Traveling Companions

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

Machine-gun nests manned by teenage Indians in Mexico's army confront the eco-tourist intent on whale watching in today's Baja. The soldiers are there to search you and your sports utility vehicle for drugs.

In Canada, interdiction dogs sniff for, of all things, pirated abalone.

You may yearn for what Henry David Thoreau called "the tonic of wildness" by seeking out the gray whale, but you cannot satisfy this basic longing without stumbling over mankind's too-heavy footprints, your own and everyone else's.

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.
Jerry Stricklin, left, and Earl Doliber are the sort of travelers who shun the beaten path and seek the undisturbed outback.
Michael Lacey
Jerry Stricklin, left, and Earl Doliber are the sort of travelers who shun the beaten path and seek the undisturbed outback.
Hundreds of visitors each year travel to Laguna San Ignacio to take whale-watching trips like this one.
Michael Lacey
Hundreds of visitors each year travel to Laguna San Ignacio to take whale-watching trips like this one.
Local whale-watching guide Chema doesn't need slick marketing to bring in the tourists.
Michael Lacey
Local whale-watching guide Chema doesn't need slick marketing to bring in the tourists.
Jose Jesus Valera, left, and Raul Lopez are former fishermen who now operate the Kuyima whale-watching business in Laguna San Ignacio.
Michael Lacey
Jose Jesus Valera, left, and Raul Lopez are former fishermen who now operate the Kuyima whale-watching business in Laguna San Ignacio.
Chema's home, top, serves as headquarters for his whale-watching business, while the Kuyima company operates a manicured camp, above, with English-speaking managers.
Michael Lacey
Chema's home, top, serves as headquarters for his whale-watching business, while the Kuyima company operates a manicured camp, above, with English-speaking managers.
In a small clash of cultures, eco-tourism guide Sue Rocca liberated this octopus from a fisherman's lunch bucket and set it free in Laguna San Ignacio.
Michael Lacey
In a small clash of cultures, eco-tourism guide Sue Rocca liberated this octopus from a fisherman's lunch bucket and set it free in Laguna San Ignacio.
Vistors prepare to set out in boats for a whale-watching tour in Guerrero Negro.
Michael Lacey
Vistors prepare to set out in boats for a whale-watching tour in Guerrero Negro.
Tourists in Tofino, called "gorbies," take one of the less-expensive whale-watching trips on Clayoquot Sound offered by Remote Passages.
Matt Kenia
Tourists in Tofino, called "gorbies," take one of the less-expensive whale-watching trips on Clayoquot Sound offered by Remote Passages.
The Lindblad cruise ship Sea Bird carries visitors to gray whale calving lagoons in the Baja.
Michael Lacey
The Lindblad cruise ship Sea Bird carries visitors to gray whale calving lagoons in the Baja.
Fish farmers like Bill Vernon find themselves lectured by eco-tourism operators, who urge their guests to boycott farm-reared salmon.
Jacqueline Windh
Fish farmers like Bill Vernon find themselves lectured by eco-tourism operators, who urge their guests to boycott farm-reared salmon.
Logs washed up on a beach near Tofino are testament to the region's large timber industry.
Michael Lacey
Logs washed up on a beach near Tofino are testament to the region's large timber industry.
Water taxi operator Wilfred Atleo is one of a few Indians who have forged a place in the largely white-owned eco-tourism industry.
Michael Lacey
Water taxi operator Wilfred Atleo is one of a few Indians who have forged a place in the largely white-owned eco-tourism industry.
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.
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.
Some tour operators offer deluxe accomodations for eco-tourists in Tofino.
Michael Lacey
Some tour operators offer deluxe accomodations for eco-tourists in Tofino.
Tourists in Tofino, called "gorbies," take one of the less-expensive whale-watching trips on Clayoquot Sound offered by Remote Passages.
Michael Lacey
Tourists in Tofino, called "gorbies," take one of the less-expensive whale-watching trips on Clayoquot Sound offered by Remote Passages.
Even a remote Canadian inlet can seem like a parking lot on days when the whale-watching is at its height.
Michael Lacey
Even a remote Canadian inlet can seem like a parking lot on days when the whale-watching is at its height.
Valerie Langer teaches tourists enraptured by the wilderness about logging practices.
Jacqueline Windh
Valerie Langer teaches tourists enraptured by the wilderness about logging practices.

Details



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

Nowhere is this self-awareness more acute than in the exploding arena of eco-tourism, a form of identity travel that asks the backpacker to understand just how destructive the human presence is before even the first bag of freeze-dried chicken tetrazzini is reconstituted. Such angst-driven relaxation is the hottest ticket in town.

In a New York Times article earlier this year, eco-tourism was characterized as "the fastest growing segment of the world's dominant industry . . . in an age when 500 million people travel for leisure, eco-tourism is growing by 20 to 30 percent a year."

The United Nations has decided that next year, 2002, will be the International Year of Ecotourism.

As commercial fishing stocks have been devastated all along the Pacific coast, with the stoppage of a proposal for the world's largest salt plant in the Baja and the curtailment of the most destructive lumbering in British Columbia, eco-tourism has been offered as an alternative means of economic survival in both Mexico and Canada.

Whale watching has led the way.

Last year nearly 11 million people ventured out to see all manner of whales, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Worldwide there were more than $300 million in ticket sales -- food, trinkets and lodging not included. (IFAW's annual report, issued to bolster its contention that whale watching is the newest economic redemption, is not without its irritated detractors. A spokesman for the Japanese businesses that hunt minke whales described these creatures to the New York Times as "cockroaches of the sea.")

In both Mexico and Canada, the emergence of eco-tourism was preceded by enormous confrontations over the degradation of the environment. The five-year battle over the proposed salt plant in the Baja led to an environmental triumph against one of the world's biggest corporations. British Columbia witnessed the largest act of civil disobedience in that nation's history because of indiscriminate logging of the rain forest. Both protests generated unprecedented publicity which fueled tourist interest in these spectacular landscapes.

While viewing gray whales in the Baja -- approximately 2,500 visitors stopped in Laguna San Ignacio last year -- is a nascent enterprise, perhaps unworthy of the title "industry," it is a different story in Canada.

Whale watching in Victoria is as common as panhandling. Farther north, Tofino, a picturesque village of 1,500 souls, welcomes a tsunami of visitors every year who hike the woods, paddle the coves and support nearly 20 whale-watching companies that take eco-tourists out to observe the gray leviathans.

The last head count in remote Tofino tallied nearly a million tourists annually.

What is it they say about a thing observed?

Scientists have already launched studies in Mexico and Canada to determine the deleterious effects upon the gray whales from the noise of tour boat engines.

In Baja's Laguna San Ignacio, and, to a lesser extent, Guerrero Negro and Bahia de Magdalena, you can observe the first tentative steps of eco-tourism, while Tofino offers a more mature vision, an opportunity to see the flowering of an environmental awareness.

The problems and the financial burden generated by eco-tourism in Tofino offer a warning.

"This is a community in serious need of healing," observes Tom Easkin, former director of the Biosphere on Vancouver Island.

The residents of Tofino cannot agree upon whose vision most clearly embraces the injunction: Leave only footprints, take only pictures.

How, indeed, is such a morally freighted commandment to be followed when the very champions of eco-tourism are urging everyone forward, in ever greater numbers, toward the easily accessible gray whales in hopes that the unconverted will become ardent environmentalists?

"I look forward to a future in which people and whales have the chance to interact more and more and to the bonds that may grow between our species from such interactions," wrote scientist Roger Payne in his seminal book Among Whales. ". . . that is why tourists make such good advocates for conserving endangered species."

Payne went on to savage American regulators in California for gutting any meaningful interaction with the gray whales.

He objects to federal strictures that compel tour boats to keep their distance and which limit filmmakers whose work might further popularize the charismatic gray whales.

In Tofino, activist Valerie Langer claims that if only 10 percent of the visitors who seek out the gray whales hear her message, the world will be a better place.

