The Westerly's March 18

The Westerly's March 18

Behest of the West: How the West wove grey into gold

In her Jan. 7, 1987 column, Westerly News editor Donna Fitzpatrick opined, “The only way to go is up.”

If you’ve ever thought yourself powerless to change the direction of your community, or even neighbourhood, consider this: a summer student likely launched a lives-altering whale watching economy from the helm of a sea lion tour boat.

According to this newspaper’s Jan. 28, 1987 issue, James Darling kept seeing grey whales during the summer of 1971 while working as a seasonal employee for Parks Canada. If you like having money in your pocket, be grateful he didn’t keep his sights a secret.

In 1972, Darling was tasked by Parks to put a review together on grey whales and, after joining forces with a visiting biologist named David Hatler, that review turned into a co-authored paper in 1974 that proved some grey whales were kicking around the Coast when they were supposed to all be feeding in the Berring Sea. Darling’s work put eyes on the Coast’s most colossal inhabitants and turned into a years-long study and master’s thesis that showed, through extensive and awesome photographic evidence, resident greys were staying around the Pacific Rim National Park rather than participating in the annual migration from Mexico to Alaska.

We’re not the only species that arrives here as tourists but decides to stay after falling in love with paradise.

Watching them though, doesn’t seem to have caught on right away.

The Oak Bay Marine Group’s Bob Wright saw the potential but, after docking the Canadian Princess Resort here in 1980, his first year pursuing that potential was rough.

Wright was quoted in the Westerly on Jan. 28, 1987, recounting the slow goings during the Ucluelet chamber of commerce’s 1987 annual general meeting. Wright said he had considered “sinking the whole project” after a rocky start that saw him lose $500,000 in the first year. “Except for the local people, we had a financial disaster in the making.”

It’s easy to see his confidence in speaking candidly. By the time those words were spoken, that “disaster in the making” had evolved into a thriving success story and job creator.

“More whale watchers are being brought here than any other place in North America,” he reportedly said during that same AGM. “Last year, 354 trips were booked at this time; this year there are 1,014 booked so far and we have only just begun to market.” At his behest, some in Ucluelet began buying into the moniker of ‘Whale Watching Capital of the World.’ If you like having money in your pocket, be grateful he didn’t keep that slogan a secret.

A new moniker was needed. It wasn’t exactly a boomtown around here in 1986. A six-month logger strike, combined with an “unprecedented short salmon troll season,” crippled the Coast’s economy, according to one of my many formidable predecessors.

In her Jan. 7, 1987 column, Westerly News editor Donna Fitzpatrick opined, “The only way to go is up.”

Whales, Fitzpatrick believed, were a potential golden ticket to prosperity. In her March 5, 1986 column, she begged business owners to pay attention to spring’s whale watchers and spin a friendly vibe.

“Sunday afternoon, on the beautiful sunny west coast, 112 mainly city folk lounged around Ucluelet, sitting on steps of closed shops, or hoping to buy souvenirs, meandering into grocery stores,” she wrote. “If tourism is to even put a dent into the loss of economy due to the decline of forestry and fishing, there is a lot to be learned about hospitality and business acumen.”

Then-alderman Bill Irving shared that sentiment and, reportedly, urged, “the business attitude of locals catering to the public should be more receptive, not so cavalier.”

Champions were found, among them Brian Congdon of Subtidal Adventures who’s credited with hatching the idea for a festival celebrating grey whales. If you like having money in your pocket, be grateful he didn’t keep his idea a secret. A festive celebration was what businesses needed to buy in.

The Westerly’s March 18, 1987, front page shows a photo of then-mayor Erik Larsen unveiling Roy Henry Vickers’ ‘Friendly Ucluelet – Whale Watching Capital’ sign and announcing the first annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival had begun.

If you like having money in your pocket, be grateful that was just the beginning.