf were still there. Tears started to run down my cheeks. I was still in a state of shock but the joy, the shear joy of knowing that this magical place was at least safe for now overwhelmed me…and my mind began to pour over the events which had led me here. 

It was five years ago in March, 1995 that I had first visited the lagoon and found out about the salt plant proposal. I was so outraged that I decided I had to do everything I could to stop it, so I started a non-profit foundation, “The Whaleman Foundation” whose motto is “Bringing Whales and Mankind together to preserve and protect our world”. 

I believed that if everyone could see how beautiful this place was, they wouldn’t let anything happen here that could harm it, but since I knew not everyone could come here, I decided to produce a film. I felt the best way to show the world how special this place was would be to actually show the pristine beauty of San Ignacio Lagoon in contrast to the ugly, man-made, polluted industrial zone that Scammon’s Lagoon had become due to the existing salt plant being built there. 

Since San Ignacio Lagoon was a United Nations (UN) World Heritage Site, I contacted Dr. Mechtild Rossler of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) whose charter is to oversee and protect UN World Heritage Sites from commercial development, and asked if they would be interested in such a film to help with their mission. Dr. Rossler was most interested so, with help from both IFAW and the NRDC, we produced the film titled “Gray Magic” specifically for the United Nations. The film was hosted by actor Pierce Brosnan and his partner Keely Shaye Smith, and also featured Robert Kennedy, Jr., and was distributed to the delegates attending the UN World Heritage Convention in Kyoto, Japan in December of 1998. 

As a result, the United Nations sent an investigative team headed by Dr. Rossler to both San Ignacio Lagoon and Scammon’s Lagoon in August of 1999. In their report, the UN officials stated their concerns for the environmental integrity of the San Ignacio Lagoon ecosystem if the plant were built, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears at Mitsubishi. As a matter of fact, in their press release, Mitsubishi falsely claimed that the UNESCO report actually “green-lighted” their salt plant project. In an effort to get Mitsubishi’s attention, the International Coalition led by IFAW and the NRDC convinced 15 mutual fund managers representing over $14 billion in assets not to do business with Mitsubishi. They also garnered the support of 34 of the world’s most prominent scientists including Nobel Prize winners to stand in opposition to the plant. In California, the Coalition launched its “Mitsubishi Don’t Buy It!” campaign which was a boycott against Mitsubishi and all of its subsidiaries including Union Bank and Mitsubishi Motors, both of which felt the impact in lost business. In addition, over 40 cities in California passed resolutions to divest any and all holdings and contracts with Mitsubishi if they went ahead with the plant. But most importantly, the Coalition generated more than one million postcards from concerned citizens all over the world who stood in opposition to the plant, which had an enormous impact on the final outcome. 

It is important to remember that the action of one individual can make a difference. In the words of Margaret Meade “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: Indeed it is the only thing that ever has!”

 On March 2, 2000, in his official remarks to the press, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo said his government had withdrawn its support for the salt plant project because it would have altered the stunning landscape of arid desert. Mitsubishi Executive Vice President, James Brumm, said his company began to turn against the project after a study by UNESCO questioned changing the landscape around San Ignacio Lagoon. 

As I sat on the rock staring out at the raw beauty in front of me, the gray whale and her calf surfaced again. Whooooshh, Whooooshh. I was so overjoyed that their last pristine mating and birthing lagoon had been saved… but suddenly, my mind flashed to the imminent danger that these two would soon face as they migrated northward towards their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. 

Waiting for them as they would swim through the waters of the Olympic National Marine Sanctuary of Washington State will be 50-caliber anti-tank guns, harpoons, and motorized chase boats operated by members of the Makah Indian Tribe. Even though commercial whaling was banned in 1986, it continues today in some countries like Japan and Norway, which is abhorrent, and that it is now happening right here in the United States is absolutely unconscionable. This controversial whale hunt is not about subsistence, culture, or tradition. It is about power, manipulation, and greed. 

There are people in the world who have an unbroken tradition of whaling and who actually need to eat whale meat to survive and who are allocated a yearly quota by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), like the Alaskan Inuit for example. These “aboriginal” hunts are sanctioned by the IWC as they are not commercial in nature, and I personally do not oppose this type of aboriginal whale hunting. But there are commercial whaling interests who are using native peoples like the Makah Indians, who once had a need to whale but who no longer need to consume whale meat to survive, to resume whaling once again, this time under the guise of something called “cultural subsistence”. 

Ever since commercial whaling was banned worldwide in 1986, the Japanese have been looking for loopholes in the treaty in order to continue to supply whale meat to their markets and keep the hundreds of millions of dollars in profits pouring in. You see, in Japan, the killing of whales is a big business indeed with whale meat selling for up to $200 per serving in fine Sushi restaurants, while bringing well over $200 per pound in the Tokyo fish markets. The first loophole they found was killing whales for “Scientific Research” and utilizing this loophole, they have been killing whales in the Antarctic Marine Sanctuary ever since the moratorium’s inception. 