Since more people interact today with gray whales because of eco-tourism than at any time in the history of the species, it is an opportunity to consider when the "tonic of wildness" is too diluted by human presence. Can the individual backpacker and the cruise-ship patron co-exist without doing violence to each other's serenity?

The Baja is just beginning

A solitary man steps out of a plane and onto a desert tarmac in Loreto, Baja, to be greeted by a bearded colleague. They are surrounded by a swarm of women in Birkenstocks carrying paddles.

The ladies getting off the Aero California flight from Los Angeles are all members of a lesbian kayaking club. They are the triumphant edge of this new phenomenon in the Baja -- eco-tourism.

As the women assemble their gear, they are watched by Baja's older guard who are scheduled to depart upon the turnaround flight. Loreto, site of the Baja's oldest mission, was first popular as a sports-fishing destination, and the anglers present at the airport are easily spotted with their dorado-stuffed ice chests secured by duct tape. It's early afternoon, but the airport bar is moving fistfuls of Pacifico beer and margaritas among the sunburned fishermen in Hawaiian shirts. The brisk kayakers appear unaware that the airport has a bar.

Earl Doliber, the solitary man, is met at the gate by the friend he has traveled the Baja's dirt roads with for more than a decade, Jerry Stricklin. They pigeonhole into no particular demographic, neither kayaker nor fisherman. They came to the Baja years ago for its dirt, for its vast emptiness, abusive trails and hospitable locals far from the asphalt highway and other gringos. They did not arrive with a need to see gray whales.

The pair drive into Loreto and stock up on water, stopping just long enough for a cerveza at the Hotel Oasis. Long a lodging for the sort of person who reads Car and Driver, the Oasis lobby is cluttered with photographs of big-game hunters with trophy kills bagged in the Baja's mountains. But the pictures of hunters have been pushed to the back of the shelves out of the light. Brochures promoting whale tours now have prominent position. The hotel's transformation is not entirely successful. In the courtyard an enormous deer is penned up, an unsettling reminder of a bygone era.

Doliber is not happy with the kayakers he traveled with on the plane.

"I hooked up with some of this crowd at the airport in Los Angeles," says Doliber. "These folks in their Columbia wear, sporting Polar-tec vests and Aussie hats couldn't all be going to the Baja. Had to be some sort of fluke. What was going on?"

Despite his leeriness regarding the regimentation of their Baja uniforms, Doliber was, initially, conversational, particularly when he learned that they intended to stop kayaking long enough to see the whales.

"They really wanted to know what I do in the Baja, as in fishing, hiking, kayaking or what activity."

Stricklin has his own idea of what constitutes an itinerary.

"We're going to drive around, drink tequila and smoke until we get so dizzy that we don't care if we have to sleep on a cot in a room constructed of cardboard and Tecate cans. End of story," says Stricklin, referring to a particular night's lodging on the Sea of Cortez. "Not knowing what's ahead and leaving the rest of the world in your dust is the attraction."

Doliber says this approach baffled the kayakers who were surprised that, year in, year out, he had no agenda and was content to simply go see, occupied by nothing more than the land and its people. Trying to explain the appeal of the peninsula left him sputtering, particularly when the kayakers showed little appreciation for how poor and occasionally primitive much of Baja is.

"Their idea of poor people were the folks at the grocery store who clip coupons. I think that was the real turn-off, that they were dressed for and in the mood for adventure as long as they didn't get dirty or exposed to smelly people with bad teeth."

A sanitized tour is precisely what the two men hope to avoid.

"People have tamed even the remote regions of California and Arizona," observes Stricklin. "California has phones located on one-mile intervals along most of its highways. When help is just a phone call away, there is very little life-affirming tension and uncertainty. So where do you find a little freedom, adventure and the minute-to-minute uncertainty that reminds you that ya ain't dead yet?

"Baja. It might not be the land of opportunity, but until recently, maddening crowds used to be sparse."

Doliber is of a like mind.

"I liked the Baja when the only Anglos you met were hippies and strange guys in big trucks who came to the Tropic of Dirt to misbehave in ways that have become unacceptable at home," says Doliber. "Baja was, and in some corners still is, like America in the '50s when drunken driving was appreciated and considered a skill. You know, drunk driving takes practice, and I've never hit anything bigger than shrubs and little old ladies. The Baja was a place where barroom brawls were not the exclusive property of biker gangs and college kids, and pissing in the bushes was not an offense if your back was turned."

Doliber concedes that he has not been in a bar fight in the Baja any more than the kayakers have discovered new islands. He is simply nostalgic for the traveler's mirage, the image that brought him to the Baja in the first place.

That image certainly did not include packaged eco-tours, something more readily associated with the likes of Cabo San Lucas and easily avoided in the past. But now team leaders were taking planeloads of freshly garbed tourists into the outback, leaving Doliber and Stricklin picnickers who have just discovered a long line of ants in the potato salad.

Doliber acknowledges that part of his response is simply NIMBY (not in my back yard) on holiday.

"I didn't want those people in their brand-new safari gear in my Baja," admits Doliber. "The combination of self-righteousness, alternative lifestyle, Eddie Bauer field dress headed to San Ignacio to commune with nature in the form of a barnacled encrusted gray whale I felt I was on a first-name basis with, just set me off my feed."

If he sounds misanthropic, it is perhaps because he has the passion of a convert. Such is the power of the whales in San Ignacio that Doliber went from total indifference to sending checks to environmental organizations purporting to save these grays from industrial development.

Doliber, at first, was a reluctant visitor to the Pacific lagoon fish camps outside of San Ignacio.

"I have worked the sea and find little romance in the notion," he says.

Recalling one of his earliest voyages, he says the crew members were almost all drowned when a Russian trawler nearly crushed them off the coast of New England. Worse, there was no money made on the trip.

"At the end, my pay was two large codfish and a couple of haddock. No money, just a piece of the paltry catch. You find any romance in that? I worked the offshore lobster boats on the continental shelf, and on one of those trips we also came home busted because the water turned warm, and 10,000 pounds of lobster along with a few tons of crabs died. Absolutely the worst smell I've ever been exposed to. Everyone got sick."


The sharp angles of Doliber's initial skepticism were chipped away on the approach into San Ignacio itself. The road through the desert winds past the Three Virgins volcano and alongside 20-foot-high, magenta lava flows. Atop these columns of volcanic rock, elephant trees -- bent, stunted things, with limbs seemingly too thick for the body, some pale, others mahogany, whose bark peels on the trunk in curled sheets -- grow out of the cooled basalt magma.

From this parched landscape emerged a vision of 100,000 palm trees planted by Spanish missionaries and nurtured by a spring that feeds a river.

"Just the sight of San Ignacio from the highway was a visual high after the surrounding desert drive," says Doliber.

Literally an oasis, San Ignacio contains the Baja's most graceful zocalo, or town square, where six massive laurel trees shade a tiny park. A bank, a dry goods store and a mission with four-foot-thick walls cozy the square where kids and specimens of canines chase. The church, lovingly maintained since 1728, is presided over by a statue of Saint Ignacius Loyola who is equipped with a broom.

On the west side of the zocalo, Marible Transvina Arce sells her date bread and date custard pies at a little open-air stand. Like much of Mexico, requests for coffee produce pleasant conversation, a cup of hot water and a bottle of Nescafé with a teaspoon.

"Another dusty little burg with spare dirt and smoldering rubbish," notes Doliber, "but there was knockout vegetation, and obviously San Ignacio had a soul of its own."

Cheered at their prospects, Doliber and Stricklin spend the night eating and drinking at Tota's, where the owner produces his own jug of tequila and continues to pour freely until everyone is too blind to see clearly the red, yellow and green checked tablecloth. Operatic arias fill the restaurant's stereo until the weeish hours.

At 5 a.m. the two depart for the torturous drive out to the lagoon.

"There was about four inches of clearance, and boulders were slamming into the floorboard when these old shit-box vans would just blow by spraying rocks and laying down a dust cloud that lingered long after they were gone," says Doliber. "On the map it didn't look that far away."

