Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaíno, Mexico

Content Cover Image

Gray whale at Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino, Mexico (Photo by Eugenio Gomez Rodriguez , via http://whc.unesco.org/)

Geographical Location

The Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino (27° 23'-27° 59'N, 114° 30'-114° 55'W) is a World Heritage Site located in Mexico and comprises two lagoons which lie in the central part of the Baja California peninsula, between the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. Forms part of the Municipality of Mulege, Bajo California Sur State. Accessible via the north-south highway. Both lagoons are situated on the west side of the peninsula, Laguna Ojo de Liebre is connected to the Bahia Sebastian Vizcaino, and Laguna San Ignacio lies east of the town of Punta Abrejos, into which Rio San Ignacio flows.

Date and History of Establishment

Federal Decree of 6 December 1971, promulgated on 14 January 1972, declared Laguna Ojo de Liebre a marine refuge zone for whales. On 28 March 1980, the Decree was modified to include the lagoons of Manuela and Guerrero Negro. On 11 September 1972, a Decree established Laguna Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio as a refuge zone for migratory birds and wildlife. On 16 July 1979, another Decree established Laguna San Ignacio as a refuge for gravid whales and calves and as touristic-marine attraction zone. Laguna Ojo de Liebre and Laguna San Ignacio were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1993. El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve was approved by the government as a national biosphere reserve in 1988 and was internationally recognized as a Biosphere Reserve under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1993.


370,950 hectares (ha): Laguna de Ojo de Liebre (227,994 ha); and Laguna San Ignacio (142,956 ha). El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve totals 2,546,790 and encompasses Desierto de Vizcaino, Bahia Sebastian Vizcaino and Laguna San Ignacio together with the numerous coastal lakes.

Land Tenure

Laguna Ojo de Liebre: 40% national; 50% communal; and 10% private Laguna San Ignacio: 80% national; and 20% communal.


Sea level to about 10 meters (m).

Physical Features

Laguna Ojo de Liebre is the larger of the two lagoons, and is 9 kilometers (km) wide, 48 km long and between 5 and 12 m deep. Laguna San Ignacio is 6 km wide, 35 km long and ranges in depth from 2 to 4 m.


Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio experience a very dry to semi-warm climate. Mean annual temperature ranges between 18° C and 22° C, creating a high evaporation rate of 98%. Annual rainfall can fluctuate between zero and 200 millimeters (mm).


Coastal dunes found around Laguna Ojo de Liebre form an unstable vegetation community, but are dominated by the presence Abronia carterae (Q), Lycium californicum (IK), Errazurizia megacarpa (IK) and Larrea tridentata. Mangrove forest, which is at its northern limit in the North Pacific, comprises Rhizophora mangle, Zostera marina and Salicornia bigelowii (IK). Laguncularia racemosa is confined to areas around Laguna San Ignacio and Spartina foliosa (IK) to Laguna Ojo de Liebre.


Grey whale Eschrichtius robustus (LR) and common seal Phoca vitulina are the most notable marine mammals. Bottlednosed dolphin Tursiops truncatus (DD) and California sea lion Zalophus californianus can also be found within Laguna San Ignacio. Birds such as osprey Pandion haliaetus and peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus occur within the designated areas. Three marine turtle species occur within the coastal area, namely: green turtle Chelonia midas (EN), hawksbill turtle Eretmochelys imbricata (CR), and olive ridley turtle Lepidochelys olivacea (EN).

Local Human Population

Approximately 38,000 people live within the buffer zone of the biosphere reserve, and are mainly concentrated in the towns of Guerro Negro, Santa Rosalia and San Ignacio and along the transpeninsula highway. Inhabitants are dependent upon intensive agriculture, fishing, extensive livestock grazing, mining and tourism.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

During the 1990 tourist season, 3,000 people visited Laguna San Ignacio to watch the whales.

Scientific Research and Facilities

A joint USA/Mexican scientific team, supported by IUCN/WWF, has undertaken whale censuses and tagging over five years in Lagunas Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio. Other national institutions working at the zone are Centro de Investigaciones de Baja California Sur, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua, Centro de Ecología (Universidad Autónoma de México), and Instituto de Biología.