Not satisfied with just killing some 500 whales per year, Japanese whaling interests have been looking for other loopholes and may have found one in “cultural subsistence”. Using economic incentives and trade agreements to entice whaling in other parts of the world, Japanese whaling interests financed and established the World Council of Whalers on Van-couver Island, an organization whose mission is to promote “aboriginal cultural subsistence whaling” worldwide. Thus far, this organization has approached the people of the Azores and Dominica about resuming their sperm whale hunts. They have approached the Mauris of New Zealand, the Tongans, and many poor Caribbean peoples, including Bequia and Mustique, to resume hunting humpback whales. And they have approached the Nuuchahnulth of Canada and the Makah tribe of the U.S. to resume hunting gray whales.

 In 1991, Japanese whaling interests first met with Dan Green, a Makah Indian who was employed by one of their fishing companies and proposed that he open talks with the Makah Tribal Council about enacting their 1855 treaty right to kill whales again, explaining that this could bring them millions of dollars in revenues. The Japanese even went so far as to propose that they would help finance the building of a processing plant right on the reservation to process gray whales, minke whales, Dall’s porpoise, harbor porpoise, seals, sea lions and sea otters. 

In 1994, the Makah Tribal Council officially requested that the Clinton/Gore Administration uphold their treaty right to whale once again claiming that they needed to return to whaling to rekindle their “culture and traditions”. As a result, the Clinton/Gore Administration paved the way for gray whales to be de-listed from the U.S. endangered species list. In 1995, ‘96 and ‘97, the Makah Tribe with the support of the Clinton/Gore Administration tried to get the necessary “aboriginal whaling status” from the IWC, but were unsuccessful. 

As a matter of public record, Dr. Ray Gambell, secretariat to the IWC, writes “The IWC has not passed judgment on recognizing the claim by the Makah, as the member nations of the IWC were unable to agree.” This was because the Makah Tribe did not meet the criteria necessary for “aboriginal” whaling which are an unbroken tradition of whaling and a subsistence need for whale meat. The last time the Makah Tribe hunted whales was more than 70 years ago and they have not needed to eat whale meat to ensure their survival. Furthermore, no living Makah tribal member had ever been whaling until now. 

Unable to win IWC approval for the Makah, in a backdoor deal, the Clinton/Gore Administration ordered the U.S. delegation to the IWC to trade 20 endangered bowhead whales from the Alaskan Inuit quota to the Russians for 20 gray whales from their Siberian native quota. This trade was illegal under the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITIES), thus violating yet another international statute. 

On October 1, 1998, falsely claiming that the Makah had the necessary approval from the IWC to hunt whales once again, the Clinton/Gore Administration issued the Makah a U.S. permit which allows them to kill up to 20 gray whales over the next 4 years in the Olympic National Marine Sanctuary, a sanctuary established by our government to be a safe haven for wildlife. Unlike their ancestors, the Makah are utilizing motorized chase boats, 50-caliber guns, a U.S. Coast Guard escort, and a Washington D.C.-based public relations firm, all of which have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $3 million dollars to date, to kill gray whales, the same friendly, gentle giants who now readily approach humans without fear from being hunted in these protected waters. 

This action set off an international controversy and conservationists converged upon the waters surrounding the Makah Reservation, including the Sea Shepherds, the Sea Defense Alliance, Canada’s West Coast Anti-Whaling Society, and ourselves. Together, we were able to successfully prevent the Makah from killing any whales until May 17, 1999. Two days prior, on May 15th, ten of our colleagues were arrested and four of their boats are confiscated by the U.S. Coast Guard for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act when they risked their lives by placing themselves and their boats between 50-caliber guns and whales because allegedly they got “too close” to the very whales the Makah intended to kill. Talk about hypocrisy. The Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted to protect whales and other marine mammals, not as a means to kill them. 

Two days later, on May 17th, the Makah killed a juvenile female gray whale in the Olympic National Marine Sanctuary. Government officials, via the media, reported the whale was three years old, over 30 feet long and weighed 30 tons, but I was on the beach and measured the whale. It was 27 feet long, weighed maybe 7 tons, and was more likely between 18-24 months old. We requested that independent measurements and tissue samples be taken but government officials denied the request. Killing this juvenile whale was a direct violation of the Makah’s U.S. permit, as they were allowed to take only mature adult whales, but this was covered up and never reported by the media. 

The Japanese whaling interests celebrated. They had their loophole: a whale killed in U.S. waters, by U.S. citizens for “cultural subsistence” reasons, and a bonus as the U.S. lost its position as the strongest voice for whale conservation and protection in the world. Within days of the Makah kill, the Japanese announced they too have people with a “cultural subsistence” need to whale and that they will once again begin killing whales in the Sea of Japan. Soon after, Iceland announced that they will start whaling again this summer. In Canada, there are now more than 20 tribes requesting governmental approval to return to whaling for “cultural subsistence”. This is just the beginning… 

This illegal U.S. whale hunt has set an international precedent that, left unchallenged, will result in the needless death of thousands of whales and dolphins worldwide, all in the name of “culture and tradition”. Presently, the Japanese delegates to the CITIES convention are asking that gray whales, Minke whales, Bryde’s whales, and humpback whales all be removed from the endangered species list so they can be hunted and their meat traded internationally once again. These are precarious times for whales indeed. 