The map lied. It is easily four hours of concussive jolts that rattle bones and strain ligaments no matter how slowly you proceed.

After several miles of rugged washboard through twisting and turning desert arroyos, the road opens up and you can see to the horizon. There is nothing there.

Nothing.

Any contrast of color has been vacuumed out of the earthen landscape.

The sky is blue, but everywhere else are skeins of dun-hued dirt, rock, rubble twined and flattened like tawny cords of baked terra cotta laid out in a single khaki plane. No cardons, ocotillo, yucca, cirio, palo adan or agave. The eyes take in nothing that lives or breathes. When your vision adjusts, you notice occasional feathering along the roadside. Salt bush, no more than a couple of inches off the deck, does not soften the vista in the least but rather adds one more tannin-stained element.

The road, rippled as badly as the worst tank track and twice as hard, rises inches up off of the desert, a hemp-colored levee stretched out to a vanishing point where it then continues forward.

Once under way again, you notice panels of blindingly white snow off to the side, which in fact are salt deposits upon the arid lagoon's floor. Remnants of water collect and gather in aquamarine pools that jar the eye and promise to strangle the thirsty.

The air is dry enough to snap.

And the sense of God's wonder is overwhelming.

Even here, man's handiwork is evident, kidding the visitor in this expansive-skied baking sheet.

Attached by electrical cord to a metal rod buried in the desert floor is a car door. In red paint someone has written: "Welcome. Whale watching trips. The best guide. Ask for Chema . . ."

Incomprehensible, yes, but this desert hardpan ends at the Pacific Ocean.

Doliber and Stricklin roll into the first of several fish camps. Plywood, corrugated aluminum, wire, rope, all these fundamental materials have been pulled together into sheds. There are rectangles for windows, but pressboard substitutes for panes. Glass is mostly found in trucks. Trucks that run are outnumbered and surrounded by trucks that don't. Trucks that don't run are outnumbered and surrounded by truck parts. Fenders, bumpers, cabs, flatbeds, axles, upside down, buried in sand banks, collected in walls, abandoned where they stopped, dismantled and discarded, the rusting hulks are everywhere and peppered with whale bones.

You'd think something large had been detonated.

Chema, who takes visitors out for the three months -- January through March -- that the whales are in the lagoon, fishes the rest of the year. He negotiates a price, then equips Doliber and Stricklin in neoprene boots and life jackets, and just that quickly the men are in Chema's panga and out into the lagoon. For the next several hours the men glide among the gray whales, mothers and calves.

Beginning with a neighbor of Chema's in the mid-'70s, the gray whales initiated meaningful contact with the human race. Mothers and calves approach the small fishing boats, gently rising out of the water and allowing themselves to be caressed. There is no comparable experience between mankind and animals anywhere in the world.

The sea-weary Doliber is undeniably moved.

"Until that day with Chema, I'd never hugged and kissed a whale. Stunning. Too good to be true at first. A couple of guys and Chema in an 18-foot outboard with whales all around the boat, craning to get a look at us, waiting to be petted."

The tide is out when they return, but the boots make the hike through a quarter-mile of lagoon muck painless enough.

"It's a very human experience," says Doliber. "They approach you. They are curious and seem friendly by nature. The mothers nudge the young towards the boats, towards the humans as if there is something to be gained or learned from the experience. People respond in a motherly manner, with gentle caresses. You can't help yourself. There is wonder and awe at the sight of these huge creatures."

On shore, Chema and other fishermen join the visitors. Someone has cerveza for sale and everyone stands around kicking rocks, chewing the fat. One fisherman shows off an impressive collection of beer bottles including several that feature photographs of topless women.

"Chema did not speak much," says Doliber, about the hours they spent together out on the water. "He took the whales seriously and our money gladly. He wasn't a character, though pleasant enough. He wasn't what tourists are looking for in a friendly native, just a fisherman doing what he could to get by."

Later, Doliber would remember portents of events still unfolding.

"As I recall, there were maybe two other pangas out there from shore. Ours may have been the least populated, but the others were civil, too," says Doliber. "Then we spotted a large boat on the horizon. Turned out to be a mother ship full of tourists."

Doliber's anxiety isn't only from the sound of tourists' footsteps aboard cruise ships: Educated as an urban geographer, he can smell the paving tar of civilization in his nostrils. He has grown possessive. He made the journey without a tour guide, succumbed to the rhythm of a town whose air hose was not yet attached to tourism. He risked the four-hour trek to the coast and made the effort to communicate with the locals whether an intoxicated innkeeper or a reserved fisherman, all parties se habla hand signals, smiles and, of course, dinero.

Massaging mother whales and their calves was, as Thoreau suggested, a tonic, but Doliber managed this resurrection of spirit by getting off the beaten path. Getting off the beaten path was part of the tonic.

Stricklin grew up as a kid in California foolishly trying to capture crows by putting salt on their tails at his mother's direction. He felt that touching the gray whales continued the childhood lesson: "Everyone and their dogs are going to see the whales. This should not be an easy trip. It should be hard. There should be no easy way to catch a crow or see the whales."

From Tofino, British Columbia, to Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California Sur, from within your living room to the back chairs in the smallest town hall, the arguments ebb and flow over eco-tourism. Can wild places and wild creatures accommodate the life-jacketed mob?


In 1993, a group of local fishermen in Laguna San Ignacio formed the eco-tourism company Kuyima occupying the former offices of the bank in the village square. They meant to take people whale watching.

The most obvious change is the beaten path.

A road grader stops his work long enough to smoke a cigarette. Sure enough, he agrees: It's a dry heat. He has been carving the rattling ridges out of the levee that connects the town to the lagoon. He says lately the government has been paying to have the trail smoothed out a little more frequently.

The drive has been cut from four hours to two.

Not all the fishermen were pleased at these developments.

Anselma Mayoral grew up on the lagoon. Her father, Francisco, while fishing from his panga, was the first human being to touch the whales once the grays initiated contact. His fishing partner, Santos Ruiz Perez, is old enough to resemble beef jerky but his mind is still sharp.

"I was very nervous at first," says Ruiz. "I like to see the whales from far away."

Anselma, her mother Carmen, and Ruiz stand around sipping sodas, lamenting progress.

"We have been left out by Kuyima," says Anselma.

With an office in town, Kuyima collects the majority of the visitors who are unaware that fishing families out at the lagoon are eager to take tourists out. Kuyima bundles the tourists up in its vans off the town square and then whisks them out to its "fish camp," bypassing the shanties and the truck cadavers of the local fishermen.

During the three-month whale-watching season, the government bans any fishing, and even at other times of the year, fishing is a tough buck.

"We have to go further and further out," says Anselma. "You need big boats and big engines to go out. Often, we can't. Every day we go out and fish, but they just aren't plentiful anymore."

Today, many species are wiped out at the lagoon, and the stocks that remain are vastly depleted.

In the off-season Anselma waits for tourists, and even though the road is smoother, visitors aren't plentiful anymore, either. Kuyima has made it too easy for travelers to drive past the fishermen.

Kuyima's Raul Lopez and Jose Jesus Valera began by working as hands at American-owned whale-watching camps on the extreme western tip of the lagoon when the two men weren't fishing.

They have put a Mexican face upon the beginning of eco-tourism in San Ignacio. Kuyima offers day trips, overnight camping and longer visits if you choose to stay in one of the company's waterside cabanas.

The manicured Kuyima camp is overseen by an English-speaking manager who, along with his wife, entertains visitors by playing music from throughout the Americas. While the waterside kitchen is always open, those seeking more active distraction are steered to a nearby environmental artist.

Not far from the Kuyima camp, Francisco Gerado lives in a makeshift tent and lean-to utilizing a discarded tarp and scrap wood. He constructs outlines of gray whales upon the salt pan floor that stretch hundreds of feet from head to tail. He uses children to assemble what he calls geoglifos de Baja California.

"I instill in kids that they can make something very large though they are very small," says Gerado.

The silhouettes are made entirely from the shells of discarded Catalina clams that were wiped out by local fishermen. Tens of thousands of the empty bivalve casings lie in mounds along the edge of the lagoon.

