Traveling Companions

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

Instead, she suggested that the camp cook, Memo, had set out the octopus bucket purposefully to have sport with her and the other vegetarian guide, Sue Rocca.

When she finally accepted the obvious, a second emotion overcame her.

Maybe they're hungry, she said of the fishermen. I'll go back to camp and get them some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. With that, she strove off in the direction of the Skippy.

Carl Martin, left, and a friend look over the traditional canoes Carl and his brother, Joe, make for use by other tribes.
Jacqueline Windh
Carl Martin, left, and a friend look over the traditional canoes Carl and his brother, Joe, make for use by other tribes.
Canoe-maker Carl Martin used to be in the whale-watching business.
Jacqueline Windh
Canoe-maker Carl Martin used to be in the whale-watching business.

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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

After Hansen's exit, Rocca liberated the octopus and waited for the fishermen to return.

The first one back, seeing a group of eco-tourists surrounding his lunch bucket, walked past the pail as if he'd never seen it before and headed up the beach.

The second strolled past, glanced down into the empty pail and wailed, "It's gone, man."

He, too, headed up the beach without so much as hot sauce.

The third fisherman, a handsome young man, stopped and introduced himself to Sue.

"My name is . . . al-eh-HAN-dro." His warm smile suggested that this was not the first time he had introduced himself thusly to a young, blond North American.

Once she confirmed that the octopus had in fact been taken by these particular fishermen for lunch, Rocca informed him with the sang-froid unavailable to anyone over the age of 30 that she had let the creature go.

The charming gallant replied, "It is nothing."

Rocca cleared up that misunderstanding where she stood.

Much later, in an e-mail, she considered what had emboldened her.

"I don't know what moral authority I was acting on except my own. Pretty scary, huh? I would have done the same thing if I was a guest or guide, in the USA or Japan."

Because of countless examples of precisely this sort of cultural paper cut, Mexicans and Canadians view with mixed emotions the cash that American eco-tourists deposit in their countries.

"Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States" is an old expression that still retains currency south of the American border. The Canadians have updated the sentiment. Their Labatt's beer campaign is based solely upon Canadian pride in not being Americans.

For Rocca, the issue was not clouded by her status as a guest in another country; the issue was eating meat, a form of sustenance with dire ecological implications as far as Rocca was concerned.

"I feel that because I don't eat any animal, Big Mac or calamari, that when I released the octopus, I was not being hypocritical," says Sue. "I'm sure emotions took over, the lack of respect for the exsquidedness of the animal."

A punning vegetarian biologist is unlikely to single-handedly bruise cross-border relations. The rub is that she is not single-handed. The tension arises out of the sheer number of mobile eco-tourists and the cumulative impact of their ethos.

Still, in the Baja, the signals are mixed. There is reason for hope.

On the evening of the vernal equinox, the lagoon hosted a wedding.

Peg Sullivan returned to camp with an oyster shell trimmed in lace and tiny decorative beads resembling pearls. The names of the newlyweds, Jose Francisco and Cynthia, were hand-lettered in gold ink upon the attached card.

He is the son of the Mexican fisherman who first touched the whales of Laguna San Ignacio.

She is the American who taught the son of the Mexican fisherman how to be a guide for eco-tourists.

Together with their friends, the newlyweds spent their honeymoon kayaking along the shoreline in the Sea of Cortez.


Expedition leader Neil Folsom speaks into the microphone.

"Good morning, everyone. It is 6 a.m. It is a beautiful morning and we are surrounded by gray whales."

June Covey and her husband, Neil, rush out of their cabin aboard the cruise ship Sea Bird and are astounded at what they see.

"I will always remember the first glimpse of the gray whales in Baja," says June. "The sun was hardly up and all you could hear was the blowing sounds of the whales, and they were so close to the ship. It was magical. I could hardly tear myself away when breakfast time came."

The Sea Bird, with the capacity for 70 passengers, is part of Lindblad Expeditions, which offers 36 cruises per year in the Baja, 20 of them focused around gray whales.

Below decks, Tom Stern, a retired 76-year-old geologist and a docent at the Smithsonian, notices Jean Simmons, 90, struggling with the coffee machine.

"Can I help you?" offers Stern.

"No," snaps Simmons.

If Simmons had not been so impossible, she might have learned from Stern that NASA's moon rocks had been divided into two separate stacks and stored in two separate places just in case one of the stacks came under attack by earthquake, or fire, or something.

But that's Simmons for you. She'd sailed before with Lindblad, often. She didn't need any help with breakfast. She'd been up the Yangtze River with them before it was dammed. She'd even sailed through a typhoon in the straits of Taiwan with Lindblad.

Now that was something. She'd had to be lashed into her bunk, and the Chinese cook on that trip scalded his feet all the way up his ankles in boiling rice in the kitchen.

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