Traveling Companions

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.

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.