Conservation Value

Baja California lagoons are an important wintering site for grey whales and birds and a significant nesting area for three of the world's seven marine turtle species.

Conservation Management

caption Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaíno, Mexico. (Source: World Heritage Site)

The reserve is managed by the administrative body of the newly created Secretariat of Environment, Natural Resources and Fish (SEMARNAP) through the Institute of National Ecology. SEMARNAP formulated new long and short term plans regarding the conservation of the area, but also continues those that were prepared by the former Secretariat of Social Development (SEDESOL). These include undertaking further scientific research and environmental teaching. Prior to the area being designated a biosphere reserve, there used to be a significant flow of tourists who had access to coastal areas and whale watching. However, a law passed in 1988 has restricted such activities. Around Laguna San Ignacio boats are organised to guide and transport tourists to controlled areas. Tourist operators are obliged to solicit permits to SEMARNAP. A WWF grant has enabled the purchase of a boat with an outboard motor to patrol the lagoon and prevent disturbances to the whales. It has also enabled the lagoon guards to work full time on whale protection. Several government institutions cooperate with SEMARNAP in the regulation of tourism in the area, including Secretaría de Gobernación, Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, Secretaría de Marina, and Secretaría de Turismo. There is a management plan for El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve.

Management Constraints

The land adjacent to Laguna Ojo de Liebre has long been under threat form development, and oil drilling poses a serious potential problem to the region. Although the whales have demonstrated a remarkable recovery since their protection from commercial whaling in 1938, they are still threatened by industrial and economic development and an increase in vessel traffic. The constant passing of cargo ships through the lagoons has had a detrimental effect on marine flora and fauna. Tourism has also had a significant impact on the whale population as power boats disturb coastal waters. Marine turtles have been heavily exploited in the past. They were caught in the summer months using nets set in the lagoons and estuaries along the coast, and sent to a turtle cannery in Bahia de Asuncion, south of Laguna Ojo de Liebre. Human activities have also increased around Laguna San Ignacio. A petroleum company has completed its second year of exploratory drilling for natural gas and oil around the lagoon's shores; an aquaculture facility produces commercial oysters; and five fishing co-operatives operate in the area. In 1996, concerns were expressed over the plans to build an industrial salt production plant at San Ignacio. An environmental impact assessment of the plant is proceeding, reviewed by a scientific committee, and the development will not proceed if it is deemed to pose a risk to the site's integrity.


A total of 37 people are employed for administration, control and resource management within the biosphere reserve.


The budget for the biosphere reserve in 1994 was 703,000 (New Mexican pesos), whilst the proposed budget for 1995 is 3,242,247 (New Mexican pesos).

IUCN Management Category

  • Unassigned
  • Natural World Heritage Site - Criteria IV
  • National Biosphere Reserve - Category V
  • International Biosphere Reserve

Further Reading

  • Groombridge, B. and Luxmore, R. (1989). The green turtle and hawksbill (Reptilia: Cheloniidae): world status, exploitation and trade. IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, UK.
  • SEDESOL. Reserva de la Biosfera El Vizcaino, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Secretaria de Desarrolho Social Instituto Nacional de Ecologia.
  • SEDUE. Propuesta del Programa de Manejo de la Reserva de la Biosfera "El Vizcaino". Secretaria de Desarrollo Urbano y Ecologia, La Paz, Mexico.
  • Swartz, S.L. (1981). Grey Whales, Mexico. WWF Project 1804. WWF Yearbook 1980-1981. World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Gland, Switzerland.
  • Swartz, S.L. (1987). Mexico - Behavioural Ecology of Gray Whales. WWF List of Approved Projects Volume 3. World Wildlife Fund International, Gland, Switzerland.
  • UNESCO (1997)Reports on the state of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List. Report prepared for the Bureau of the World Heritage Committee 21st Session, Paris, 23-28th June.



Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.




M, U. (2014). Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaíno, Mexico. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbef3b7896bb431f69d417


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