Great Bear Rainforest Sojourn - 2018
This page is a mini-blog (I’m not quite convinced that’s the right description but I can’t think of a better term for it) that covers a trip I took to the northern Great Bear Rainforest with the hope of seeing and photographing ‘Spirit Bears’. More of those shortly but a good start point is to introduce the 'Great Bear Rainforest’ itself.
As elsewhere on this site, clicking on links or images themselves will take you to galleries to show you more and larger versions of them.
Canada Geese fly past the characteristic conifers during a rainforest deluge. These common birds become particularly iconic in these surroundings.
Into the Great Bear Rainforest
The Great Bear Rainforest is a relatively recent name for the area of temperate rainforest that runs along British Columbia's West Pacific coast. This area stretches from roughly the border with Alaska down to the North of Vancouver Island and the GBR is part of the Pacific temperate rainforests that range does this coast from Alaska to northern California. The GBR itself is about 6.4 million hectares. That's a huge area and makes it the largest and therefore the most precious areas of temperate rainforest on the planet. It is largely unspoilt compared with other areas of temperate rainforest but it is still threatened by logging and mineral extraction. It is difficult to comprehend the productiveness of temperate rainforests. However, it's estimated that the biomass of these forests is at least four times greater than that of any comparable tropical ecosystem. These forests are quite literally massive.
The GBR is also remarkably by being both easy to get to initially and then incredibly remote and difficult to travel round except, perhaps by boat. This is a fractured, filigree and ice carved coastline of islands and plunging fjords cut deep into the mainland through the steep coastal mountains. We flew to the GBR by commercial jet to Terrace in the north of BC (a mere two hops from London) and then travelled through the area exclusively by yacht that acted both as our means transport and 'mothership'. Ocean Light II, a Southern Yachts 71' Ketch, is shown below riding gently at anchor in one of the inlets.
Sojourn? Well, yes, from my point of view it felt like that. The journey from the UK, though relatively easy, is still long even in the age of jet travel. The area is a rugged, beautiful and an immensely rich and abundant ecosystem that is lightly populated by humans. Even today, it is not heavily visited despite it having been continuously inhabited for over 8000 years by the First Nations peoples whose culture is tightly coupled to this unique place. For all it's apparent ruggedness, it is also a fragile place where mountains meet the sea and it's ecology including the richness of the forests is closely tied to the salmon that breed in the thousands of streams and rivers of the Pacific watershed. Our visit to this iconic area felt far too brief; it draws you in.
The half dozen images below give just a taste of the scenery of these plunging fjords and the variability of its weather in the early autumn (i.e. fall) when we visited. Although it's undisputedly a rainforest, we were fortunate in really only having a day and a half of full on rain in the week or so we were there.
In this part of the world, even the 'law' travels by water (and in some style too)...
However, when the rain and mist rolls in, this borderline world between the sea and mountains takes on a uniquely etherial quality.
So, the northern GBR is a truly extraordinary place but the real aim of the trip was to experience some of its equally extraordinary wildlife. The difference with some of our other journeys was that here we concentrated of fewer species that were, in several cases, harder won. So from here on, it's about the animals of the GBR.
The first surprise were, without doubt, the humpback whales. We had hoped to see these whales but it wasn't somehow something we were banking on. On reflection that's a bit of a strange thing to admit to as we had hoped to see these most charismatic giants on previous journeys but hadn't through simple bad luck and circumstance. Perhaps I didn't want to admit how much we hoped to see these. I gave our skipper and guide, Tom, a bold request "We would like to see humpback whales please. Could you arrange for breaching and bubble-netting?" Well, everyday we were on the water we saw these great whales and they obliged Tom on both counts...
This was my first time seeing grizzly bears in the wild and it was also, incidentally, the wettest afternoon of our trip. We had spent a clear morning watching wales while travelling to a particularly beautiful inlet with a small river flowing into it and a mini delta and marshland at the head of the inlet. No sooner had we left the yacht on the zodiac after lunch to look for bears than it began to rain and it then determindly persisted down for most of the afternoon. Toward the latter part of the afternoon the rain began to ease up a little and we started to see several grizzly bears foraging for salmon further upstream than we could venture. I can't imaging that grizzly bears mind that much about the rain mind the rain much but perhaps even they will seek out a bit of protection in a solid downpour. Those bears were watched for some time and (many) photos were taken but they were a good way off and the rain was not making really difficult to get anything more than a passable "yeah, we saw grizzlies" type photo.
Until, that was, we turned around and saw four bears making their way out onto a pebble bank right behind us. Watching this mother and three cubs over the next hour and a half before sunset turned out to be a very special experience...
As a sneaky aside here, our ventures into this inlet were not all about the bears. In the rain we saw other birds, and harbour seals but the most majestic were undoubtably the large collection of adult and juvenile bald eagles that had gathered here to share in the feasting of the salmon. For the most part, they were spending their time putting up with the conditions but they still looked spectacular in these dramatic surroundings.
The Spirit Bear and a bit of Black Bear action
OK, I admit, it has taken me a while to get to the headline act of trip but it was only towards the end of our time in the GBR that we saw these special bears. We had put off visiting the sites in the hope there would be a bit more rain to get the salmon up the streams. (Yes, I know some of the previous photos may have given the impression we had lots of rain. We really didn't and it had been a dry summer before we arrived so the streams were unusually low.) The intro to the gallery here explains a bit more about these bears. Long story short, it was absolutely worth the wait and the short time we spent with these bears was nothing less than awesome in the true sense of that word. I hope you enjoy a few of the photos here.
And this is what the Spirit Bears were after. Pink salmon. There were quite a number in the pools but not enough had made it up to make picking them off lucrative enough.
While we were waiting for the bears to appear we could appreciate other aspects of the streams. First, An American Dipper. Bigger but (unusually) not quite as striking as our European counterpart. The ubiquitous American Banded Kingfisher drying out is followed by a close up of some red currents that the bears had been gorging on instead of salmon.
The final species takes us back to the water and the harbour seals. While we had seen these throughout the trip they are usually only seen singly or in small numbers. On our final day and in particularly still conditions we found large numbers hauled out on safe rock in the middle of one of the major channels. A short trip in the zodiac has us watching these from water level. Something I can never get bored with.
That's it from the Great Bear Rainforest. I hope you enjoyed the sojourn into this amazing place.
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