Great Bear Rainforest - British Columbia
In September 2018 we travelled to the aptly named Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia for our first crack at photographing bears - both grizzly and black - in their natural habitat. This remote and wild region extends some 400km or so up the northwest coast from the top of Vancouver Island along the Inside Passage to the BC/Alaska border. It’s a vast temperate rainforest - a coastal wilderness with a labyrinth of islands, intertwined by channels and fjords that can only be properly explored by boat. For this reason we joined a small group tour organised by Wildlife Worldwide and led by wildlife photographer Nick Garbutt.
Following a stopover in Vancouver where we met up with the rest of the group, we flew north to Terrace for a further overnight at an out-of-town rustic lodge overlooking the Skeena River. We were picked up early the following morning for a short transfer to Kitimat where we boarded the Island Roamer - a 21-metre ketch-rigged yacht - for a seven-night leisurely cruise down the central coast region to Bella Bella. We stopped off at a couple of special locations during this phase of the trip. The first of these was famous Gribbell Island where we hoped to find Black Bears and, in particular, the rare Kermode ‘white' variant of the species, more commonly known as the Spirit Bear. The second location, further south, was Mussel Inlet where, with any luck, we would have our first chance of seeing Grizzly Bears.
At the end of the sea voyage we had an overnight in Bella Bella at Shearwater Lodge before embarking on the second and final leg of the trip, which entailed transferring by float-plane to the remotely located Great Bear floating eco-lodge at the top end of Smith Inlet for three-nights. From here we were able to access the shallow, lower reaches of the Nekite River, which is one of only a handful of accessible areas in the rainforest where you can see Grizzlies fishing for salmon.
Mid to late September is the perfect time to visit the region as it coincides with the salmon run when fish are migrating back from the ocean to their freshwater breeding grounds to spawn and eventually die. This is the time of year when bears forget about eating sedge and berries and turn their attention to salmon as they head to the coastal inlets and rivers to feed. Whilst the actual time and extent of the salmon run varies year to year, due to the weather and amount of water in the rivers and streams, early September through to mid October is generally regarded as the optimum period. Disappointingly for all concerned, 2018 had been a particularly dry year with far less water than normal in the creeks, which was clearly evident by how few salmon had made it upstream. They were still out in the ocean patiently waiting for rain and for the river water levels to rise. As you’d expect, the bears were waiting as well; catching fresh salmon if they could find them or scavenging along the shoreline for dead fish or discarded remains.
Obviously the general conditions we found at each location had an impact on our bear encounters and photographic opportunities. We certainly saw quite a lot of bears, but the ‘action’ in terms of fishing was far less of a spectacle than it would be during a good salmon run.
Although bears were the main focus of the trip, the yacht charter took us into the heart of the coastal rainforest through a network of scenic channels and deep fjords, which were bordered by dense tree-covered mountain slopes. These sheltered inland waters are regularly frequented by various marine species, notably Humpback Whales and, although photos don’t really capture the fabulous encounters we had with these incredible creatures, I’ve put a reasonable selection of images into a separate Flickr photo album that will hopefully bring back fond memories when I look at them in the future.
We had a few other wildlife encounters, the most notable being a rare, albeit brief, sighting of a Coastal Grey Wolf on Gribbell Island, and a Sea Otter that we were able to get relatively close to when out in a zodiac early one morning. There were also a couple of opportunities to photograph Bald Eagles and a few other birds.
Our group had a special two-day permit to visit the island, which is just about the only place where you stand a realistic chance of seeing the rare Kermode Bear [Ursus americanus, ssp.kermodei], more commonly known as the Spirit or Ghost Bear. This was the highlight and primary purpose for travelling to the Great Bear Rainforest, which is why the trip was called ‘Spirit Bear Quest’. The island is protected and managed by the local Gitga’at, one of the First Nation clans that make up the Tsimshian people of British Columbia’s northwest coast. The Spirit Bear, which the Gitga’at call Moksgm’ol, is a creamy-white variant of the American Back Bear, not an albino, as their skin and eyes are dark brown. These rare bears, of which there are estimated to be less than 400 left in the wild, are born white due to a recessive gene inherited from both parents, such that it’s not uncommon for white bears to be born to black parents. Although generally described as white, the fur of most Kermode Bears is actually more of a creamy colour often with darker marmalade patches. Whilst it’s unclear how this phenomenon, known as Kermodism, arose it’s a trait that produces far more Spirit Bears on Gribbell and neighbouring Princess Royal Island than anywhere else in the world.