"This land is a cradle of dreams because it is empty salt flats, salt marshes and plains," says Gerado. "When people are here, there are not a lot of distractions. You can work on what is important. You can work upon harmony with the planet. In the ether of the cosmos, there are many dreams waiting to happen. Half of our work here is to dream. It is our most important work."

For Lopez and Valera, eco-tourism is their dream for the men of the lagoon.

There is need for work for the fishermen who remain. Lopez and Valera decided to take a shot. "We saw how the Americans ran their camp and did the same," says Valera. "We focus on providing jobs for our people."

There are 25 pangas licensed in Laguna San Ignacio by the government to take whale watchers out, and Kuyima controls 12 of the boats. It provides various levels of employment for 48 people in its rural ejido.

Lopez, who spent four months studying in Mexico City before moving to the Baja in 1983, is a new breed of manager with an eye on the bottom line but also upon conservation.

"We need more tourists, six per boat, though sometimes we are forced to go out with only two," laments Lopez.

On one trip to the Baja, Doliber was shocked to see Kuyima in the town square and decided to give the company a try, as much a lark as anything else. He was not pleased.

He found himself sandwiched between two other eco-tourists on a single plank in a panga jammed with seven people. He felt crowded, unable to move and appalled by gewgaws like tee shirts for sale in the camp kitchen and dining room. Cutting the drive time out to the lagoon in half just meant more gawkers would get there before him.

Olivette Rodgers, who admits to being in her mid-70s, does not consider herself a tourist. In the spring of '97 she ventured out with Kuyima, along with her daughter, son-in-law, 7-year-old grandson, and a Jeep Cherokee full of friends including a hitchhiker. She never mentioned any sense of crowding.

This was not her first experience with whales.

"In the '30s, whale watching started with whale smelling," says Rodgers, describing the memory of finding dead whales washed up on the California beach.

In the winter, she and her friends would watch the grays on their migration. "These special sightings were spouts of water far beyond the breakers, which was exciting in a small town not known for excitement."

Rodgers had been an old Baja hand for years before her first husband passed away. She looked forward to returning and to seeing the whales for the first time. "Nothing, not colored brochures, not videos, not movies, nothing prepared me for the thrill of San Ignacio Lagoon."

"The experience was so moving that we cried and laughed," she says. "The mothers had come into the bay with their offspring and would come, almost as if by command, to our small boat. . . . Because of the number of whales and babies, it seemed almost intimate.

"There seemed to be such softness in their nature that they often bumped us carefully and then came alongside to be petted or rubbed like the family dog."

Rodgers got to share this experience with friends and family, including her grandson, Sam. She has nothing but warm regard for the trip.

"I agreed completely with our 5-year-old boating companion when he told his mom, 'It's better than a carnival.'"

Stricklin, who has also ventured out to see the gray whales with Kuyima, had a similar feeling when he watched a child's reaction.

"I saw in his eyes what should be in all our eyes when we encounter a beast the size of a whale, a little fear and a lot of wonder," recalls Stricklin. "The boy opened my eyes. Made me realize how jaded I had become over the years."

The fishermen from Kuyima navigate a fine line, and they know it.

"We don't want to have tourist pressure and turn this into a Disneyland," says Kuyima's Lopez.

Yet Valera, his partner, returned last winter from a meeting Baja leaders had with the Mexican president, Vicente Fox, excited about their new business opportunities.

Fox promoted his plan for a string of marinas to be constructed along the entire coastline of the Baja with an idea of luring American mariners south. This might mean more work for Kuyima's fishermen.

From January through March, Valera says, his figures showed that more than 200 locals earned some $250,000 from eco-tourism.

Valera estimates that if people came down a month earlier to see the whales and stayed a month longer, he could quadruple the number of visitors to the lagoon from 2,500 annually to 10,000.

"People don't understand," he says. "Seeing two whales [when they first begin to trickle into the lagoon] is not any different than seeing 20 from our point of view."

He understands that he cannot grow to 10,000 visitors a year on his own.

"The government could help with roads, highways, airstrips, police and soldiers," he says.

If this seems like a typical developer's dream and anathema to the spirit of eco-tourism, it does not strike Lopez and Valera as such.

"We don't like to have here Los Cabos, Cancún," says Valera. "We don't need big hotels, resorts."

Not only will the village of San Ignacio need more infrastructure to support such growth, but the culture of the fishermen themselves will have to accommodate the needs of eco-tourists.

Valera spoke of the difficult time some fishermen had working in the salt plant in Guerrero Negro, but he could just as easily have been referring to their fit in the world of eco-tourism, the staffing of hotels, the busing of restaurant tables.

"The mentality of fishermen is not about time management the way some people think of it," he says. "You know, reporting on time, taking lunch at a specific time. Fishermen think about hitting it big. In the plant, you work all the time and the people with an education do the best."

At Kuyima the ones who do best are all tied to Lopez and Valera, united by blood and their ability to speak English.


The sun crosses the plane of the equator making the night as long as the day last March and shuffling the vernal equinox into the Baja. Spring in the lagoon. At the campsite everyone is reflexively sweeping out his tent.

Asked earlier what made her whale-watching camp different from the others in Laguna San Ignacio, Robbin Burton replied impishly: "We have brooms."

Burton is kidding.

Baja Discovery has the single best location in the lagoon, on an island nearest the Pacific Ocean at the point where the lagoon is its narrowest.

But there are no "bad" locations in paradise; Baja Discovery has another secret.

It is run by women.

Burton, who markets the camp to eco-tourists seeking a longer visit than those who typically make a day trip of Kuyima, makes no mention of this in her promotions. There are no allusions to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, though there should be. In person Burton is not given to extolling the machisma of the women in charge. She is too busy trying to persuade listeners that the San Diego Padres have a future as contenders in the National League.

In addition to Burton, owner Karen Ivey hired two biologists, Sue Rocca and Cindy Hansen, and put them all under the guidance of Peg Sullivan.

Of the 15 guests last March, 13 were women. When the first day of spring arrived, the brooms flew with the force of a chubasco sweeping across Punta Piedre.

Nothing nicer than a clean tent.

Brooms are a small thing, and Baja Discovery is a triumph of tiny attentions.

Its information booklet is the best of its kind: detailed, scientific, informative, and not so self-important that it can't feature a drawing of a gray whale singing Richard Berry's "Louie Louie."

The library is well stocked.

One leg of the round trip from San Diego to the lagoon is always aboard a remarkably spacious Convair prop, a meticulously maintained relic from an age when air travel was gracious. The couchlike seating is covered in a nurturing, nubby material. Custom.

In camp the solar energy works and the showers are hot. Tents are large, airy and in good repair. The cots are cushioned with deep mattress pads upon which sit sleeping bags lined with clean linens.

The immaculate outhouses are rustic in the best sense of the word.

When the fishermen arrive in their fiber-glass pangas to pilot the guests out into the lagoon, there is never any crowding, which allows everyone in the boat easy access to the whales. The physical contact between human beings and the leviathans is sustained, intimate and as graceful as palpitating hearts will permit.

As royal terns dive into the fish boil off the panga's starboard, a mother whale passes beneath the skiff and playfully discharges a tuba blast of staccato bubbles. Just then an older woman reaches across the bulwark and rubs the baby calf's head, which is a good three feet above the waterline and 18 inches above the freeboard. The little whale and the visitor look into each other's eyes. The moment stretches, and then extends itself until the rubbery skinned youngster sinks beneath the calm green waters. The traveler, face absolutely rapturous, raises her hand to her chest, the fingers splayed over her heart, unable to find her breath.

It goes on like this day after day. You have never heard such squealing from fully grown adults. Soon the whale calves are given names. Baby Face and Sparky visit daily.

It is always like this.

Rocca remembers a woman who battled and beat breast cancer. When the survivor bent over to touch the whales, everyone in the panga fell silent.

"This woman started sobbing," says Rocca, who describes the moment as her favorite memory.

