North Coast

Where the Wild Things Are

Science and sightings in the Great Bear Rainforest

by Carol Patterson

Photo courtesy of Ian McAllister

It’s just after 7 a.m. and I’m standing in a 12-person passenger boat that’s skimming the Johnstone Strait, headed for Knight Inlet in the Great Bear Rainforest. I’m on a daylong, grizzly bear-watching excursion with Tide Rip Tours, and with every tiny island our group zips past, my excitement builds. It’s been a long-held dream of mine to visit this vast and remote tract of temperate rainforest, named for the majestic bruins that thrive there.

Spanning 64,000 square kilometres (an area 11 times the size of Prince Edward Island) and stretching along British Columbia’s north and central coast, the Great Bear Rainforest is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. It’s home to ancient cedars, glacier-cut fjords, untouched islands, rich river estuaries and an abundance of wildlife—from sea wolves and humpback whales to Sitka deer, sea lions and five species of Pacific salmon. And then there are the magnificent bears: grizzlies, black bears and the rare and stunning Kermode or “spirit” bear, a subspecies of black bear born with cream-coloured fur.

I’ve been advised that spotting an elusive spirit bear on this trip is unlikely, but grizzly sightings are practically guaranteed. We are, after all, heading to an area known for having one of the largest concentrations of grizzly bears in Canada.

As our boat chugs into the emerald-green waters of Knight Inlet, the ice-capped Coast Mountains as our backdrop, I spot a lone eagle wheeling gracefully above. We dock to switch to viewing skiffs with flat bottoms so that we can float closer to shore, and soon we are 50 metres from a blonde grizzly and her tiny cub.

Sensing our approach, the cub crawls up a barnacle-encrusted boulder and stares at us warily through squinting, chocolate-brown eyes. Mom, however, seems unfazed, ignoring our group completely as she mows sedge grasses with her large muzzle.

Her lack of concern seems oddly appropriate, I think to myself, given the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement that came into effect just last year, protecting 85 per cent of the region’s old-growth, temperate rainforest—and the wildlife that thrives there—from industrial logging. Last year also saw the Great Bear Rainforest endorsed under the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy initiative, an international program with the goal of creating forest conservation projects across all Commonwealth countries.

Commitment to Conservation

Of course, conservation efforts and scientific research have been taking place throughout the Great Bear Rainforest since well before 2016. A variety of dedicated groups and individuals have been working for decades to protect the remote area, including celebrated conservation photographer and author Ian McAllister.

For more than 20 years, McAllister and his wife, Karen, have dedicated their efforts to supporting research and outreach projects throughout the region. From educating the public on the genetic distinctiveness of the wolves in the Great Bear Rainforest or the importance of wild salmon to the area’s ecosystem, to working with the Heiltsuk First Nation to establish six hydrophone stations up and down the central coast in order to study ocean acoustics and thereby gain a better understanding of how marine species use the waters of the Great Bear Sea, the initiatives they have helped to oversee have played a remarkable role in sharing the wonders of this wild place and in inspiring people to want to protect it. The data from the hydrophone project, for example, is recorded and streamed online, live, for everyone in the world to hear.

But on this day, I don’t need a computer to hear the sounds of the Great Bear Rainforest. I listen, content, to the soothing tones of nature as small waves lap gently against the boat and a kingfisher chatters before dive-bombing the water for food.

A few hours pass, and our group spots several more grizzlies. Then, all too soon, it’s time to transfer off the skiffs and head back up Knight Inlet in search of some of the area’s other wildlife, from sea otters and playful sea lions to those fascinating sea wolves, who, unlike inland-dwelling grey wolves, rely heavily on what the ocean provides for their sustenance, swimming from island to island and preying on salmon, herring, seals and many other marine animals. Some have even been spotted digging for clams.

I do not spot a sea wolf, but after two more hours of wildlife-viewing pass, my group does see what our guide, Lindsey Pattinson, tells us is a rare sight: a black bear on a rocky beach, with four pumpkin-sized balls of black fur trailing behind her. “I’ve never seen a mother with four cubs before,” Pattinson says excitedly.

“There are strong ties between people and bears [in our traditional stories], and elders would consider the bears related to them.” —  Douglas Neasloss, elected chief councillor of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation

Studying the Bears

I won’t lie: catching sight of a spirit bear would have been another welcome rarity. These bears, and all black bears, are highly valued by the Kitasoo/Xai’xais peoples whose traditional territory is in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Photo courtesy of Ian McAllister

“There are a lot of stories about bears [in our culture],” says Douglas Neasloss, elected chief councillor and resource stewardship director of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation. “There are strong ties between people and bears [in these stories], and elders would consider the bears related to them.”

When Neasloss and other members of his community noticed that grizzly bears were beginning to frequent Great Bear islands where only black bears and Kermodes had been spotted before, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais partnered with conservation scientists to form the Spirit Bear Research Foundation. Among the research projects they are conducting is a study of the area’s ecosystem to determine how the grizzlies’ presence might affect the black bear populations on these islands.

“We’re calculating what having to live with grizzly bears in the area means for a black bear [and Kermode] in terms of how much salmon they can consume with the larger bears around,” says Chris Darimont, the Hakai-Raincoast professor at the University of Victoria and one of the research scientists working with the Kitasoo/Xai’xais. “That will help us predict what the consequences are for black bears on islands that were previously living without grizzly bears to be sharing space with them now.”

The research undertaken by Darimont and the Kitasoo/Xai’xais—carried out via indigenous knowledge as well as with scientific tools such as remote cameras and DNA identification—has led to enhanced habitat protection for the bears. It has also helped to inform and enrich the eco-tourism offerings of the area, adding valuable insights and experiences such as interpretative talks in which participants can view the dramatic video images of the bears captured by the cameras.

As my very own dramatic bear-watching adventure draws to a close, our boat’s radio crackles to life one last time: “Watch out for a bear swimming south in the channel!”

Through my binoculars I spot a grizzly head, its black button nose barely visible as it swims toward a nearby island. And then, I vow to return.