Traveling Companions

Gray whales are leading tourists, conservationists and business operators on a rocky voyage toward economic and environmental salvation.

Leviathan sex.

Even eco-tourists will get excited by such a display. The several-foot-long pink sex organ of the male gray whale, clearly visible flapping in the air, appears to explain the creature's Latin name: "Eschrichtius robustus."

Where Charles Scammon's hunters in the 19th century pointed and screamed, "Whale ho!" today, in the very same inlet, whale guides who spot grays mating bellow: "Pink Floyd."

Chris Gall
Fish farmers like Bill Vernon find themselves lectured by eco-tourism operators, who urge their guests to boycott farm-reared salmon.
Michael Lacey
Fish farmers like Bill Vernon find themselves lectured by eco-tourism operators, who urge their guests to boycott farm-reared salmon.

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The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population. In New Times" special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Baja to the Bering Sea to tell the complex tale of a creature whose 12,000-mile instinctual journey places it squarely in the path of myriad human cultural conflicts. The trek follows the competing interests of Indians, scientists, environmentalists, tourists and local residents.

In this last installment of the series, Executive Editor Michael Lacey joins travelers in search of the gray whale to examine the burgeoning eco-tourism industry along the Pacific coast, the people who venture into the wild, and the impact of the whale-watching business on local communities and cultures.

Read the entire series

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Then something entirely unexpected happens.

A bull gray whale attacks Gabriella Ruffo's panga, slapping it three times sharply with its tail: WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP!

The eco-tourists were so obsessed with sex that they never saw the attack coming. Later, all of the hurried photographs are blurred.

Back at camp a clearly agitated Achoy says he had warned the operators never to approach whales having sex. It was not ethical. He could not understand such an attack.

Even a meticulous man like Achoy cannot control the wild.

In 1983, a whale in Scammon's Lagoon attacked a panga and a 60-year-old Los Angeles man died of a heart attack. A 65-year-old man in the same boat who was conducting research for a book on whales was struck in the head by a flying oar and died of his injuries a few days later.

Troubles in Tofino

Hikers make their way through the temperate rain forest on the coast of British Columbia. Giant Douglas firs, towering Sitka spruce, majestic hemlocks, red cedars, dwarf dogwood, salal, mosses, fungi, lichen, slugs, insects, birds, all of it a mixture so lush the greens bleed through each other, merging with the brown dirt and patches of decaying plant detritus clumped like cake until the eye gives up the ability to discern anything other than color.

Unseen in the shimmering landscape: 1,500 species of vertebrate in a single tree. On one hemlock, 70 million needles. Mixed up in one meter of soil, 120 million nematodes, lungless salamanders, mushrooms, protozoa -- the sum of it a biomass four times greater than any found in the tropics, and all of it aromatic, stunning and vibrantly silent.

The song that floats toward the hikers is brash as a show tune.

At the end of the trail, next to a seaplane, Klaus Horkey fills his lungs with the invigorating air of the Pacific Northwest, then sings for the sheer joy of hearing himself, a sound that fills the rain forest with piercing, exquisite melody. The hikers follow their ears and hail Klaus at water's edge.

The pilot, who flies for Tofino Air and sings in the Victoria Men's Choir, is full of observations about the World Trade Center attack and none of it particularly empathetic. He defends a Canadian professor who'd said the attacks by Muslim fanatics were caused by American foreign policy, though no one else had even heard of the academic, let alone thought to be critical.

"I guess you can't control everything just because you've got A-bombs," he says to the American visitors with a smile.

Horkey's comments are more bad taste than hostility; in fact, he went out of his way on the flight to accommodate.

Tofino, an engraved pocket watch of a village, sits halfway up the Pacific side of Vancouver Island sheltering a mere 1,500 souls amongst cloud-soaked woods. These Canadians host nearly a million eco-tourists a year, which is a greater tidal shift than occurs in the Bay of Fundy. Under their breath, the locals refer to the tourists as "gorbies."

Most of the "gorbies" are from the United States. These North Americans share the geography uneasily.

Just ask a local about the Labatt's beer commercial.

"Oh, yeah, yeah. You mean the one where the Canadian is just sitting there glumly and an American is rattling on, imitating a Canadian, you know, 'Nice weather we're having, eh? How about those Maple Leafs, eh? Do the Mounties always get their man, eh?'

"And so finally the Canadian jumps up, pulls the sweater over the American's head like you're taught as a child to do in hockey, and just pummels the guy. That one? Is that the commercial you're talking about?"

That's the one.

"Yeah, that's a good one. There're a whole bunch. They're all good."

If Canadians can sell beer by jibing Americans, you can imagine the ambivalence on Vancouver Island when the dollars from eco-tourists overwhelm the "loonies."

And yet there is more to the edge in Horkey's remarks than chauvinism.

Sure, the residents in Tofino are irritable because they are invaded every year by a million whale-obsessed visitors, but they're also a little out of sorts because of all the fighting among themselves.

In a community where everyone sees himself as an environmentalist, the rancor in the town square is between good preservationists and very good preservationists. This fight is loud, ongoing and without apparent end.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Chamber of Commerce has been controlled by the ardent greens. One Tofino civic leader recently returned from Japan where she urged her audience to stop building so many wooden homes in order to preserve British Columbia's forests. The members of Tofino's Chamber of Commerce do not seek, nor are they offered, membership in the province's more traditional Chamber.

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