Karen Ivey was a white social worker in the black side of Chicago when she fell in love with a Tucson adventurer who was forever beginning his Baja sojourns where the road ran out. When the marriage imploded, she took the whale-watching business.

Today, she runs the company, organizing anywhere from 12 to 15 trips per year. Fearful of flying, she also has a home in San Diego occupied by an army of cats that need her attention.

"I don't see the whales very often anymore," laments Ivey.

Instead, she has turned the camp over to Sullivan, a woman who learned to run things when she remodeled homes and worked as a painting contractor. Sullivan operates a garden design business in Portland, Oregon, in the off-season.

But for the past couple of decades, when the whales headed south, so has Peg Sullivan.

In the late '60s, she went to San Felipe, a beach town on the Sea of Cortez that still attracts the off-road, dune buggy crowd.

"I drank tequila and saw God," says Sullivan. "I remembered the tides and a full moon. We waded out to a barrier island and became surrounded by the water. Started coming back regularly in the early '70s. I love this peninsula. The light and shadow that happen here are like nowhere else."

Friends took her into the interior of Baja's rugged mountains to a place called Rancho de San Gregorio.

"It was the Garden of Eden to me," remembers Sullivan. "The water moved through hollowed-out palm trunks and bamboo. Over 20 to 40 years they'd packed in soil for gardens."

By 1985 she was leading mule trains into the Sierra San Francisco for travelers who wanted to see the remarkable pictographs painted on enormous cave walls by early dwellers.

Not everyone welcomed her moxie. As it does so often, particularly in the context of eco-tourism, the involvement of Americans, the mere musk of their presence outside of the States, raised red flags.

"I had a classified ad in a magazine on archaeology, and it provoked this incredibly snippy note from a guy in Australia about how Americans ruin everything with their attitude when they show up. Americans are the worst destroyer of sites. What safeguards had I put in?"

Eventually, the work burned her out.

Waiting on people, even those who fancy themselves low maintenance, generates a level of high exhaustion that is pandemic among those who run tours. Ivey herself often sounds as if she is at the end of her rope.

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


The tranquillity business is brutal.

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.

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.

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.

Lindblad is one of several lines offering "soft adventure" for seniors, primarily, though they are seeking to expand their reach into families. Of the three gray whale calving lagoons in the Baja, Lindblad offers access to both Laguna San Ignacio and Bahia de Magdalena. It also offers an easy target for travelers who equate cruise ships with hordes of duty free shoppers and all experiences Disney. The anguish Doliber felt seeing the outline of a large ship upon the horizon is a tale oft repeated on the road.

And while the managers of Kuyima claim they do not wish to offer their customers the "Cabo San Lucas" vacation -- a holiday that clearly includes cruise ships in the port -- they gladly supply the fishermen that accompany Lindblad's inflatable boats.

But the issue of cruise ships is complicated.

The Coveys, who help fund research on killer whales, question whether the Sea Bird, with only 70 passengers, is really a cruise ship at all. If this is a bit of a quibble, they nonetheless raise a point.

On an earlier trip in northern waters, they both listened on hydrophones to killer whales and dolphins "talking to each other" as a more traditional cruise ship approached.

"They were drowned out completely," says June Covey. "All the talking stopped for some time. The sound of the whales and dolphins talking to each other had a profound effect on me. I had not realized the impact the ships had on them. I think the Lindblad Company is obviously a very caring company and try as much as possible to show people the wildlife without impinging on it too much."

Part of the caring involves the staffing of the ships.

Lindblad, which carries a complement of six scientists on each whale expedition, attracts passengers more interested in nature than shopping. And for some of its customers, a ship represents their only realistic hope of seeing gray whales.

Lindblad used to take its passengers overland from Santa Rosalia, on the Sea of Cortez, to San Ignacio and then out to the lagoon. Accessing the gray whales in this manner kept its large ships out of sight of other eco-tourists.

But according to Lindblad biologist Gary James, the rugged road trip was simply too brutal for many of the elderly clientele like Jean Simmons.

Traveling with her daughter from Wickenburg, Arizona, and her son from Boston, Massachusetts, as well as their spouses, Simmons seems entirely at ease aboard the Sea Bird. The family is quick to volunteer this about their mother: Don't get her started.

Getting Simmons started is not energy intensive. She is heard to exclaim on more than one occasion about more than one group: "Oh, those people!!!!!"

On this trip, the Sea Bird is anchored in the northern reaches of Bahia de Magdalena when Stern and others board one of the ship's inflatable boats, which take passengers over to a barrier island that shelters the bay.

The Pericue Indians had left enormous shell middens on those sands. Today, the islands are mostly quiet. Moon snails eat the horned Venus clams by using an enzyme that eats through the shell. The poison paralyzes the clam, not that the clams seriously entertain thoughts of escape.

On the Pacific side of the island, Stern trooped down to the carcass of a stranded, dead whale. It was a passable trek. He sat down on the sand and did not get up.

When his wife, who published a book in '94 about Japanese-American servicemen in World War II, became ill three years ago, she visited a trio of doctors, all of whom agreed that she had a brain tumor. The medical men suggested that they should saw off the top of her skull to get at the growth. Game enough, she asked for the names of patients who'd had this done and recovered fully. No such list existed, so Stern's wife opted to wait it out. She was dead in fewer than 90 days.

Now, Stern travels with a fellow docent, but he has hiked out to the whale on his own.

Stern strongly resembles Douglas MacArthur, and sitting there on the beach, the two of them, the old geologist and the dead whale, it would have been a potent image if you could have brought yourself to intrude with a camera.

In short order, the walkie-talkies of the Lindblad staff are crackling with the message that Stern cannot make it back. The after-effects of hip replacement surgery have stranded him upon the beach.

Without any delay, and no sign of inconvenience, young crew members show up with an upright dolly on fat wheels. Stern is strapped in like a piece of luggage and off everyone goes. A young playwright from Indiana accompanies the crew and Stern as they make their way through the mangroves, and she offers pleasant observations that continue until everyone arrives at the inflatable that will take the geologist back to the ship.

"Someday, this sort of thing will happen to you, too," says Stern.

Whether from the deck of the Sea Bird or sitting in the small boat, everyone sees whales. Each boat that goes out into Mexican waters to search for the grays is joined by a local fisherman who sits while a Lindblad guide acts as pilot.

Lindblad pays each fisherman $220 per boat. The inflatables depart the ship three times a day, six boats per shift. The company also hires a local restaurant to cater a barbecue. On the Sea Bird, two of the six scientists are always Mexican.

At night the scientists on board the ship make knowledgeable presentations, even sketching out the fight in San Ignacio to stop the expansion of Mitsubishi's salt plant into the calving lagoon. In fact, the head of the cruise line, Sven Lindblad, had been the first to contact activist Roger Payne in the Sea of Cortez to inform him that the president of Mexico had killed the salt plant.

Several days into the trip, an alarm sounds aboard ship. One fellow traveler has fallen ill and will have to be helicoptered to more sophisticated medical attention, which necessitates the Sea Bird making for port. All of the passengers on the beach have to be evacuated promptly. Soon, boats stuffed with senior citizens roar out from the shore heading for the ship.

When Jean Simmons clambers back on board, her face registers immediate relief upon spotting her friend, a 53-year-old stay-aboard who'd stood by the rail watching intently, never having witnessed a tourist Dunkirk.

"Thank God, you're safe," says Simmons to her flummoxed friend, who does not understand her concern. "I thought I heard them say your name when they told us who had to be airlifted out."

There are few destinations where you can go to get hugged by 90-year-old women. There ought to be more.


The soldiers in the war on drugs are housed in an enormous army base in Guerrero Negro halfway up the peninsula. The barracks are built upon the remains of an abandoned school. Underground classrooms there used to house the graffiti image of San Francisco's Saint Stupid, but the cone-headed icon has been replaced by military hardware.

It is here that Baja Discovery's campers must stop their bus on the way back to San Diego so that the soldiers can inspect the baggage and eyeball the eco-tourists for suspicious behavior.

