Oil & Water: waves, wilderness and big oil intersect in GBR

A version of this article was first published in SURFER, and on the Surfer Magazine website, May 2012.


Half asleep, Peter Devries spotted her. She dove beneath Achiever, 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 pod 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.

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 were looking for. So when Captain Brian Falconer raised the anchor so we could keep up with our new friends, we happily traded the pleasures of surfing to revel in their company and witness the abundance only coastal British Columbia can offer.


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 between islands and across fjords. It’s 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.

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 the weather 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.

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 landed 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 the 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. 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.


Being on the voyage took its own form of activism, of peaceful protest. After all, during the same ten days, dozens of activists protesting the proposed pipeline were being arrested in the streets of Washington, D.C. We felt a kinship. The long, serpentine arms of Canada’s sinister Tar Sands threatened to touch us both.

During the same ten days, dozens of activist protesting the proposed pipeline were being arrested in the streets of Washington D.C.

In the neighboring province of Alberta, the largest industrial development in the world hums night and day on a frantic and relentless assignment to steam gooey tar out of sand. At the great expense of boreal forest, health of nearby residents, and finite fossil fuels, the most powerful companies in the world coax yet more fossil fuels from this so-called “unconventional” resource. Sibling projects still in their conception phases—in the form of a super-sized Keystone pipeline through the Midwestern United States, and the menacing Northern Gateway pipeline to this precious B.C. coast—both would originate from the belly of this beast.

Given this context, I’d excuse you for thinking that this was a boat full of anti-capitalist, whale-huggers. But you’d be mistaken. The crew spoke—and debated—about our use and abuse of the wealth the planet has bestowed upon us, all acutely aware of our relationship with fossil fuels, and the sticky geopolitical realities that come with it.


Our morning with killer whales was only one experience that defied rational explanation. I honor science as a career, but after this trip, I believe in magic. The animals of the coast had surely conspired to have us take notice of them. Pacific White-sided Dolphins seemed especially attracted to our bow wake this voyage, and massive humpback whales parted the water at the precise tide lines Captain Brian had predicted.

Luckily for us, Chris Malloy was not only documenting our voyage, but also donating his trademark vision, energy, and, of course, power surfing to the project. Almost without fail, he was duty-bound behind the camera when the rights were on. But when we chanced on a couple of powerful lefts, he abandoned his post and left videographer Scott Soens (and his bear spray) to fend for himself.

Trevor, the youngest aboard, approached each wave with the same sensitivity he applied to his sketchbook. Elegant lines tied together a suite of maneuvers. He somehow negotiated a 5’8″ into giant, leaned-back bottom turns. He nabbed little barrels at the beachbreaks. He threw spray with a distinctive coupling of modesty and flair.

In neighboring Alberta, the largest industrial development in the world hums all night on a relentless assignment to steam gooey tar out of the sand.

On land, we not only followed in the footsteps of wild wolves, but they also followed in ours. And during a hike up a particularly magnificent watershed, we could not walk for five minutes without sharing a trail with fishing grizzlies. Not bad for a bunch of Californian surfers who had never seen the animal that graces their state flag. Sadly, not many will, given the diminished population of both the bruin and the salmon that support them.


Some men dream of wealth, but an artificial wealth, borne at the expense of natural capital. The oil giant, Enbridge Inc., and its international partners have hatched a plan for the most ambitious project of its kind ever conceived. A shiny new pipeline would snake its way westward across more than 700 miles of Albertan and B.C. wilderness, hundreds of fish-bearing streams, and dozens of First Nations territories. At a port assaulted by some of the planet’s most violent storms, the world’s dirtiest oil would be sucked into the largest ocean-going vessels ever built. Two to three very Large Crude Containers (or VLCCs in industry lexicon), temples to industrial hubris, would navigate complex inlets and dodge reefs en route to oil-hungry Asia and California each week. That’s about 225 million gallons of “diluted bitumen” plowing through our seas every seven days.

This plan would taunt one of the most rugged landscapes and perilous coastlines in the world. The pipeline would have to traverse some of the most extreme geology on Earth: two mountain ranges (the Rockies and the Coast Range), a hotspot of seismic activity, and powerful waterways that drain a good portion of the continent. Vicious hurricane-force winds pummel anything or anyone reckless enough to be caught outside. Even tucked away in bombproof anchorages, our 70-foot vessel danced all night during a couple of storms. We spun around our anchor chain, with halyards slapping the mast and robbing us of sleep.

