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Great Bear Rainforest

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

The Great Bear Rainforest (GBR) was named in 2016 when British Columbia agreed to protect permanently 85% of the old-growth forested area from logging. The area includes Haida Gwaii (formerly called Queen Charlotte Islands), a host of islands through which ships navigate (i.e., the Inside Passage), and a swath of mainland starting from just north of Prince Rupert and ending about 600 km to the south. (Map from Living Oceans Society)

I didn’t learn about GBR until 2019 when I searched for somewhere to see bears. I knew about Brooks Lodge in Alaska, but when I saw a photo of several dozen photographers lined up taking photos, I realized that I wanted a more wild experience. That’s when I discovered Great Bear Lodge and then Bluewater Adventures. Both are popular and, at the time, were booked through 2020. I ultimately decided on a week-long trip on a sailboat with Bluewater Adventures because that would give me the opportunity to visit a number of sites in GBR.

When the pandemic hit, Bluewater canceled its trips. Fortunately, mine was scheduled for October 2021. Canada opened its doors to vaccinated US citizens in September 2021, so Glen and I were fortunate indeed to be able to travel.

The trip started in Terrace, B.C. on a shuttle to the port in Kitimat where our vessel, the Island Solitude awaited. The image above (taken by Bluewater Adventures) shows the Island Solitude with its sails up, but we would never actually have the sails up during this trip. It rained everyday and we had to outrun weather on most of the trip. Twice the forecast was for hurricane force winds and once for gale force. Captain Neal did his best to find weather holes and protected bays. (Image from Bluewater Adventures)

Captain Neal, Naturalist Andrew, and Mate Jeremy did an amazing job spotting wildlife while Cook Janelle spent most of her waking hours preparing fresh food for all of us. Our 8 fellow passengers were all Canadians, and all of them had been on at least one other Bluewater Adventures tours. They, too, were terrific at looking out for, and spotting, wildlife. All these efforts resulted in me seeing more bears in one week than I had in my entire life, many humpback whales, birds, birds, birds, and more.

The most sought-after species in GBR is the rare Spirit Bear—a black bear that has a recessive gene that gives it light, almost white, fur color. One our first day, Andrew spotted a female Spirit bear catching salmon at the mouth of a river on Gribbel Island. We were quite lucky as many people spend a week in GBR and never see a Spirit bear. That was the start of an amazing list of sightings, as you can see by looking at the list. Yes, I even saw a very long tapeworm trailing out of the butt of a grizzly bear. Bears eat raw salmon which contain parasites, like tapeworms. They can do so because they are very tolerant of the parasites.

Wolves, on the other hand, are not tolerant of parasites so they end up eating only the salmon brains. When we walked on the shore it was pretty obvious when wolves had been around because the salmon heads were eaten and the bodies left. Between the bears, the wolves, and then the birds and microbes, the entire salmon ends up getting eaten and then put back into the ecosystem, which in turn allows the trees and brush to thrive. No waste here.

One of the wonderful things about rain is that it creates waterfalls. The steeps sides of the GBR islands funneled and concentrated the water into falls. I’d never seen so many waterfalls in such a short time.

Photographing the wildlife was challenging because of the rain and overcast skies. While on the boat or in a skiff, there was the added challenge of being in a rocking vessel. That's why I chose to process my photos using settings that emulate an oil painting. The processing pops the colors and "forgives" some of the softness. Many times, my camera wanted to focus on the rain, not the animal, as this image shows.

One day we visited an area populated by grizzly bears. We saw about 17 different individuals, all trying to fatten up for hibernation. Some of them were so large already that they looked as if they would fall asleep soon.

Some bears were playing in the water. I'm not sure whether these bears are two siblings or a mom and her teenage cub.

Bears nurse their cubs for as many as three years. Notice the milk mustache on the one on the right as Mother Bear lets them nurse.

Wherever bears were fishing salmon, we found birds. Some eat the salmon bits left by the bears as this gull is doing.

Others, like Stellar jays, would snatch up some of the eggs laid by spawning salmon.

We sighted whales several times a day--Humpbacks. Many of them were bubble feeding, a technique used to corral fish so that the whale can scoop them up and swallow them.

My most frequent sight of a whale was its tail and its breath.

Where there are salmon and rivers, there are always eagles. I saw many.

We also found a sea lion hangout.

One of the most interesting birds I saw was the Scoter. They fly-scoot along the top of the water when sensing danger.

After seeing the Spirit bear on our first day, I was quite content. On our last day, however, we were able to take a walk on Gribble Island to watch black bears catching salmon. When we were almost ready to leave, the same bear we saw on the first day showed up. The crew named her Strawberry because of the coloration of her fur. We watched her fish for awhile. As we were leaving, she walked parallel to us, on the opposite bank, until we reached the open water. The trip was magical!

Strawberry looks for salmon.

Strawberry enjoys a salmon.

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