Guerrero Negro is the home of ESSA, the salt plant whose plans to expand to Laguna San Ignacio triggered the five-year battle with the worldwide environmental coalition. Since 1993, the town has also offered organized whale-watching tours.

Waiting in Guerrero Negro to go see the grays is Gabriella Ruffo, who once helped train Keiko, the killer whale with the sagging dorsal fin that went on to star in the movie Free Willy. Her work at the aquarium in Mexico City with Keiko was also her ticket to fame. Ruffo became a famous Latin screen star. You could tell from the excited comments of the men hoping to help her into the panga.

"Gabriella is here. Gabriella is here."

Enrique Achoy Cota is not one of those men. He, after all, owns Mallarimo Eco-Tours, the similarly named restaurant and the charming motel out behind the kitchen.

In conversations with Achoy, it is clear that NASA launched rockets with less stringent oversight than the pangas of Guerrero Negro are subjected to before taking to the water.

For one thing, only half the number of pangas -- 12 -- are licensed for Scammon's Lagoon as are given permits for Laguna San Ignacio. This despite the fact that the body of water in Guerrero Negro is twice as large as the waters near Laguna San Ignacio some 100 miles south.

But it goes beyond that, according to Achoy.

"A fisherman cannot be a whale-watching operator because they don't have the training," says Achoy of his competitors in San Ignacio. "They don't know how to handle tourism. They come and go when you pay them. We have developed a non-governmental association and a code of ethics. If they violate the code, they are out."

Sadly, the pangas depart before Achoy can finish his recitation of the code of ethics.

Ruffo is pensive on the short drive to the pangas.

"We in Mexico do not have the culture to take care of animals," she says. "Just look at all the dogs in the streets."

It is true. You never see any coffee-table books on the dogs of Mexico. But Keiko himself was infamous in animal rights circles because of the suggestion that he was treated shabbily in Mexico City before being set free. Folks continue to follow the unsuccessful effort to reintroduce Keiko to the open sea in Iceland.

Ruffo has another point of view.

"I didn't like Keiko," she says. "Keiko was making a soap opera and this guy was carrying a prod to show when Keiko was making a mistake. Keiko left the pool to go to the holding tank. They opened the door to let him get in and he was angry, making circles and waves. He didn't want to be with people. He was moody and temperamental."

Like a movie star?

Actually, Ruffo was known for her cheerfulness and consequently worked as a game-show hostess where the popular refrain was, "Here's Gabi!!!"

Today, she hosts parties for children aged 3 to 12.

Out on the water, Ruffo and the panga full of eco-tourists see whales everywhere. Toward the end of the visit, the spectators are treated to much thrashing, splashing and loud, raucous carrying on by several gray whales.

Leviathan sex.

Even eco-tourists will get excited by such a display. The several-foot-long pink sex organ of the male gray whale, clearly visible flapping in the air, appears to explain the creature's Latin name: "Eschrichtius robustus."

Where Charles Scammon's hunters in the 19th century pointed and screamed, "Whale ho!" today, in the very same inlet, whale guides who spot grays mating bellow: "Pink Floyd."

Then something entirely unexpected happens.

A bull gray whale attacks Gabriella Ruffo's panga, slapping it three times sharply with its tail: WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP!

The eco-tourists were so obsessed with sex that they never saw the attack coming. Later, all of the hurried photographs are blurred.

Back at camp a clearly agitated Achoy says he had warned the operators never to approach whales having sex. It was not ethical. He could not understand such an attack.

Even a meticulous man like Achoy cannot control the wild.

In 1983, a whale in Scammon's Lagoon attacked a panga and a 60-year-old Los Angeles man died of a heart attack. A 65-year-old man in the same boat who was conducting research for a book on whales was struck in the head by a flying oar and died of his injuries a few days later.

Troubles in Tofino

Hikers make their way through the temperate rain forest on the coast of British Columbia. Giant Douglas firs, towering Sitka spruce, majestic hemlocks, red cedars, dwarf dogwood, salal, mosses, fungi, lichen, slugs, insects, birds, all of it a mixture so lush the greens bleed through each other, merging with the brown dirt and patches of decaying plant detritus clumped like cake until the eye gives up the ability to discern anything other than color.

Unseen in the shimmering landscape: 1,500 species of vertebrate in a single tree. On one hemlock, 70 million needles. Mixed up in one meter of soil, 120 million nematodes, lungless salamanders, mushrooms, protozoa -- the sum of it a biomass four times greater than any found in the tropics, and all of it aromatic, stunning and vibrantly silent.

The song that floats toward the hikers is brash as a show tune.

At the end of the trail, next to a seaplane, Klaus Horkey fills his lungs with the invigorating air of the Pacific Northwest, then sings for the sheer joy of hearing himself, a sound that fills the rain forest with piercing, exquisite melody. The hikers follow their ears and hail Klaus at water's edge.

The pilot, who flies for Tofino Air and sings in the Victoria Men's Choir, is full of observations about the World Trade Center attack and none of it particularly empathetic. He defends a Canadian professor who'd said the attacks by Muslim fanatics were caused by American foreign policy, though no one else had even heard of the academic, let alone thought to be critical.

"I guess you can't control everything just because you've got A-bombs," he says to the American visitors with a smile.

Horkey's comments are more bad taste than hostility; in fact, he went out of his way on the flight to accommodate.

Tofino, an engraved pocket watch of a village, sits halfway up the Pacific side of Vancouver Island sheltering a mere 1,500 souls amongst cloud-soaked woods. These Canadians host nearly a million eco-tourists a year, which is a greater tidal shift than occurs in the Bay of Fundy. Under their breath, the locals refer to the tourists as "gorbies."

Most of the "gorbies" are from the United States. These North Americans share the geography uneasily.

Just ask a local about the Labatt's beer commercial.

"Oh, yeah, yeah. You mean the one where the Canadian is just sitting there glumly and an American is rattling on, imitating a Canadian, you know, 'Nice weather we're having, eh? How about those Maple Leafs, eh? Do the Mounties always get their man, eh?'

"And so finally the Canadian jumps up, pulls the sweater over the American's head like you're taught as a child to do in hockey, and just pummels the guy. That one? Is that the commercial you're talking about?"

That's the one.

"Yeah, that's a good one. There're a whole bunch. They're all good."

If Canadians can sell beer by jibing Americans, you can imagine the ambivalence on Vancouver Island when the dollars from eco-tourists overwhelm the "loonies."

And yet there is more to the edge in Horkey's remarks than chauvinism.

Sure, the residents in Tofino are irritable because they are invaded every year by a million whale-obsessed visitors, but they're also a little out of sorts because of all the fighting among themselves.

In a community where everyone sees himself as an environmentalist, the rancor in the town square is between good preservationists and very good preservationists. This fight is loud, ongoing and without apparent end.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Chamber of Commerce has been controlled by the ardent greens. One Tofino civic leader recently returned from Japan where she urged her audience to stop building so many wooden homes in order to preserve British Columbia's forests. The members of Tofino's Chamber of Commerce do not seek, nor are they offered, membership in the province's more traditional Chamber.

The majority of the last city council as well as Mayor Scott Fraser ran, and were elected, on a visionary green plank. Process assumed an importance with the progressives not generally seen in City Hall.

Bill Vernon, a fish farmer and former member of Greenpeace, criticizes what he saw as the council's inability to do anything but talk.

"The mayor used severe parenting techniques to try to control the council meeting," says Vernon. "Once, when people laughed at him, he made everyone in the room be quiet for one minute. We had time out."

It is unlikely that the strictures of Dr. Benjamin Spock will solve any of the severe problems generated by the success of eco-tourism in Tofino.


Once aloft, Horkey, the bush pilot, makes for open water and locates a small pod of gray whales for the visitors, which he circles, pitched over on one wing, a view better suited for grasping the immensity of the 30-ton creatures. An aerial perspective also offers the best glimpse of the effects of clear-cutting in the Canadian woods.