There are three separate sites around Gribbell Island where there’s access to an area where the bears may be seen. One of these is Riorden Creek, a spot where many well-published photos of Spirit Bears have been taken. This was the location for our first visit. We waited in anticipation all day long, but didn’t see a single bear, neither black or white. It was disappointing, because our chances had now been halved. Our patience was rewarded though with a rare, albeit all too brief, late afternoon sighting of a couple of Coastal Wolves (see ‘other wildlife encounters’) making their way along the creek, but for the Spirit Bear everything now depended on the second visit.
Coastal (Grey) Wolf aka 'Sea Wolf' [Canis lupus, ssp.nubilus]
The next day we were at Gwaa Creek on the opposite side of the island. It’s considered the prime spot and has featured in BBC and National Geographic documentaries. In fact Paul Nicklen was there with a small Nat Geo film crew on the day we visited. They were at a special location just 200m or so upstream of our designated spot, but today the luck was with us as we had the sightings whilst they sat waiting. We had barely settled into position on the river bank when the most famous Spirit Bear of them all, called Ma’ah, appeared about 50m away on the far bank. It was only a brief sighting as she crossed the river and disappeared from sight, but ten minutes later she suddenly reappeared on our side just a few meters away from where we were positioned. It was a terrific start to what turned out to be a magical day because not only did Ma’ah visit the stream on a number of occasions during the ten hours or so we were there, but she was joined a couple of times by another Spirit Bear called Warrior, so named due to a scar on the side of her muzzle. Warrior is a much younger bear than Ma’ah who is now about twenty years old and unlikely to live much longer. She is very distinctive as she has ‘panda eyes’ probably caused by an eye infection when she was young. In addition to having two Sprit Bears in the stream at the same time, which is quite uncommon, we also saw at least five different Black Bears. It was fantastic, with the only downside being the poor light and persistent drizzle that we happily sat through all afternoon.
Ma'ah the 'famous' Kermode (Spirit) Bear [Ursus americanus, ssp.kermodei]
Whilst wildlife photography can often be hard work - lots of time and effort with little or no reward - there are many occasions where you’ll have an encounter or get a shot that makes everything worthwhile. But, every once in a while, you’ll have an experience that goes further, providing something truly unforgettable - our day at Gwaa Creek was one of those days.
After the incredible day we had on Gribbell Island, Mussel Inlet was a bit of a let down, despite the fact that it gave us our first ever sightings of Grizzly Bears. It’s another protected and regulated site that requires advance authority to visit. We had a permit that afforded us access late one afternoon, and again early the following morning, which was a good arrangement as the bay provided safe overnight anchorage. Unfortunately the downside was that it was almost low tide when we arrived, with little water coming through from the river, which created problems when we tried to take the zodiacs up the creek. The river splits in two as it enters the bay and although the wider entry point is usually the best way in it turned out to be far too shallow and, as such, we had to make another attempt on the other side of the inlet, which wasted valuable time. We initially had more luck on that side and even encountered our first bear, but the water level was now dropping so quickly with the outgoing tide that the skipper confirmed we only had ten minutes at most before we had to move back out to deeper water. We all understood the situation but, with a bear on the bank, ten minutes ended up being nearer fifteen with near-disastrous results as we ended up grounded on the shallows as we tried to make our way back to the bay. With the thought of being stranded overnight waiting for the tide to turn, we had no option but to abandon ship to move the zodiac the last few meters downstream. Whilst the water was shallow it was fast-flowing, so the whole operation became a bit worrying as we tried to manoeuvre the zodiac, stay upright in the current and keep our cameras out of the water! It was a close call, but we made it back to the bay where we found a suitable spot to disembark and make our way back upstream to the designated viewing area. I suppose the experience was all part of the adventure, with the only downside being that I had to spend the rest of the session wet through from thighs down and constantly wringing out socks that were soaking up water from my thermal-lined boots.
Anyway we were now on dry land and didn’t have to wait long for the bear we’d seen earlier to come into view as it slowly made its way downstream towards our position. We also saw a female with three youngsters, which was great albeit frustrating because they were also too far upstream to photograph. As the light started to fade they eventually got closer to the point where they were opposite where we were set up. The problem now was that it was around 7pm and the remaining light was really poor, so just after the following shot was taken we packed up and made our way back to the boat.
