Oil & Water
Waves, Untamed Wilderness, And Big Oil Intersect In Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest
Half asleep, Peter Devries spotted her. She dove beneath Acheiver, pushing ripples across the black water of the still dawn. It sent the normally reserved Canadian surf phenom shouting to wake us. Jolted out of our dream states, we scrambled from our bunks to share in his disbelief. A family of killer whales drew lazy circles around us. In bursts of speed, followed by glide, they churned the water to slap against our steel hull. We stood in silent awe. Then, mere inches off of our port side, a calf turned and raised an eye out of the water. She had requested an audience.
Although Chris and Dan Malloy have explored all the world’s oceans, neither had shared water with killer whales. But on our unconventional surf voyage, this was precisely the experience they sought. So when Captain Brian Falconer quickly raised the anchor so we could keep up with our new friends, we happily forsook the pleasures of surfing to revel in their company and witness the abundance only coastal British Columbia can offer.
We’re Here, and It’s On
We left the relative civilization of Vancouver Island’s rugged shore and steamed north toward a vast region known as the Great Bear Rainforest. Before us lay hundreds of miles of unspoiled coastline. An unpaved landscape spans this entire stretch, extending from the wild outer coast to the tips of the Coast Mountain Range, encapsulating some 35,000 square miles. The largest swaths of intact, temperate rainforest left on the planet provide a stronghold for animals depleted or lost elsewhere in North America, most notably the large predators that prowl the land and the salmon that support all life here. This is a place so unique that wolves are considered “marine mammals,” given their dependence on marine foods and their tendency to swim among islands and across fjords. It’s a home to grizzly bears, black bears, and the Kermode Bear (the white form of the black bear, which is rarer than the Panda and only found here).
Owing to its remoteness and notoriously dangerous seas, surfing in the area remains the obscure passion of few souls. Only a small handful of government agents, holed up in desolate outposts, brave weather windows to find waves. Although there are likely some hardy fishermen who bring boards along, there is no such thing as a “lineup” here. The area has been completely overlooked by organized surf exploration and if the very heart of the coast was not at risk, it would be best left that way.
Our first stop was a deserted beachbreak where power-generating bathymetry meets a little creek kept busy by some of the heaviest rainfall on the planet. About two nautical miles offshore, we gathered on deck with binoculars, bellies still full from the overstuffed galley, as the boat rolled gently in the mellow front end of a promising swell. Trevor Gordon, with the eyes of an artist, was the first to make out rooster tails lit by the sun. We hurried to engage fins, slip into neoprene, and wax up.
Before anyone else had even accounted for all of their equipment, Pete had jumped ship and was paddling furiously. From the boat, we watched as his upper body appeared several times above the lip of his first wave, telegraphing something big. I blinked and then saw him and his board about six feet above the lip. He stuck the air—an auspicious start to the session. It did not matter that cameras were not yet rolling. There were more high-flying performances to come.
To bear witness is to not be passive. It requires action. One must be earnest. This was a lesson I learned from Achiever’s first mate, Doug Brown. His aboriginal ancestors were once the planet’s densest civilization of hunter-gatherers, nourished by foods from the sea. This indigenous coastal tribe has called this place home for at least 10,000 years. Salmon and cedar trees blessed this land, becoming beacons of survival and keystones of culture. European “guns, germs and steel,” however, all but wiped out Doug’s ancestors and an entire people.
This genocide nearly muted the songs of the Potlatch. This gift-giving festival served as the primary economic system practiced by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. It was at these very public ceremonies that audience accepted a distinct and active role. To witness showed a commitment to the host family, for their riches were on display. In return, those observing would take home armfuls of wealth that the families distributed.
In a similar way, this is what we had asked of Peter, the Malloys, and Trevor Gordon. We wanted to give voice to marine mammals and other life threatened by the modern world. After all, whales, dolphins, and the like—as intelligent as they are—cannot mount their own defenses against Very Big Oil. So, in the Great Bear Rainforest, we challenged fellow watermen. We reasoned that, among all humans, surfers are surely the most akin to marine mammals. Our duty and responsibility involved witnessing the wealth of this coast and to come home richer for the experience.