Traveling Companions

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

"When I grew up here, it was quiet and peaceful, never crowded. The highway opened up our wilderness. Now white people talk like my forefathers about the environment."

While the bands have funded a hotel and the odd business here and there, the reality is that First Nation's people are not a factor in eco-tourism.

"You look around town, all those green businesses. They all have Indian carvings and signs. Those are all white people. Indians don't go into business," he says. "We're educated differently. We are dependent. With any kind of tourism you need money, but also, having the knowledge is important. Our people are isolated."

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

If whites are not often invited to Opitsaht, neither are villagers all that interested in the white world.

"I took this fellow clam digging. He was 21 but he'd never left the village, never been to Port Albierni. He eventually committed suicide."

Martin worries that his people live and die in total isolation. Eco-tourism is something that concerns white people. Last year, in the month of October, there were 13 Indian deaths from suicide, alcohol, murder. The number of Indians in the area approximates the population of Tofino, 1,500.

"If there is a species of animal dying, people protest," says Martin. "But not us. We die and no one notices."

For the Martin brothers, building canoes provided an escape. Their boat shed is located in Opitsaht and shelters their unfinished canoes. Martin cradles burnished adzes in his hands, their cutting edges fashioned out of recycled car springs, each as graceful as any carving.

Salvaging red cedar trees blown down in tribal forests, the brothers build the canoes in three sections, then join them with wood pegs. It takes Martin three to four months to build one of the black canoes with white stripes. But when he's done with a 34-foot craft, it will draft less than half a foot of water.

Facing the village of Tofino are two totem poles, somewhat startling outside of a museum.

"We made that one for another family as a memorial for this woman that died. The eagle with the wings folded down represents her. Then there is a killer whale turning into a wolf and a Bookmis, a wild woman of the woods."

The second totem was a gift from the grateful family.

Both totems have been chipped by rocks and BB guns.

"The kids here get bored," says Martin.

After a water taxi trip back to the dock in Tofino, Martin steps ashore where his sister greets him with hugs. It was her apartment complex that had burned that morning after she'd started the fire with a carelessly handled cigarette. She piles into a friend's car to go find clothes for her children at a local charity. Neighbors were already taking up a collection.

"Smoking's a bad habit," notes Martin.

Tofino isn't "hooped" from the fire Martin's sister started. But whether the water will be available to fight the next fire is anybody's guess.

The current council has an application in with the government to tap into Kennedy Lake, a project estimated to cost at least $30 million. But after September 11, observers are worried that the $10 million the Canadian federal government would have kicked in will be drained to fund national security.

Bill Vernon fears the lack of action by the previous administration of hard-core greens in Tofino may cost the village.

"I have watched the federal budget and there has been a huge allocation of funds for a new category: 'safe and secure.' The government is beefing up airport security, border security, spying, the military. Infrastructure problems are threatened financially."

Vernon is the target of the progressives' ire.

He is a fish farmer, which puts his head in FOCS' bull's eye because his business is seen as a threat to the environment. Vernon is also a leader in the Tofino Business Association (TBA), a group that functions as an alternative to the green Chamber of Commerce.

"They meet in secret," warns Langer.

In a hotly contested election, TBA candidates for council and mayor won a majority of seats against more strident greens, leaving only Sergio Paone as the sole progressive holdover. Paone writes the most detailed of the frequent attacks against fish farming in the FOCS newsletter.

At first glance, Vernon would seem an unlikely antagonist.

As a fish buyer in the '70s, he watched government policy, the greed of the fishing industry and the stubbornness of independent fishermen destroy the natural stock. At the same time, the logging giants were devastating the salmon spawning grounds in British Columbia's streams and rivers. Today, Canadian Coast Guard cutters patrol to ensure that the vast fishing fleets never leave the docks while the fishery attempts to replenish itself.

"Over half the fleet have sold their licenses back to the government," says Vernon. "A salmon seiner license used to fetch up to half a million dollars; trollers, $100,000. They aren't worth peanuts today."

He got into fish farming as part of a back-to-the-land mentality.

"It came out of the '60s and '70s, where you grow your own food to be sure of what you're eating. I am a very idealistic person," says Vernon, "but my naiveté blended with reality."

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