They don't make them like they used to. It's probably an overused phrase, but when it comes to the Gardner diesel engine powering the Columbia III, a 1950s hospital ship turned small tour ship, the saying holds true. The previous era engine drives the restored boat at 9.3 knots, a respectable pace for a ship that houses ten people in comfort. The engine is big, slow turning and, best of all, incredibly fuel efficient. Using less fuel than a modern 60 horsepower outboard, the Columbia III chugs up and down the B.C. coast carrying guests from the Discovery Islands to the Great Bear Rainforest, on Mothership Adventures cultural, wildlife and sea kayaking tours.
"It's quiet and environmentally friendly," says Ross Campbell, the ship's captain and owner of Mothership Adventures. "Its footprint is tiny. We can come, look, see and go, and the world is no different for it." He's speaking of the ship, but the statement holds true for the rest of the company's operations too, from working with First Nations to bearing witness to ecological changes.
Mothership Adventures is a family business, founded in 1998 and purchased in 2005 by the Campbell family. Ross, his wife, Fern, their adult kids and their families all work together. It's an inclusive operation where everyone wears multiple hats every day. Everyone but Campbell (who doesn't usually leave the ship on bear viewing days.)took a commercial bear-viewing course. That education combined with working with environmentalists like Ian McAllister, a major player at Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Pacific Wild Organization, altered how they bear watch. Instead of launching multiple kayaks and landing in estuaries, they learnt that the least disruptive way to view them was to take one zodiac and stay on the water giving the bears lots of space.
Before they start running tours in a new area they always consult with the local First Nation. "It's their territory," Campbell says. "We're guests and we want to be welcome guests." The company has signed, or is in the process of signing, protocol agreements with all the First Nations people they come in contact with. And, on a couple of their tours they hire First Nations guides to give guests a more informative and personal experience.
The Campbell's also do their best to inform guests about the issues affecting the coast. "The coastal ecosystem is what has allowed me to make money to support my family," Campbell says. "It's my responsibility to pay it back." On board the Columbia III they tell guests about the ongoing wolf and grizzly bear hunts on the B.C. coast. They talk about the pros and cons of salmon farming. They support the work of Ian McAllister and Alexandra Morton, a marine researcher fighting salmon farming. And they also bear witness.
In 2008, salmon returns to the west coast of British Columbia were some of the worst ever. In most estuaries the Columbia III visited there were almost no salmon. "There were no birds, no smell," Campbell says. "We wondered ‘What's wrong?'" There were almost no bears and the ones they did see looked hungry. Campbell's Spirit Bear guide had trouble finding the white bears. Usually he looks for discarded salmon carcasses - the bears usually partially eat a salmon and its eggs leaving the rest in the forest - but the bears were eating every scrap. No one knows exactly why the salmon populations collapsed but it was likely a collection of human caused factors including salmon farming, habitat destruction and over fishing. Whatever it was Campbell is working to stop the slide.
"Saving wild salmon goes beyond bears, fishermen and tourism," Campbell says. "They were important to me before I made my living from nature and they're important to my grand kids. Salmon should exist, not because we make a lot of money from them, but because they're a cornerstone species on this coast and have the right to exist irrespective of human needs."
Together with other tourism operators and environmental groups Campbell's working to make politicians take notice of the drastic declines and do something before it's too late. "If the salmon are gone people will still come on my tours," Campbell says. "This area is pretty enough on its own. But the BC coast would be an impoverished faćade without them."
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