Traveling Companions

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

Atleo slips through enormous patches of bull kelp and back into Tofino's harbor. Bald eagles have a nest that is a moment's stop on everyone's journey. They've occupied this particular tree for nine years. Having mated when they were four, they are estimated to be 13. They are together for life.

The Indian village across the harbor from Tofino, Opitsaht, has been there for 10,000 years, longer than some of the pyramids.

The harbor is flecked with markers for crab traps. Long beaches of gray sand, tar-colored rock, cobble, gravel and mudflats support intertidal life. The jade-tinted waters nurture red-beaded anemones, moon jellies, sea cucumbers, purple urchins and a host of different starfish including mottled, pink, six-rayed and vermilion.

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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Not today, but once, these waters teemed with fish. The First Nation's people on this coast were so blessed with the harvests from both the sea and the land that they threw enormous parties, called potlatches. Such was the bounty in cedar and salmon that it was considered good form to give it away. The government and the missionaries put an end to the potlatches. You can learn about the aboriginal history and see the most remarkable collections of totems and basketry at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, which is built on land the city fathers drove Indians off of at the turn of the century because their native settlement was deemed offensive looking.

Today, Opitsaht sits as easily upon its spit of land as Tofino. But the small tour boats do not linger or stop at the First Nation's village. Visitors are not welcome unless invited. People have grown up in Tofino and not set foot there.

As Atleo ties up at the marina, he tries to put the ongoing debate over lumber into perspective.

Atleo says the lectures that take place while on board the whale boats miss the point. The environmentalists want to stop all logging, but for everyone else the issue is sewage. And water.

It is possible to go watch gray whales every day for a week and not hear about the sewage. It is not part of the pitch.

The village of Tofino pumps, and this is a conservative estimate, 5.4 million gallons of untreated, raw sewage into the ocean every week during the tourist season, according to Don MacKinnon, public works superintendent. The raw sewage is dumped into Duffin Passage, directly beneath a tourist motel and the town hospital.

When the discharge pipes fail, and they do, the raw sewage washes up onto the beach.

Neither the green Chamber of Commerce nor the environmentalist council ever addressed the cost of sewage treatment.

While the sewage issue often escapes the notice of tourists, the water shortages do not. Signs are posted in the summer about stage 3 alerts which prevent anyone from using water to so much as sprinkle a garden.

MacKinnon says that Tofino, despite being one of the rainiest place in North America, suffers from severe water shortages.

"It will rain for a month straight," says MacKinnon. "It will rain sideways, it rains so hard, but we have no place to put the water."

The council never funded a way to collect the rainwater. Instead, it urged people to conserve. There is a plan to pump water from Kennedy Lake, the largest body of water on Vancouver Island. No one knows what the impact of such a plan might be because an environmental impact study has not been done. The pipeline will pass through Indian reservations, but the Indians say they will not be paid for this right of way.

All the water Tofino currently uses is pumped out of Meares Island, which is part of a Tla-o-qui-aht reservation. The Indians are not paid for that water, either.

There is also a severe shortage of housing for the people who work in Tofino.

"Tonquin Park has been literally denuded," says MacKinnon, "by people camping for lack of housing. The bush has been cleared, it looks like a herd of elephants went through there. The bark has been stripped off the trees to start fires."

Michael Tilitzky is the thoughtful young man who runs the Raincoast Interpretive Center in the big yellow building where this July you could have heard a naturalist discuss, "Birds don't grow on trees; lichens do."

When Tilitzky discusses the sewage and water, it leads him back to a question he's asked himself a lot lately, a question he believes no one locally wants to answer: "What is the carrying capacity for Tofino?"

He reasons that at some point people will be turned off by what they find.

"At what point are there so many people on the West Coast Trail that you no longer enjoy it?"

He also feels the stress is building locally. Pointing to the seasonal workers who double the town's resident population, he too complains about the lack of housing.

"I lived in Vancouver for 15 years before coming here. The stress here is worse. Across from the Crystal Cove Resort there are guys living in the trees in hammocks."

Tofino cannot afford the infrastructure necessary to service a million eco-tourists.

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