The logging in British Columbia was so rapacious that her citizens lay down in front of the timber industry in 1993 and refused to budge. More than 900 people were arrested in the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. The subsequent mass trial was the largest ever in the Western world. And the entire, glorious resistance was centered in Tofino. The protesters were cuffed just down the road, and their outcry called the world's attention first to the issue at hand, and then to the remarkable beauty of the sea and land. Unlike the five-year environmental fight in Laguna San Ignacio, the Canadian resisters remained in Tofino after victory was declared. Today, the Friends of Clayoquot Sound (FOCS) occupy a charming wooden building in the middle of the village.

At the end of the short journey, Horkey sets the plane down gently in the harbor of Tofino.

Though it eschews hierarchy, the woman who speaks for the FOCS is Valerie Langer. She is a smart and congenial person who grew up in Ontario, studied linguistics in Toronto and moved to Tofino in 1988 as a private tutor. Her family steeped Valerie and her siblings in social justice, and both of her parents continually set an example by, for instance, working in Cuba. Langer was not raised to be in anyone's Chamber of Commerce, but the FOCS are members in good standing. She lives in Tofino with her mom, a credible jazz singer.

The forests are Langer's passion and the timber companies still her target, but, if you ask, she will tell you that the whale watching is a problem, too.

"The amount of gas into the harbor is disturbing," she says. "The two-stroke boat engines are more polluting than car engines. There is marine noise underwater."

But her heart isn't in the critique.

The gorbies that the whale-watching companies haul around all summer are all potential recruits and contributors in her war to stop any logging in British Columbia's rain forests. Not just clear-cutting, but any logging.

"The tourists are a boon to our campaigns here in Clayoquot Sound," says Langer. "If just one in 10 who come here are converted . . ."

In an effort to ensure eco-tourist epiphanies, Langer and others in her group train whale-watching guides to indoctrinate the passengers who venture out to see the grays.

"We utilize the access tour companies have to thousands of people, and tour companies utilize us because we generate lots of publicity, which draws people."

Remote Passages is one of the whale-watching companies sympathetic to FOCS. When environmentalists and animal-rights activists set up pickets in nearby Washington state to prevent the Makah Indians from killing a gray whale, Remote Passages lent one of its boats to the protesters. One of its guides was even arrested.

Occupying a choice piece of real estate on the harbor, Remote Passages offers trips out to see the resident gray population as well as kayaking. (Kayaking trips, like lattes in Seattle, are offered everywhere.) The whales in Tofino are not calving and do not seek out human contact. Eco-tourists simply get to observe them feeding in one of North America's most beautiful settings.

In order to hear what sort of lesson Valerie Langer has passed on to the guide, you must first climb into a heavy-weather jump suit, even in the summer. Tourists are then taken in jet-powered inflatable boats, up to 15 passengers per trip. The twin Yamaha 250s sound like the thrust from an F-16 and so the boat's engine must be cut off for the education to commence.

Peter, the son of a logger, explains that all the world is joined, healthy forests mean healthy trees, healthy trees mean healthy streams, healthy streams mean healthy salmon. And everything taken together means healthy gray whales.

If this strikes some as a somewhat simplistic linkage, it is, in fact, the party line.

James Darling, a lifelong resident of the area whose mid-'90s research on the feeding habits of gray whales off of Vancouver Island is well known, echoes the guide's remarks.

"Certainly the interconnectedness goes without saying," contends Darling, who has an office in the Remote Passages building. "But trying to show it scientifically . . . that's the next challenge."

Back at the dock, Peter the guide is asked why there does not seem to be a single whale-watching company in Tofino run by Indians, though Indian villages surround the town.

Thinking for a moment, Peter explains that, "The Indians don't tell good stories about nature."

You walk to the end of the dock and up a bank from Remote Passages into the middle of downtown Tofino. Several alternative food stores and coffee shops prosper as easily as more traditional businesses. For all of the eco-tourism, only three national chains -- a gas station, a car rental and a Best Western -- have set up shop in Tofino. In the summer, the streets are thronged with every manner of traveler imaginable. The place literally hums with people.

Sitting upon a small patch of green, a tiny red, wooden church from the turn of the century offers sanctuary. Inside St. Columba's, Ruth Hanson plays her own compositions upon the organ. The retreat from the surrounding chowder of patchouli oil, Winnebagos, skaters, retirees, eco-tourists and humanity at ease is ethereal.

Hanson is quick to let you know that the beauty enveloping Tofino is only possible because of the rain that floods the village much of the year.

The storm season is so violent that area beaches are stacked year round with enormous gray tree trunks ripped out of the ground then tossed up on the shoreline in a haphazard cat's cradle of giant logs.

In fact, the Wickaninnish Inn, part of the McDiarmid family's development holdings which include summer rentals, home lots and the hotel whose restaurant and wine cellar garner international acclaim, now promotes a winter season based upon visitors who wish to witness some of the wildest weather in North America. In the winter, the shipping lanes off the coast are some of the most dangerous in the world.

All Ruth Hanson knows is that it is too damn damp. It is difficult to picture on a sunny day when Clayoquot Sound radiates bonhomie, but Tofino gets 12 feet of rain a year, making it one of the wettest spots in North America.

"You get something called wet knees," she says, laughing. "We get 40 kinds of rain. It rains constantly. When I first moved here, I noticed that you get mold in the house growing on the inside. That really bothered me."

As a newcomer, Hanson was also concerned, curiously enough, by the Indians -- called First Nation's people in Canada -- that she saw downtown.

"They looked so leathery and dark," she says. "Like warriors."


It is unclear in the morning if Wilfred Atleo is a warrior; it is apparent, however, that he is late. An 8 a.m. appointment stretches to 9, then to 9:30. When he arrives at the marina just before 10, a deckhand smiles and greets him, "Afternoon, Wilfred."

You cannot find Atleo's whale-watching office in the harbor. There isn't one. You cannot book a trip with his receptionist. He doesn't have one. You will not trip over his advertising campaign. He doesn't use one.

You have to ask around to find Atleo. Like many First Nation's people, he is nearly invisible in Tofino. The 13 bands in the central region of Vancouver Island were traditionally whale hunters. Like the other bands in British Columbia, they have no treaties with the Canadian government, though both sides are, finally, sitting down together to negotiate mineral rights, royalties, fishing, logging, mining. The list is several pages long. Tribal members don't own their homes or much of anything in the way of collateral that a bank might take as a pledge against a loan to start a business. So Atleo operates a water taxi and takes people whale watching on the side.

The same dockhand who kidded Atleo about his tardiness also allows as how he'd trust the lives of his own family in Atleo's hands out on the water.

Another thing, Atleo has plenty of good stories about the countryside.

He pointed out where he used to run his boat up a river as a child to fish in the pristine water. It was all dead now from silt and run-off from logging. With no gray whales to be found, he toured the shoreline of the Sound, pointing out old timber camps.

He does not agree with the environmentalists who want to eliminate logging.

"They [FOCS] make a lot of noise. And if they hadn't made a lot of noise, you'd still have clear-cutting and all the destruction that went with it. But things have changed. And we still build our homes out of wood."

What does he mean, things have changed?

Atleo says there is a new forest practices agreement the timber companies have to abide by.

Clear-cutting has been halted and a panel of scientists and aboriginal elders compiled 120 guidelines that foresters must follow in Clayoquot Sound.

Furthermore, Greenpeace, the NRDC, the Sierra Club and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee signed a memorandum of understanding in which the logging companies agreed not to harvest in pristine areas in return for the greens' help in marketing timber products. The Friends declined to sign.

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.

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.

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."

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.

"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."

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."

Despite taking on investors, Vernon ran a company with a human face. He set his company's minimum wage at $12 an hour, substantially higher than other local businesses, after doing a survey of Tofino's cost of living including housing, food, transportation and utilities.

Vernon's concern for his employees' well-being included their emotional outlook.

It is a common practice for fish farmers to shoot seals and sea lions. The pinnipeds, whose numbers are at historic highs, attack the fish farm nets, looking to devour the caged salmon. Vernon's farm averaged 16 seal and sea lion mortalities a year until last year. In 2000, Clayoquot Sound was host to an unusually large number of hungry sea lions and the staff at Creative Salmon killed 50.

