Let’s Talk About Sustainable and Ethical Travel
An interview with Oscar Ortiz
When it comes to traveling to Baja and looking for activities to enjoy during your visit, it has become customary to learn and inquire about sustainable and eco-friendly activities. In this interview, Oscar Ortiz talks to Destino Magazine about what Sustainable Tourism represents for him, and shares his very unique relationship with the whales that come, every year, to mate and give birth in the waters that bathe the coasts of Baja California Sur.
In addition to being a resident of Los Cabos for more than 20 years, Oscar is a successful businessman and has found a lifestyle that revolves around his passion for the ocean and the natural beauty of the Baja peninsula. He is a committed advocate of what he prefers to call “ethical traveling” and hands-on promoting of how to discover the unexpected and breathtaking beauty of the Baja, while impacting the area as little as possible. Oscar is known locally for his whale concerts and the extraordinary whale photographs he captures season after season – both illustrative of the special bond he has with these amazing marine mammals.
For our interview, we met by the sea, in a simple setting of desert juxtaposed by the Sea of Cortez. The weather was just beginning to change and we sat outside enjoying the cool breeze and the expansiveness of the landscape.
Destino Magazine (DM): What is sustainable tourism?
Oscar Ortiz (OO): “Sustainable tourism are activities that take place in protected areas, or areas that have very particular ecosystem characteristics. These activities are not just about the visitors’ interactions with the environment, but also about the relationship that the visitors develop with the environment. Usually, this relationship is based on a sense of responsibility and an intention to find an ethical way to interact with the entire ecosystem that we are visiting.”
After answering this question Oscar ponders a minute and adds, “Ethical traveling is doing what is right when no one is watching. “ He waits until the next question to let the relevance of this seemingly simple comment sink in.
DM: How would you define ethical or sustainable tourism in practical terms?
OO: “It’s all about respect. First, it is about being respectful by reducing the negative impact on both the environment and the community that you are visiting. This brings us to the second aspect which is showing respect for the local culture and being congruent with the actual environmental reality of the place. For example, if you are visiting a desert region, be mindful of how you use water, and try to avoid wasting something that is a scarce resource. Like water in a desert area. The third aspect of ethical or sustainable tourism is reciprocity. This means that when you visit, you are aware of your responsibility when you share your photographs and experiences with your friends and the rest of the world. The place that you visit is giving you something, whether it’s the opportunity to see something unique and beautiful or to learn something you didn’t know about a particular ecosystem or community. How are you going to share that? How is what you share going to impact the environment?”
After sharing these thoughts, Oscar closes his eyes in remembrance, a tinge of sadness evident in his voice before adding, “Nowadays, some people commit true crimes against nature and the local community just to take a photo to post to their social network.” He remembers visiting a remote area where little-known cave paintings and petroglyphs tell a story bathed in history only to find that much to his chagrin, someone had spray-painted the rocks displaying the ancient petroglyphs and tagged them on on the Internet which drew the attention of social media influencers to Balandra’s mushroom, ultimately causing the collapse of the iconic rock.
Oscar continues, “The fourth principle of genuine eco-friendly tourism is all about the money. Where is the money going? Is the income that the activity produces helping to maintain and preserve the environment? Do the tour operators guarantee the safety and well-being of both the environment and the community? Here the responsibility lies in both the tour operator and the client. It is easy to be fooled by companies that ‘green-wash’ their marketing, but a responsible tourist will verify that the activity delivers on what it promises, before making their decision. If you are traveling, take these aspects into consideration, in order to travel in a more sustainable and ethical way. You are doing your share to help maintain the wonders of the place you visit for future generations.”
Oscar turns to the ocean and seems lost in thought. The businessman-turned-advocate becomes quiet and takes a moment to watch the deep blue ocean glimmer in the sun. As if on cue, a whale exhales in the distance and Oscar smiles. He is known among the locals as a sort of whale whisperer, and this sets the stage for the next question.
DM: How does this style of Ethical Tourism translate to Whale Watching?
OO: “This has to do with using tour operators who follow the guidelines established in the Official Mexican Norm NOM-131, which was implemented by Mexico’s Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) to define the proper way to watch whales in a responsible and low impact manner. Both the tour operators and the tourists must be aware of these guidelines and avoid hurting the sea mammals, especially when it comes to how to approach and observe them. Unfortunately, there are service providers who seem to be harassing the whales rather than watching them respectfully. This is where tourists need to understand that having whales surrounded by fast approaching boats is close to abuse.”
“The most incredible thing when you whale watch in a more respectful way, is these amazing mammals seem to react favorably, and the whale watching experience turns into something magical. To me, it is very important to express this because it is a way to give a human voice to the whales who are an incredible resource. After all, they make the livelihood of many tour operators possible, and often don’t get the respect they deserve. The whales that come to this area are here mating and giving birth to their calves. They are also conducting complex interactions between the mothers, the babies and the groups of older and single, male and female whales. All these behaviors are important for the continued conservation of these amazing marine mammals and a single boat cutting across the water and separating a mother from her calf can really hurt the order of things - the delicate balance that we are privileged to enjoy - between the natural migratory cycle of whales and our opportunities to watch them.”
Oscar Ortiz came to Baja California Sur looking for work and success and over the last 23 years he discovered his true passion for the sea. Being in touch with the beauty of the ocean and this amazing land is how he found true happiness.
DM: How did you become so passionate about whales?
OO: “The first time I saw whales and had a chance to look into their eyes, I felt an almost indescribable bond with them, one that can only be described as a connection of the soul. For me, the humpback whales that visit this area every year are a constant reminder of how life begins with a breath that turns into a cry and ends with a final breath that takes us into eternal silence. More importantly, they remind me of how between the first and last breath, we must try to be like the whales and remember to sing and dance, and bond with the other incredible and beautiful living beings that share this world with us. We have to live with the curiosity to learn about other living beings in this world. In my case, it’s the whales and when I learned about them, I couldn’t help but fall in love. I admire them and will do everything I can to protect them.”
Besides his work offering unique experiences of the natural wealth of Baja, he is also a gifted photographer with an uncanny ability to catch the indomitable beauty of the landscapes of this area.
DM: What is your secret to always capture incredible moments with your lens?
OO: “Photography started as a hobby for me and to me, it is almost like meditation, because when you are looking for the photograph that you want to capture, you focus on the present moment. You capture a moment in life through the lens. My photos are a way to share the amazing wealth and beauty of this land with others and, hopefully, help people fall in love with nature and touch them in a way that makes them want to protect this planet a little more.”
To punctuate the moment dramatically, another whale exhales, as if the ocean itself is taking a breath and again, Oscar is transported to the place he loves dearly. He has gone to the ocean, to the whales, and all the other amazing creatures that he follows closely every day to watch and protect.
Oscar Ortiz is a diver, explorer, ocean lover, whale whisperer, nature advocate, private guide. Follow him on IG @oscar.ortizg