Grizzly (Brown) Bear family [Ursus arctos] | Mussel Inlet
The following morning we were up early and in the zodiacs ready to go at first light since we only had time for a short session as the viewing area had to be vacated by 9.30am. Given that it was twelve hours on from the previous day’s visit we were faced with the same low tide situation, which meant that we had to moor even further way from where we needed to be. It wasn’t a big deal except that it was still pretty dark and very misty, which made life interesting as we made our way along the muddy river bank, picking a path through dead salmon and checking to ensure that we weren’t suddenly going to encounter a bear!
We saw a few Grizzlies during the short time we were there, but it remained far too murky and misty to capture anything worthwhile. All the same, it was nice to be there and to be able to observe the bears going about their daily business as they foraged along the river bank.
The final part of our trip was a three-night stay at the remote Great Bear floating eco-lodge on Smith Inlet from where you can access the shallow reaches of the Nekite River. Without doubt the location of the lodge, quality of accommodation and the excellent food were all superb, but unfortunately the operation runs to a strict, almost regimented, timetable that quickly becomes very wearing when all you want to do is be out photographing bears. Additionally we thought that we’d have the opportunity of seeing Grizzlies from a number of different sites, but there was effectively only one location. There were two designated viewing points, one an open platform and the other a covered hide, but they were less than 100m apart so, to all intense and purposes, the outlook was much the same for each of our sessions. Whilst viewing was reasonable at some positions, it certainly wasn’t from others because of trees and branch overhang (that could have been cut) so at times the view was severely compromised. But, by the end of stay, we'd had six 2-3 hour opportunities in varying positions - some in the dry and some in the rain - and ended up seeing quite a few different bears and taking a fair number of photos, so when I now look at the following images I have to say that, despite our frustrations with the method of operation, it was a good place to end the trip. Unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of money travelling up to one of the well-known bear sites in Alaska, there are very few locations where you can photograph Grizzly Bears fishing for salmon and, consequently, I’m really pleased that we had the opportunity to see all three species - American Black, Kermode (subspecies) and Brown (Grizzly) - on one trip.
Grizzly (Brown) Bear [Ursus arctos, ssp.horribilis] | Nekite River
As a point of interest, the Black Bear [Ursus americanus], more formerly called the American Black Bear (as it’s a native species) is the continent’s smallest and most widely distributed bear. There are a number of subspecies throughout its range. On the Pacific northwest coast it’s called the Olympic Black Bear [ssp.altifrontalis]. In the Great Bear Rainforest you also have the rare Kermode [ssp.kermodei] ‘white' variant of the species, more commonly known as the Spirit or Ghost Bear.
The Brown Bear [Ursus arctos] has a smaller range in North America, but is also found across much of northern Eurasia. It is one of the largest carnivores, rivalled only in size by its close relative the Polar Bear [Ursus maritimus], which on average is slightly larger. The Brown Bear varies in both size and colour throughout its range and, as such, is known by various names. The two largest subspecies are both found in the Nearctic northwest - the Kodiak [ssp.middendorffi] from coastal Alaska and the Grizzly [ssp.horribilis] also found in Alaska as well as Northwest Territories, British Columbia, western Alberta and Montana, and northwestern Wyoming.
I didn’t give the prospect of photographing whales too much thought when we booked this trip, simply because my few previous whale sightings have been no more than a distant hump rising from the sea. At best I hoped for a shot of a ‘fluke’ as the massive tail of a Humpback rises clear of the water when it starts to dive (strictly speaking it should be flukes or fluking, as the singular term fluke refers to either lobe of the tail). I expected to have an encounter or two, but would never have guessed that there would be so many sightings that I would lose count, or that on occasions the whales would be so close to the boat. We saw them at distance, but also up close on the surface gracefully rising and falling as they swam alongside the yacht, going under the boat and, on one occasion, directly under the zodiac we were in; we saw single whales, small pods and, on one memorable day, some 12-14 of them fishing together; we saw them diving, lunging, lop-tailing and fin-flapping, bubble-net feeding and even breaching. These fabulous encounters can’t really be captured by a photo, but at least the following selection of images will bring back a few memories when I look at them in the future.
Humpback Whale [Megaptera novaeangliae] | Princess Royal Channel
Humpback Whales [Megaptera novaeangliae] are in the order Cetacea, suborder Mysticeti (Baleen whales), consisting of fifteen extant species including Blue, Grey, Fin, Minke and Right Whales. They are classified in the family Balaenopteridae with enough defining features to warrant their own genus, Megaptera. Fortunately our on-board naturalist guide was a 'whale-man' and, as such, I learnt a lot of interesting and fascinating facts about the species during the course of the trip and from subsequent reading. This has provided me with a rich source of information for captioning photos, many of which needed an explanatory comment.
