The Gray Matter

By Neville Judd

TOFINO, British Columbia, Canada, January 20, 2000 (ENS) - Early in the last century, a man named Kwiistuh accomplished a remarkable feat. Using a harpoon made of yew, tipped with a sharpened mussel shell, he killed four whales in one summer for his people, the Ahousat of West Vancouver Island.

For a clean kill, Kwiistuh had to locate and pierce the heart of his 50-foot prey while standing in a dugout canoe. A mere flesh wound risked the wrath of the 30-ton mammal and a capsizing of the vessel.


The Strike, an original acrylic by Bill Holm 1995 Collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (Photo courtesy government of Canada)
The Ahousat still talk of their chief and his achievement that year. His great grandson Wilfred Atleo, who runs a whale watching company from nearby Tofino, speaks proudly of Kwiistuh. "It's not easy locating the heart of a whale, especially when you're moving in a dugout canoe," he points out.

Atleo is Nuu-chah-nulth, a collective name for 14 tribes that live along the West Coast of Vancouver Island. They include the Clayoquot of Meares Island and the Ahousat of Flores Island, each a short boat ride from Tofino.

Before international boundaries, the Nuu-chah-nulth also included the Makah of Neah Bay, on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula.

These tribes comprise families and clans. In the past, some got along, others went to war, but one act unique in tradition and ceremony bound all Nuu-chah-nulth - whaling.

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, which represents 13 of the 14 tribes in treaty negotiations with provincial and federal governments, asserts that the right to hunt whales must be enshrined in any agreement. This, and the Makah's revived whale hunt, upsets Atleo. He recalls a saying handed down by the elders, "Eat what you kill, and kill what you need."


Whale watchers out of Tofino scan the waves. (Photo courtesy Chinook Charters)
A whale hunt could also affect his bottom line. In Tofino, a community numbering little more than 1,000 people, whale watching attracts 42,000 whale watchers a year. The economic spin-offs are obvious and vital.

Atleo believes he and Tofino's other whale watch operators have established a mutual respect with the creatures by policing themselves carefully and observing from a respectable distance. Several Tofino operators sailed to Neah Bay last spring to protest the killing by the Makah of a gray whale under a permit from the United States government. Hunting could change everything, says Atleo. "It could affect how close they come and whether they come at all."

Whale researchers, who rely on close contact with the creatures, share Atleo's concern. John Ford, marine mammal curator at the Vancouver Aquarium, believes that if whales are involved in repeated pursuits, while other whales are in earshot, then they may react. "After multiple hunts, different behaviour could be established especially among resident animals [that return to the same spot annually]."

Faced with a repeated pattern of pursuit occasionally ending in violent death, might an intelligent creature renowned for its communicative ability choose to avoid returning to the same place?

Low tide in Grice Bay reveals leaden mudflats, brightened only by the plumage of sandpipers, oyster catchers and the occasional blue heron scavenging the shoreline. They are oblivious to smooth and rounded hollows punctuating the sand. These curious-looking imprints are made by gray whales and their unique feeding habits.

A gray whale drives the right side of its jaw into the sediment. It uses its tail to flick the disturbed debris into its mouth. It presses its tongue against baleen plates at the back of its mouth and strains the sediment, eating what is left - usually ghost shrimp, a favourite of grays.

The technique has served grays, the most ancient of whales, well. Their adaptability as bottom feeders could account for their remarkable fortitude in rebounding from near extinction 50 years ago - before the advent of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling - to a population of 26,000 today.


Gray whale dives near Tofino (Photo courtesy Chinook Charters)
Rod Palm of the Strawberry Isle Research Society (SIRS) in Clayoquot Sound, says Grice Bay, at the end of an inlet 10 miles from open ocean, is special because it is the most inland feeding ground for grays on the West Coast. In his research of marine ecosystems, Palm studies whales' habits and takes core sediment samples under permit from Parks Canada to try to determine what triggers whales to vary their feeding grounds. In the eight years of SIRS' existence, Palm, a naturalist and underwater archaeologist, has noticed a more obvious change in grays' behaviour towards humans.

"Whale watching is close to 20 years old in Tofino," says Palm. "We've made friends with these animals. That frequency of friendly behaviour, by design of the whale itself, is increasing. There is a learning curve and these animals aren't dumb."

But Palm believes an adverse learning curve is just as possible. "Hunting would have a huge impact here. Changes in behaviour can happen quicker than you think. Whales cry in pain just like any other animal and whales in the vicinity hear that. Grays in particular are very protective of their young.

