The Great Bear Rainforest and the Elusive Spirit Bear

Nov 2011

By: Laura Crawford Williams

Where We Are
I’m sitting on a 71 foot sailing vessel called the Ocean Light II. It’s raining, as it has been for days. The temperature averages about 50F, but it seems colder because of the humidity and wind. I keep a cup of hot tea nearby mainly to warm my hands. We’re sailing along British Columbia’s mid-coast. On shore, in the Great Bear Rainforest, Spruce, Cedar, Pine, and Crabapple populate one of the largest remaining remnants of coastal temperate rainforest. The bright greens, yellows, and reds are especially vibrant in the rain. The deep water we’re sailing through is cold, dark green, and extremely clear.

What We’re Doing
The target of this adventure is to photograph the rare Kermode Bear, otherwise known as the Spirit Bear. Spirit Bears are a white color phase of the Black Bear. They have dark eyes and cream-colored fur because of a recessive gene that prevents their coats from turning black. Biologists estimate there are around 400 living on different islands in the Great Bear Rainforest. They are a special part of a complex ecosystem that includes Salmon, Herring, Humpback Whales, Orca, Wolves, Deer, Bald Eagles, Harbor Seals, and Grizzly Bears. Fortunately, the Canadian government has chosen to protect the Spirit Bear, even though hunting of Grizzly and Black Bear is rampant. Still, there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to find them, so we’re hoping for the best.

Getting There
I traveled by floatplane from Prince Rupert to Hartley Bay. This is where I met the Ocean Light II. From there we traveled southeast toward Gribbell Island, where we hoped to see the Spirit Bear. Along the way, we saw migrating Pink Salmon and agile Harbor Seals swimming in the clear water around us. We also found several Humpback Whales as well as a pod of Orcas. Most of these marine mammals were elusive, but a few allowed us to see them up close. One Orca passed directly under our boat with a Halibut in her mouth. Her baby was close beside her.

The First Encounter
We arrived at our destination by early evening the first day. It was raining, but we went to shore and hiked about one mile into the forest. I was excited. This would be my first experience with bears of any color and I didn’t have long to wait. The first bear we found was fishing at the edge of Riordan Creek. She was a Black Bear and a very patient hunter. Pink Salmon were running up the creek to spawn and could be seen swimming and splashing around her. Each time she caught a fish she would retreat into the forest to eat it. She did this many times as we sat quietly watching her. Once the sun had set, we headed back to the boat …and there he was. A male Spirit Bear came wandering up the creek directly in front of us. We saw him only briefly in the fading light, but now we were excited. We’d just confirmed that at least one Spirit Bear was in the area.

Our Time With The Bears
The following morning, we left early. I was settling in along the edge of the creek when the bushes in front of me began to rustle. Something was walking almost silently through the forest. It felt like the scene in Jurassic Park when all you could see was the grass waving as the dinosaurs moved closer. I was nervous, but I trusted our guide and didn’t move. That’s when a Black Bear came out of the forest with two cubs behind her. I’ve been told that a mother with cubs is the most dangerous kind of bear: black, white, or brown. My nervousness increased. I expected her to be aggressive, but what actually happened was quite the opposite. She was unconcerned with our presence. In fact, she barely acknowledged our being there. She walked directly to a shallow pool and began fishing for salmon as her cubs played nearby. She stayed with us for about an hour and then disappeared into the forest. I began to move around, drying my camera and checking my images. That’s when I heard our guide make a strange sound. I looked up and saw a male Spirit Bear directly ahead. I had been so focused on the mother bear that I didn’t see his approach.

Over the next two days, we photographed two different Spirit Bears and several Black Bears. At one point, we had seven bears fishing all around us in the rain. Some bears had special hunting techniques. One female preferred to stand under the shade of a fallen tree and wait for the salmon to seek refuge underneath. Another rested in the middle of the creek with his weight on his elbows. He held his mouth open just over the rapids and waited. Others seemed to splash around aimlessly. For me, it was an amazing experience, simply spending time with the bears as they fished and interacted with one another. I was truly grateful to them for willingly accepting us into their world, if only for a little while.

Conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest
In August this year, National Geographic featured a story about Spirit Bears and the amazing wilderness in which they live. They describe the various threats to this fragile ecosystem, such as the Northern Gateway Tar Sands Pipeline project. The proposed pipeline would stretch 700 miles across western Canada to a port in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. From there, the refined oil would then be shipped to China, Japan, and perhaps California. Logging is another concern. The Spirit Bear is threatened because much of its home range has already been logged. The loss of big trees means the loss of dens for protection during winter hibernation. Logging also exacerbates erosion problems as well as fragmentation of habitat and health of river systems that support a crucial food source, salmon. Take a look at Nat Geo’s article if you haven’t already or visit for more information about conservation of species on Canada’s Pacific coast. It is a truly wild and pristine location worthy of protection.