Whooooshh, Whooooshh. The gray whale mother and her calf surface again. As I watch them basking in the calm waters, I begin thinking if everyone could experience these gentle giants and look deeply into their eyes as I have, no one could ever harm them. Yes, we’ve already started the film. It’s called “Save the Whales Again!” and our production team will be returning to the waters surrounding Neah Bay, Washington this April where the Makah are planning to kill five more gray whales. 

All of us at The Whaleman Foundation are dedicated to doing all we can to put an end to this senseless slaughter, but we can’t do it without your help. Makah whaler, Micah McCarty, states “Makah whaling is here to stay and there is nothing you people can do to stop it. “ 

Evidently Micah isn’t familiar with Margaret Meade nor the collective power of determined individuals. We are determined to gather enough documentation and evidence to revoke the Makah’s existing permit or to ensure they are never given another one. 

With Much Appreciation... 

I would like to thank and acknowledge the following individuals for their efforts in saving San Ignacio Lagoon: 

Mexican President, Ernesto Zedillo; Jared Blumenfeld, Fred O’Regan, Jennifer Ferguson Mitchell, and Anne Fitzgerald of IFAW; Jacob Scherr, Joel Reynolds, Ari Hershowitz, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. of NRDC; Andres Rozental, Oscar Montezuma, Alberto Szekely, Martha Delgado, Patricia Martinez, and Betty & Homero Aridjis of the Mexican Coalition; Pierce Brosnan, Keely Shaye Smith, Glenn Close, Lauren Hutton, Angelica Aragon, Jean Michel Cousteau, Dr. Roger Payne, Dr. Jim Sumich, Dr. Mechtild Rossler, Mark Spalding, Nathan Labudde, Kim Kindersley, Jeff Hornacek, Wyland, all my friends at Eco-Tourismo Kuyima and Campo Cortez, all our Whaleman Foundation members, and all of you who took action to ensure that the hand of man would not touch this beautiful wilderness except for the occasional caress of a friendly whale. 

To find out what you can do to help, or to lend your financial support, please visit our website at  call (808) 661-8859, or write us at The Whaleman Foundation, P.O. Box 1670, Lahaina, HI 96767. 

Jeff Pantukhoff is an award-winning marine life photographer and filmmaker and is also the founder of The Whaleman Foundation, a non-profit oceanic research, education, and conservation organization dedicated to preserving and protecting dolphins, whales, and their habitats. The Whaleman Foundation takes its camera team into the field to produce videos on the important issues it is working on in order to educate, raise awareness, and foster international cooperation. Joining Jeff on this quest are some of the world’s leading image-makers, including actor Pierce Brosnan, marine life photographer Bob Talbot, underwater filmmakers Howard and Michelle Hall, and marine life artist Wyland. 


Here’s what you can do today 

1. Contact President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and your U.S. Congressmen and Senators. Tell them they must withdraw their support of the Makah Whale Hunt immediately. Tell them you are outraged and do not sanction your tax dollars being spent to help kill whales, and that you will not tolerate the United States or any of its citizens violating U.S. and international law. 

U.S. Capitol Switchboard: (202) 224-3121 White House Comment Line: (202) 456-2461 White House Fax Line: (202) 456-2461 

President Clinton 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Washington, DC 20500 e-mail:   

Vice President Gore e-mail:   

Dr. James Baker, Administrator NOAA Herbert C. Hoover Bldg. Rm. 5128 14th & Constitution Ave. NW Washington, DC 20230 Tel/Fax: (202) 408-9674 

2. Write the Makah Indian Tribal Council and ask them to cease hunting immediately or you will demand that Congress cease all federal funding to their reservation. 

The Makah Tribal Council Ben Johnson, Tribal Chairman P.O .Box 115 Neah Bay, WA 9835 Tel. (360) 645-2201


 To find out what you can do to help, get copies of our videos, or lend your financial support, please visit our web site at Call (808) 661-8859, or write The Whaleman Foundation, P.O. Box 1670, Lahaina, HI 96767. Whaleman Eco-adventure Travel Join Jeff Pantukhoff and The Whaleman Foundation for the adventure of a lifetime. Experience friendly gray whales at San Ignacio Lagoon, swim with dolphins in the Bahamas, or swim with humpback whales in the Caribbean. For the past 5 years, Jeff has been leading small groups of 6-8 individuals to his favorite spots around the world to experience firsthand, the magic, beauty, and wonder of dolphins and whales in the wild. For more information, check out our web site at  or

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