We hear promises of world-class safety protocols. Will pipeline maintenance match the Enbridge standards that polluted Michigan’s Kalamazoo River? Will these protocols ensure the safety of our salmon and their spawning rivers, which provide the foundation for life on B.C.’s coast? Can Enbridge’s marine cleanup responses match British Petroleum’s, which failed the Gulf Coast? These wild winter seas would make a mockery of emergency oil spill deployment. Plus, if we have learned anything from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it should be that even the best available technology can be reduced to irrelevance by human error, malfunction, bad luck, weather, and their wicked interaction.

Sure, it’s easy to be critical without acknowledging that we are addicted to Very Big Oil’s product. But does that mean we should ignore their grand schemes designed to deliver the world its fix? If we don’t, need we abandon all petroleum-based activities to avoid hypocrisy?

As a team, we came to the conclusion that neither is the answer. Our conversations eventually found their way to super tankers, unacceptable risks, and the irreversibility of marine catastrophe. We also acknowledged how irreplaceable it all was, too, for this was among the very last unspoiled coastlines in the world—and indeed, one without any existing tanker traffic.

On one of our last days out, we pulled in to check a hunch we had about a peninsula brave enough to poke out into the open Pacific. The charts looked good, but the view from sea was difficult in the heavy water. Brian tucked us into a sheltered hook, but he was antsy. The winds were going to pick up, and he wanted to reach a safe anchorage by dark. Reluctantly, he granted us a precious two hours to explore.

Having seen few other souls all voyage, it was a shock to spot a gill-netter in the same anchorage. As we approached to say hello, the face that stared stoically back at us was defined by regal features, more Asian than Cherokee, which were only highlighted by the deep lines weathered by the constant assault of winds. This was a hereditary chief, a person empowered to lead his people by a responsibility handed down to him by a family member. We were reminded that these coastal people come from a lineage of warriors, of watermen equally as courageous as anyone the North Shore pumps out.

We had entered a part of his family’s territory. With natural authority and a dash of suspicion, he asked us our intentions. We explained and asked for his family’s blessing before proceeding. We would bring him goods from the city on our next visit to his village. And he would likely fix us some tea.

Enbridge Inc. would find no such reciprocity. The modern beads they dangle in front of powerful men and women, like our new friend, the chief, are worthless. Increasingly empowered by growing moral and legal authority to manage their coastline and resources, these leaders represent aboriginal nations fiercely and unanimously opposed to Enbridge’s scheme. They already have riches with which a few jobs and royalties cannot compare. The wounds in Prince William Sound—where the Exxon Valdez spewed oil into the waters of their northern neighbors and relatives—are still raw. Whereas conservationists speak of the likely extinction of killer whale pod AT1, which has not yet reproduced after swimming through the sheen, these people remind us of human losses. Many from coastal communities in Prince William Sound are still—23 years later—impoverished, financially and otherwise, after having lost their coastal resources and way of life.

After saying goodbye to the chief, the booming and cracking sound of the ocean revealed the final discoveries of the trip before we even laid eyes upon them. A scramble across a steeply sloped beach gave us front row seats to a reef that formed a powerful right. Wowed by this display, it took us a few minutes to notice what else was in front of us. To our left, we saw an A-frame spit spray out of both ends. We then noticed three more large, scary beasts much farther down the beach.

Knowing we were out of time, but into great fortune, the group panicked. Pete climbed up a tree with binoculars. The next set confirmed the break’s quality, and he immediately ditched all but the basics and ran. The rest of the crew followed in hot pursuit. In an act of self-preservation, I ran in the opposite direction for the safety of yet another wave, a beachbreak a half-hour’s jog in the opposite direction.

I never did understand what transpired in our last frenetic hours on that peninsula. A radio died. Watches must have died too. Pete and company arrived, breathless, at the furthest slab with time for only a taste-test before she went to sleep with the rising tide. Meanwhile, Dan and crew stumbled onto a similar example of powerful perfection. Only Dan, whose heavy-water experiences granted him grace under pressure, paddled out into the bone-crushing, below-sea-level, sucking beast. The Canadians and Americans missed each other on the return mission, one group favoring an inland route, another along the barnacled rocks.

Two hours late, we all returned to Achiever with the same type of apology issued after blown curfews (it’s always worth it). Brian understood. After a 30-year career of avoiding places we’d specifically asked him to visit for the purposes of this 10-day voyage, he’d begun to appreciate what makes surfers tick.

With many miles to cover, we had plenty of time to go over and over what the hell had just happened—how, despite all we’d just experienced, we’d only witnessed a fraction of the wealth of this priceless place.

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