Traveling Companions

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

"Certainly the interconnectedness goes without saying," contends Darling, who has an office in the Remote Passages building. "But trying to show it scientifically . . . that's the next challenge."

Back at the dock, Peter the guide is asked why there does not seem to be a single whale-watching company in Tofino run by Indians, though Indian villages surround the town.

Thinking for a moment, Peter explains that, "The Indians don't tell good stories about nature."

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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You walk to the end of the dock and up a bank from Remote Passages into the middle of downtown Tofino. Several alternative food stores and coffee shops prosper as easily as more traditional businesses. For all of the eco-tourism, only three national chains -- a gas station, a car rental and a Best Western -- have set up shop in Tofino. In the summer, the streets are thronged with every manner of traveler imaginable. The place literally hums with people.

Sitting upon a small patch of green, a tiny red, wooden church from the turn of the century offers sanctuary. Inside St. Columba's, Ruth Hanson plays her own compositions upon the organ. The retreat from the surrounding chowder of patchouli oil, Winnebagos, skaters, retirees, eco-tourists and humanity at ease is ethereal.

Hanson is quick to let you know that the beauty enveloping Tofino is only possible because of the rain that floods the village much of the year.

The storm season is so violent that area beaches are stacked year round with enormous gray tree trunks ripped out of the ground then tossed up on the shoreline in a haphazard cat's cradle of giant logs.

In fact, the Wickaninnish Inn, part of the McDiarmid family's development holdings which include summer rentals, home lots and the hotel whose restaurant and wine cellar garner international acclaim, now promotes a winter season based upon visitors who wish to witness some of the wildest weather in North America. In the winter, the shipping lanes off the coast are some of the most dangerous in the world.

All Ruth Hanson knows is that it is too damn damp. It is difficult to picture on a sunny day when Clayoquot Sound radiates bonhomie, but Tofino gets 12 feet of rain a year, making it one of the wettest spots in North America.

"You get something called wet knees," she says, laughing. "We get 40 kinds of rain. It rains constantly. When I first moved here, I noticed that you get mold in the house growing on the inside. That really bothered me."

As a newcomer, Hanson was also concerned, curiously enough, by the Indians -- called First Nation's people in Canada -- that she saw downtown.

"They looked so leathery and dark," she says. "Like warriors."


It is unclear in the morning if Wilfred Atleo is a warrior; it is apparent, however, that he is late. An 8 a.m. appointment stretches to 9, then to 9:30. When he arrives at the marina just before 10, a deckhand smiles and greets him, "Afternoon, Wilfred."

You cannot find Atleo's whale-watching office in the harbor. There isn't one. You cannot book a trip with his receptionist. He doesn't have one. You will not trip over his advertising campaign. He doesn't use one.

You have to ask around to find Atleo. Like many First Nation's people, he is nearly invisible in Tofino. The 13 bands in the central region of Vancouver Island were traditionally whale hunters. Like the other bands in British Columbia, they have no treaties with the Canadian government, though both sides are, finally, sitting down together to negotiate mineral rights, royalties, fishing, logging, mining. The list is several pages long. Tribal members don't own their homes or much of anything in the way of collateral that a bank might take as a pledge against a loan to start a business. So Atleo operates a water taxi and takes people whale watching on the side.

The same dockhand who kidded Atleo about his tardiness also allows as how he'd trust the lives of his own family in Atleo's hands out on the water.

Another thing, Atleo has plenty of good stories about the countryside.

He pointed out where he used to run his boat up a river as a child to fish in the pristine water. It was all dead now from silt and run-off from logging. With no gray whales to be found, he toured the shoreline of the Sound, pointing out old timber camps.

He does not agree with the environmentalists who want to eliminate logging.

"They [FOCS] make a lot of noise. And if they hadn't made a lot of noise, you'd still have clear-cutting and all the destruction that went with it. But things have changed. And we still build our homes out of wood."

What does he mean, things have changed?

Atleo says there is a new forest practices agreement the timber companies have to abide by.

Clear-cutting has been halted and a panel of scientists and aboriginal elders compiled 120 guidelines that foresters must follow in Clayoquot Sound.

Furthermore, Greenpeace, the NRDC, the Sierra Club and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee signed a memorandum of understanding in which the logging companies agreed not to harvest in pristine areas in return for the greens' help in marketing timber products. The Friends declined to sign.

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