Traveling Companions

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

The majority of the last city council as well as Mayor Scott Fraser ran, and were elected, on a visionary green plank. Process assumed an importance with the progressives not generally seen in City Hall.

Bill Vernon, a fish farmer and former member of Greenpeace, criticizes what he saw as the council's inability to do anything but talk.

"The mayor used severe parenting techniques to try to control the council meeting," says Vernon. "Once, when people laughed at him, he made everyone in the room be quiet for one minute. We had time out."

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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It is unlikely that the strictures of Dr. Benjamin Spock will solve any of the severe problems generated by the success of eco-tourism in Tofino.


Once aloft, Horkey, the bush pilot, makes for open water and locates a small pod of gray whales for the visitors, which he circles, pitched over on one wing, a view better suited for grasping the immensity of the 30-ton creatures. An aerial perspective also offers the best glimpse of the effects of clear-cutting in the Canadian woods.

The logging in British Columbia was so rapacious that her citizens lay down in front of the timber industry in 1993 and refused to budge. More than 900 people were arrested in the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. The subsequent mass trial was the largest ever in the Western world. And the entire, glorious resistance was centered in Tofino. The protesters were cuffed just down the road, and their outcry called the world's attention first to the issue at hand, and then to the remarkable beauty of the sea and land. Unlike the five-year environmental fight in Laguna San Ignacio, the Canadian resisters remained in Tofino after victory was declared. Today, the Friends of Clayoquot Sound (FOCS) occupy a charming wooden building in the middle of the village.

At the end of the short journey, Horkey sets the plane down gently in the harbor of Tofino.

Though it eschews hierarchy, the woman who speaks for the FOCS is Valerie Langer. She is a smart and congenial person who grew up in Ontario, studied linguistics in Toronto and moved to Tofino in 1988 as a private tutor. Her family steeped Valerie and her siblings in social justice, and both of her parents continually set an example by, for instance, working in Cuba. Langer was not raised to be in anyone's Chamber of Commerce, but the FOCS are members in good standing. She lives in Tofino with her mom, a credible jazz singer.

The forests are Langer's passion and the timber companies still her target, but, if you ask, she will tell you that the whale watching is a problem, too.

"The amount of gas into the harbor is disturbing," she says. "The two-stroke boat engines are more polluting than car engines. There is marine noise underwater."

But her heart isn't in the critique.

The gorbies that the whale-watching companies haul around all summer are all potential recruits and contributors in her war to stop any logging in British Columbia's rain forests. Not just clear-cutting, but any logging.

"The tourists are a boon to our campaigns here in Clayoquot Sound," says Langer. "If just one in 10 who come here are converted . . ."

In an effort to ensure eco-tourist epiphanies, Langer and others in her group train whale-watching guides to indoctrinate the passengers who venture out to see the grays.

"We utilize the access tour companies have to thousands of people, and tour companies utilize us because we generate lots of publicity, which draws people."

Remote Passages is one of the whale-watching companies sympathetic to FOCS. When environmentalists and animal-rights activists set up pickets in nearby Washington state to prevent the Makah Indians from killing a gray whale, Remote Passages lent one of its boats to the protesters. One of its guides was even arrested.

Occupying a choice piece of real estate on the harbor, Remote Passages offers trips out to see the resident gray population as well as kayaking. (Kayaking trips, like lattes in Seattle, are offered everywhere.) The whales in Tofino are not calving and do not seek out human contact. Eco-tourists simply get to observe them feeding in one of North America's most beautiful settings.

In order to hear what sort of lesson Valerie Langer has passed on to the guide, you must first climb into a heavy-weather jump suit, even in the summer. Tourists are then taken in jet-powered inflatable boats, up to 15 passengers per trip. The twin Yamaha 250s sound like the thrust from an F-16 and so the boat's engine must be cut off for the education to commence.

Peter, the son of a logger, explains that all the world is joined, healthy forests mean healthy trees, healthy trees mean healthy streams, healthy streams mean healthy salmon. And everything taken together means healthy gray whales.

If this strikes some as a somewhat simplistic linkage, it is, in fact, the party line.

James Darling, a lifelong resident of the area whose mid-'90s research on the feeding habits of gray whales off of Vancouver Island is well known, echoes the guide's remarks.

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