Vernon told the Leggatt/David Suzuki Foundation Forum on Salmon Farming that the sea lion "invasion" caused his company to reevaluate its practices.

"It became more of a moral issue for our company. We had to consider if killing these numbers of animals was consistent with our claim to have respect for our staff, our environment, or our communities. We made the choice to remove all of the guns from the sites, and to date, in the year 2001, there have been no marine mammals lethally removed from around our farm sites."

In whale-watching companies where Langer and the FOCS have trained the guide, eco-tourists will be given a lecture against salmon farming that includes charges of abuse of antibiotics as well as hormones. Visitors are warned that domesticated salmon often escape and breed with wild stock causing irreparable harm. You are encouraged to quiz local restaurants and boycott the farmed salmon which is what is most commonly served in Tofino.

Vernon does not pretend that salmon farming has not had problems, but he claims his adversaries are "Merchants of Fear."

He says that in 12 years of handling nearly four million fish, approximately 2,000 of his domestic Chinook salmon have escaped, a statistically insignificant number in the wild. Use of antibiotics is lower than in almost any farm animal, having been cut drastically in recent years -- by 98 percent -- and significantly lower than what humans use themselves.

Vernon says he has never used hormones in his fish.

"A segment of this community use the gray whales as this great symbol," says Vernon. "If you can link it to forestry, link it to salmon farms, somehow if you cut trees there will be no more grays . . . they have to sell something."

Vernon was not prepared to suffer through what he saw as the paralysis that afflicted the green council that assumed office in '96. Reflective of the chamber that had been in power since the mid-'80s, he felt the politicians were long on talk and little else.

Echoing what former councilman Nicolay described, Vernon says that no matter what came before the council, you could count on opposition.

"It was all about process. A lot of them had the time to be process-driven. They beat people up as sport. A lot of folks were bullied."

One incumbent, when declaring his candidacy, said the next council would have to be "more democratic."

It would also have to shift priorities. Voters had rejected a pet project of the green council, a community hall that would have cost residents between $2 million and $3 million.

In 1999, with a voter turnout of approximately 70 percent, Vernon-backed candidates swept into office.

Vernon and the others in TBA feel a lot of the finger-pointing in Tofino is misplaced.

A flier put out by FOCS lists several bullets' worth of alarm over untreated sewage in the ocean -- not the human kind, but rather the waste from farmed salmon.

While the council refused to address the millions of pounds of human waste dumped untreated into the ocean, Vernon was required to put in $11,000 toilets at the fish farms.

In June of this year, the village released: "VisionTofino: The Official Community Plan."

Required by law, the document is a 90-page, single-spaced testimonial to environmental consciousness and grassroots democracy. People from all segments of the community wrangled with each other in town meetings for nearly two years.

Although former councilman Nicolay says there is a strong undercurrent of resentment about the influx of eco-tourists, there are no plans to curb visitors.

Many of the plan's goals would honor any community that adopted them. Notes of idealism tinkle throughout the bureaucratic prose: "The district will promote site planning that manages the high energy natural systems of climate, such as wind and intense rainfall."

In matters aesthetic, no detail is too small to be considered.

"Dog owners will be required to clean up after their dogs on all beaches and public property" and enforcement is called for.

Sandwich boards are forbidden downtown. So are chain-link fences.

Under landscape and sculptural features there are 18 separate guidelines, several specifically addressing the question of planters.

"Metallic colors or fluorescent colors shall be prohibited."

Numerous hopes for improved relationship with First Nation's people are expressed and all manner of arts are encouraged.

Says one urban planner who reviewed the final document: "These folks are grooming their pet chimpanzees and ignoring the 900-pound gorilla in the room."

While the question of millions of gallons of raw, untreated sewage being dumped into the coastal waters is not addressed in any sort of detail, the report does note in passing: "The community currently discharges sewage into the ocean. Many residents believe that Tofino's place in an international Biosphere Reserve is compromised by the lack of advance wastewater treatment."

Elsewhere, the document suggests that the district should explore "alternative" wastewater treatments that are "environmentally friendly." Specifics are lacking.

Stage 3 water shortages are not mentioned, though the document does mention water, if only briefly: "Extension of sewer and water lines will eventually be limited by the availability of water supply. The community will need to address long term water supply issues."

The document encourages the study of Kennedy Lake as a water source.

The issue of worker housing is discussed somewhat more fully, though the most concrete guideline is that in the future new hotels should provide housing for their own employees, a concept that is, at best, a sop.

Education is only mentioned in the most backhanded sort of way. The same is true of police and firemen.

The word "child" does not appear once in the Official Community Plan.

MacKinnon, the public works superintendent, estimates that Tofino's share of the cost to pump water out of Kennedy Lake might eventually cost between $2 million and $3 million -- coincidentally, the same cost voters deemed too steep for the failed community hall. The Official Community Plan makes no mention of how this money will be found.

MacKinnon pegs studies of secondary treatment of sewage showing an expense of another $30 million. The village's direct costs will be $10 million.

Sewage treatment has not even reached the application stage and Vernon guesses that if the superintendent submitted a plan needing $10 million from Tofino he would be "run out of town."

The largest section of the Official Community Plan is devoted to measuring "Quality of Life." Here, "process driven" mastication attempts to outline how residents should take their own temperature in the future using 14 separate yardsticks, one more vague than the next.

If residents hold to the plan, they will obtain "windows onto the complexities of modern life, by offering means of measuring changes to quality of life. Indicators help communities to build participation, set priorities, develop action plans and track progress toward the community vision."

All of the new Quality of Life thermometers are necessary because "past performance measures did not link economic, environmental and social progress."

Despite the report's contention that past measures of the village's well-being were inadequate, Tofino has certainly been examined.

In a review of 26 different communities in British Columbia in 2000, from worst off to best off, the greater Tofino area came in dead last, where once it had been first. Compiled by the provincial government, the study examined economic hardship (Tofino third worst), crime (Tofino fifth worst), and health, education, children and youth -- in all of those indicators, Tofino ranked at the very bottom.

"Eco-tourism doesn't pay a decent standard of living," explains Thomas Esakin, recently resigned executive director of the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust. "It's poverty."

Esakin underlines the obvious, that the collapse of the fishery and curtailment of logging threw people out of work. He charges that environmentalists and promoters of eco-tourism are "blind to poverty."

He is alarmed that after all of the logging reforms put in place following the demonstrations and arrests in '93, environmentalists show so little ability to compromise or move forward.

The head of the Biosphere points to Shark Creek where Iisaak, First Nation's joint venture with Weyerhaeuser, wants to log.

The proposed cut satisfied each of the environmental checks established to curb forest abuses: the Memorandum of Understanding, the Scientific Panel, and the Central Region Board. Yet FOCS' newsletter attacked the cut.

Soon, slick posters blanketed Clayoquot Sound arguing to save Shark Creek.

Iisaak forester Cindy Hazenboom said she received nearly 600 postcards of protest that had been distributed in Tofino to eco-tourists.

Tied up in the application process for a full year over Shark Creek, Iisaak harvested no trees in 2001.

"Saving every tree is not sustainable development," says Esakin.

Esakin says whale watching and kayaking and all of eco-tourism cannot, by itself, sustain a community, and that the effort to do so has created enormous rifts in the population.

"This region is unhealthy socially," says Esakin. "I've worked with diverse and conflicted groups in the past. But here it goes beyond mediation."

People have to live on this planet, he notes, and poverty is conservation's worst enemy.

Furthermore, Tofino not only shows no intention of restricting the number of visitors, according to Esakin, it refuses to address the costs of eco-tourism.

"You can no longer find a sand dollar on Long Beach."

The wages upon a community dependent on eco-tourism are more than environmental.

The Anglicans of St. Columba's have seen deficits of 12 percent a year that they cannot seem to make up. They hope that God will provide, but they do not sit idle. Last year, they began meeting in each other's homes to pray for Tofino.

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