That's why commercial whalers knew that if they got into breeding grounds and harpooned a calf they could get mum, too, because she would come running. If that happened in Grice Bay it would have a profound effect," says Palm.

Grays' defensive and highly protective nature earned them the name "Devil's fish" among commercial whalers. Under attack, they were anything but docile.

"They didn't just roll over and die," says John Ford of the Vancouver Aquarium. "They reacted strongly and violently."


Gray whale leaps up for a look around, an activity known as breaching. (Photo by Camille Goebel courtesy U.S. National Marine Mammal Lab)
Ford rules out a quick regression to such behaviour but warns that repeated pursuits could change grays' relationship with humans. He points out that while professional whale watchers police themselves, recreational boaters are not always so willing.

His point is illustrated by several well publicized incidents, including one on the July 4 weekend in 1997 when more than 100 boats tailed an orca pod off the San Juan Islands just south of the British Columbia/Washington border. "The pursuit by a hunter and a whale watcher isn't that different, except that the hunter's ends with the whale getting poked with a harpoon," says Ford.

Dr. Paul Spong, who studies orcas from Hanson Island in the waters between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, says that since commercial whaling ended, a new generation of grays, particularly residential grays, learned friendly behaviour by the way they have been treated by people. "A return to hunting represents a profound change in people's behaviour so it's certainly possible that it could reverse the way grays react to us."


Gray whale blows out air while surfacing to breathe near Sea Lion Caves at Cape Blance, the westernmost point of the U.S. mainland. (Photo courtesy Sea Lion Caves)
Migration patterns could also be affected. "Grays generally migrate close to shore," says Spong. "You might get a shift in how close whales come to shore which would affect whale watchers."

Over-zealous operators off San Diego, California, are thought to have caused grays to make a similar shift off-shore when whale watching was in its infancy.

SIRS's work with whales represents only a small part of the studies of cetacean behaviour on the British Columbia coast. At the Fisheries Research Station in Nanaimo, Graeme Ellis, otherwise known as the "killer whale accountant," studies population dynamics and social structure among resident orcas and transients - so-called for their unpredictable migratory routes.

Ford's work in the field led to the discovery of different dialects among orca pods. Spong continues his research in Johnstone Strait, conducting experiments based on orcas' use of echolocation. The efforts of these and other researchers have built up an unprecedented understanding of whales that may help resolve why record numbers washed up on Pacific Northwest beaches last year. Compared to climate change, pollution and busy shipping lanes, hunting remains largely a potential threat whose effects can only be guessed.


Makah in whaling canoes at the Makah Days celebration August 1999 (Photo courtesy Makah Nation)
But for Wilfred Atleo, it is still the most troubling. "If the hunters were prepared to use traditional ways and cleanse themselves on the mountain, use a cedar bark boat and a harpoon, I'd be more than happy to watch them eat the whole thing. But our ancestors didn't have 50-calibre sniper rifles. The Makah don't need to kill whales. If there's nothing in the fridge, go to McDonald's."

The Makah's use of a rifle to kill a gray whale last spring appeared to be the supreme irony to many - an ancient culture revived with the help of a semi-automatic weapon. Little reported was the fact that the U.S. government insisted that a firearm be used to lessen the whale's suffering.

The Makah's hunt quota of 20 gray whales in the next four years appears miniscule compared to the 26,000 grays that annually migrate between Alaska and the Baja. Such numbers would appear to easily sustain a revived hunt by the Nuu-chah-nulth, too, even if all 14 tribes were each granted the same quota as the Makah.

Nelson Keitlah, co-chairman of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and a land claims negotiator, believes most people are poorly informed on the issue of a revived hunt.


Logo of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (Image courtesy NTC)
Lost in the emotional debate are the Nuu-chah-nulth's intentions, he says. When asked if the Nuu-chah-nulth intend reviving their whale hunt, he is adamant. "Absolutely not," he said. "What we're talking about is our right to go out and hunt. It doesn't mean we're going out now or even in the near future. It's a matter of right, not of principle, and it's not a right we're about to leave behind."

The Nuu-chah-nulth Council is angry at the provincial government's declaration that aboriginal whaling is not up for discussion. "The government has been aware of our stand on whales as part of the substantive agreement for three years. We were appalled when they made the statement that it's not an issue. I think the government was thinking of the polls and something that will ride with a majority of voters," Keitlah says.

Keitlah is also from Ahousat. He says he admires Atleo and the business he has built, but that does not mean he sympathizes with Atleo's concerns about whale hunting.

"We realize whale watching is a business but you're still making money out of whales."

The 2000 gray whale migration is about to begin.