Traveling Companions

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

"I keep threatening to quit," she says. "The stress is killing me."


The tranquillity business is brutal.

This company is one of many tour operators in Tofino's well-established travel industry.
Michael Lacey
This company is one of many tour operators in Tofino's well-established travel industry.
The Anglican St. Columba Church is part of the heart of Tofino.
Michael Lacey
The Anglican St. Columba Church is part of the heart of Tofino.

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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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The fight, which came to blows from 1995 until 2000, over Mitsubishi's proposed salt plant on the other side of the lagoon from the fish camps just brought all of the pressure into clear focus ("Crying Whale," November 22).

The leadership of the environmental movement huddled at Baja Discovery during Peg's first year running the camp.

Kuyima and the greens locked horns almost immediately.

Despite what you might think would be a natural alliance between the fishermen who run the eco-tourism business at Kuyima and the leadership at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the IFAW, nothing could be further from the truth.

The fishermen do not want the environmentalists shaping the future of Laguna San Ignacio. They find -- perhaps like Sullivan's mule train critic from Australia -- that the environmental leadership, primarily American, acts with little regard for local feelings.

From Canada to Mexico, you find this fresh resentment at what is considered American arrogance.

How does Yankee attitude get conveyed?

The answer is: from top to bottom.

Environmentalists are vocal and visible in demonstrations to resist globalization but are seldom as sensitive when exporting their values to foreign shores. The problem isn't simply the presumption of position papers that seek to instruct our neighbors to the south and north; the human contact is every bit as abrasive.

"The attorneys," says Sullivan, "were an enormous pain in the ass."

She says the leadership of the NRDC and IFAW had a difficult time adjusting to the Baja, the local Mexicans and even the whales.

"They thought they were in downtown Los Angeles. Here we deal with time and tide. Boy, did they push the limits. I overheard Joel Reynolds [from NRDC] on the radio to the people at another camp inviting them over. They wanted cocktail parties at night."

Because of its isolated position, movement between camps would have meant boat traffic out on the lagoon after the sun had set. It is dangerous and something Baja Discovery never does.

"This Jared fellow from IFAW [Jared Blumenfeld, then executive director] was the worst. I was told, 'I want this to happen . . .' and, 'We are paying for this trip.'

"No, you are paying for the privilege of visiting here, not to run the show. We've never allowed IFAW out here since."

Sullivan found herself surprised at the conduct of the people she thought were allies in the struggle to kill the salt plant."There was this overwhelming aura that they were here to save us."

Nor was her shock confined to the leadership of the environmental groups.

Their financial backers made little connection to the whales or the people. According to Sullivan, after they'd seen the whales once, they were ready to return to New York. One woman insisted that there must be some way she could phone and simply extract herself quickly from the Baja.

"I had to tell her, 'No, actually, you can't.'"

Sullivan says that she wasn't the only one offended by the conduct of the visitors. Her staff wanted nothing to do with the tourists.

"They treated our Mexican staff the way they would treat hotel workers. Sextos came over [from Kuyima] to play music. Not one of our staff stayed in the tent to party with them, which is very unusual. There was a cultural and natural disconnect. There was also a real clash between the Mexican elites and our staff. The poet, Homero Aridjis -- have you ever read any of his poetry? It's awful -- he demanded that our cook get steak and lobster saying that these guests were 'important people,' that our staff had no idea who was here.

"Memo [the cook] told him, 'Here, we treat everyone equally well.'"

In the end, such behavior left no room for environmentalists to help broker safeguards in the future for the evolving role of eco-tourism in the lagoon.

"We are not anxious to have environmentalists tell us what the model is," says Valera.

Escalante Nautica, the string of Baja marinas proposed by President Fox and embraced by the leadership in Kuyima, has been savaged by Aridjis as a "monstrosity."

"The real problem was never with whales, nor is it now," says Valera. "We live here, but the environmentalists never mention us. Only the whales. But us, we are part of nature too."

Such friction isn't merely the absence of grace so common in political struggles but rather the natural tension between cultures.

The two women Baja Discovery employs as field guides for the eco-tourists are informed, helpful and always cheerful, vegetarians. Their sense of place in the world is purely American.

Last March, they led the entire camp to the lagoon flats after the tide had gone out. Upon the bank sat a plastic pail containing a handful of limes, a bottle of hot sauce, a knife and one very fresh octopus.

In the distance, three fishermen made their way toward the kitchen tent.

Guide Cindy Hansen was so confounded by the live cephalopod accompanied by everything necessary for lunch except a place setting that she refused to believe that someone actually intended to, well, eat it.

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