Other wildlife encounters
This trip was supposed to be all about bears and whales. Whilst I’d hoped to see some other animals I knew that sightings would be far and few between. I was right, so it’s no surprise that this final wildlife set is primarily for three species. I’ve no problem with that as it keeps the Great Bear Rainforest theme in context.
Without doubt the most important animal featured here is the elusive and seldom photographed Coastal Wolf [Canis lupus, ssp.nubilus] or 'Sea Wolf' as it’s now being called in BC. As its name suggests, it lives on the coast or, more specifically, on the islands of the Great Bear Rainforest. These coastal wolves are a genetically distinct population of the local mainland Grey Wolf [ssp.columbianus]. Whereas inland wolves, called Timber Wolves in this area, are true carnivores that hunt species such as deer or elk, the Coastal Wolf has to take much of its food from the sea. Not surprisingly, salmon account for a large proportion of their diet and when they can’t feed on salmon they will forage along the shoreline for barnacles, clams, herring eggs, plus occasional dead seals or whale carcasses. A recent study summed up the life of these local wolves with the statement that they "live with two feet in the sea”.
Another coastal species of the central Great Bear region that’s difficult to locate and photograph in open water is the rather cute Northern (Pacific) Sea Otter [Enhydra lutris, ssp.kenyoni]. There are only a few areas where this ‘endangered’ species are occasionally seen. One of these are the kelp beds at a location known as Perrin Anchorage in Reid Passage. We moored there one night so that we could be on the zodiacs at first light the following morning when the sea was calm as this would give us the best chance of spotting one. Over the course of two hours or so we located five different otters, four of which we couldn’t get anywhere near. But towards the end of the session we found one that was totally relaxed with our presence - it swam along reasonably close to us, laid on its back to groom and even came up with a couple of spiny urchin. Although I managed to get quite a few photos, many were either out of focus due to the continual movement of the zodiac or the fact that the otter, despite the way it looks, was actually very active. Fortunately there were a few reasonable to good shots, because I doubt very much whether I will ever have the opportunity of photographing this species again.
Northern (Pacific) Sea Otter [Enhydra lutris, ssp.kenyoni] | Reid Passage
The only other animals we saw and photographed were a small colony of Pacific Harbour Seals (sadly no Stellar Sea Lions), an inquisitive family of North American River Otters that visited the Great Bear lodge jetty early one morning and a young White-tailed Deer in Shearwater. There weren’t even that many bird species. During our time on the yacht we saw a few seabirds - mainly gulls, plus the odd seaduck - generally at distance and un-photographable. The situation was different on the salmon rivers though as there were various species feeding on the discarded remains that the bears were leaving. The most prominent were the gulls. They normally interest me, but when you’re trying to get clean shots of bears they’re a bloody nuisance and ruined many a photo! However, there were a few species - American Herring, Western, California, Ring-billed and Mew - that I hadn’t photographed before, but oddly no Glaucous-winged, which I understood were the most common. At Mussel Inlet there were a lot of Bonaparte’s Gulls that were diving into the shallows to feed on salmon eggs. Other species included Ravens, Crows and a fair number of Goosanders (Common Merganser).
Bald Eagle [Haliaeetus leucocephalus, ssp.washingtoniensis]
But, the most interesting and important for me was the American Bald Eagle, as I knew that we were very likely to see them and I really wanted to get some good shots for my Flickr Eagles album. Unfortunately photo opportunities of adult birds were limited, but there were a few immature birds (as the above photo) and a couple of sub-adults on the Nekite River that were drawn to the salmon and were just close enough on the opposite bank for some reasonable images.
We’ve been to some pretty remote destinations on our trips to Africa and South America but, in terms of solitude and sense of space, the Great Bear Rainforest trumps them all. When you’ve been travelling for two or three days to reach the type of places we like visiting you feel as though you’re off the beaten track and that’s certainly how it felt by the time we got to Kitimat to board the yacht. But it’s not until you start sailing down Douglas Channel that you really start to appreciate the sheer scale of the place. The scenery is amazing - a vast, largely undisturbed natural wilderness with waterways that take you deep into the coastal rainforest. We sailed through fjords, around islands and up inlets for seven days as we made our way down to Bella Bella and during all that time only saw five other boats, and three of those were when we crossed Wright Sound. The time spent sailing down Princess Royal Channel from Gribbell Island to Mussel Inlet and then down into Mathieson Channel was magical, not only for the scenery, but also because of the number of times we encountered whales. So it seems only right to finish off with three landscape photos.
Princess Royal Channel