Traveling Companions

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

Tilitzky feels part of the civic gridlock is because of the argumentative nature of the entire community, which prevents movement on issues.

"Tofino attracts strong-willed people with strong opinions about the environment."

The owner of the Raincoast Cafe agrees. A former city councilman who was part of the green majority that ran the town, Larry Nicolay says that if there are 1,500 residents of Tofino, then "there are 1,500 visions of Tofino and what is environmentally correct."

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.


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

Using only the freshest ingredients from the Pacific Northwest's abundant cupboard, Nicolay operates the sort of restaurant that attracts critics from the publishing industry's toniest reviews.

He admits that dumping millions of pounds of raw sewage into the ocean might strike some as, well, irresponsible. But he is hesitant about a solution.

"I know it's not good for our image," says Nicolay. "But we have incredible tides that take it out. I know some people think it's washing up on the shore. It's hard to cut through the emotion and separate it from the optics. It would cost millions just to provide secondary treatment."

In a similar vein, he's not prepared to endorse the idea of pumping water from Kennedy Lake, though he acknowledges the village has a severe water shortage.

"Apart from the cost, there's been no conservation program, no retrofitting to save water. Lower tech solutions have been ignored," says Nicolay.

He agrees with critics who say the village's inability to store any of the near Biblical water deluge in the winter is a real problem.

"If we had a fire," says Nicolay, "we'd be hooped."

Sitting in the Common Loaf waiting for the obviously delayed Valerie Langer is an easy way to pass the time. A wide range of cakes, breads, and organic sweets and sandwiches is served with strong coffee and a strong vibe. Written notices attached to the walls are the dominating decorating scheme. Alarms are posted about timber outrages which are commingled with calls to action about the dangers of salmon farms.

A petition for a skate park for kids sits atop the counter. The last signature belongs to Langer's mother.

From the Loaf's window, customers watch the smoke from a nearby fire curl into the morning sky. The locals wonder if there is an arsonist afoot. There was a fire just the day before at the Fourth Street dock.

When Langer eventually arrives, she is brimming with plans to buy out forestry giant Interfor's logging permits in the Sound.

Iisaak, a joint venture between Weyerhaeuser and Nuu-cha-nulth bands, has agreed to avoid any large pristine valleys and only harvest timber in small-scale eco-forestry. In return, the FOCS hired a marketer in Vancouver to identify premium outlets for this wood.

"This is groundbreaking," says Langer.

She adds that Iisaak wants to buy out Interfor's holding and that she intends to raise money philanthropically, some $10 million worth. Iisaak has yet to take a position on her idea.

What about the millions needed for water and sewage in Tofino?

That isn't her issue.

She attempts to explain her priorities.

"Clayoquot Sound is the most sensitive area because so much of Vancouver Island has already been logged," says Langer. "There were 170 valleys originally and only 11 have been left unlogged, and half of those are in the sound.

"If you had 170 whales in the pod and only 11 left, would you cull in a sensitive fashion or just stop?"

The FOCS newsletter, going back several years, does not address the water and sewage issues.

Langer asks for more time to explain why timber and not sewer or water had to be the first priority, but Carl Martin is waiting to be interviewed.

Martin and his brother, who are Tla-o-qui-aht, had operated one of the first whale-watching companies in Tofino. Langer's father co-signed a note so that the two men could start their business, which they eventually sold.

"You've got more time," says Langer, urging a longer conversation. "Carl will be on 'Indian time.'"

Instead, Martin is pacing in and out of the restaurant wondering if he's been stood up.

Martin and his brother Joe carve by hand the wide range of canoes their people once used to haul freight, fight other tribes and then white people, kill seals and hunt whales.

Martin can talk about canoes.

"They found one canoe that held 79 people and dates back to the time of the first European contact," says Martin.

It was a Martin canoe that the Makah used to hunt the gray whale they killed in Washington two years ago.

"My brother and I have been carving canoes for 20 years," says Martin. "I learned from my father's grandfather."

Their work is on display in the Vancouver airport, in European museums and in the hands of private collectors as well as at various reservations up and down the coast.

Catching a water taxi to Opitsaht, Martin explains why he quit taking people whale watching and sold the business.

"I got bored. Same thing, day after day."

Martin maintains that the Indians up and down the Pacific coast have the right to go whaling.

"Environmentalists can't touch us," says Martin. "We don't want to kill all the whales. And we don't think of it as sport. We don't want to take people to watch. Yes, the whale-watching companies have a lot to lose. But we Indians have already lost a lot. Whites didn't change their patterns when they came here.

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