Spirit of the Great Bear Rainforest

by Steve Williamson

Spirit Bear by Steve Williamson ©

Spirit of the rainforest - Nikon D700 200-400mm VR F4 Lens

Ursus Americanus Kermodai, the Kermode or Spirit Bear.  A rare resident only found in a small (in global terms) area of British Columbia’s Northwest coast.  This bear is unique in that it is white.  Not an albino, this bear is actually a black bear born out of a rare anomaly held in the genes of both parents.  Because of the bear’s white fur, it is not treated any differently by other black bears and it is thought that being white actually enables it to feed better in the region’s creeks and rivers.  But, being white also makes if more susceptible to predators and it has learnt to keep a low and wary profile.  It is estimated there are only about 400 spirit bears remaining in the whole area, but many who live in the area estimate these numbers to be far less.

Spirit Bear by Steve Williamson ©

Framed Head shot - Nikon D700 70-300mm VR F4.5-5.6 Lens

In the early fall of 2009 I was fortunate to be able to spend some time in Hartley Bay, home of the Gitga’at community, where I met some wonderful people, including one of the top bear viewing guides in BC, Marven Robinson.  Marven took myself and five others to one of his viewing areas on Gribbel Island and the experience is one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  As soon as we got down near to a viewing stand, situated close to the water's edge, I spotted my first spirit bear and two black bears feeding on pink salmon in the fast flowing river.

Spirit Bear by Steve Williamson ©

Bear looks up from feeding on salmon - Nikon D700 70-300mm VR F4.5-5.6 Lens

Quickly and quietly we set up our equipment and settled down to watch the bears enjoying the feast, not knowing exactly how long our luck would hold.  Equipment wise it was a dead heat, three/three to Canon and Nikon SLRs between the six of us.  We all had long lenses ranging from 300mm to 600mm, but equally we all had some shorter zooms between 70 and 200mm too.  Tripods were a must, especially for the long lenses.  We all had them and used them throughout, whilst those lucky enough to have two or more bodies also kept a camera close by with a shorter lens on, which they could use quickly, handheld.

Bear looking back - Nikon D700 70-300mm VR F4.5-5.6 Lens

This area, affectionately known as the Great Bear Rainforest, doesn't get its name for nothing. There was a lot of rain during my time here and one vital piece of equipment we all had and used vehemently was some form of rain protection for our cameras and lenses.  This didn’t have to be anything fancy,  just waterproof.  Protection in use ranged from thick plastic cases such as those produced by Kata, to plastic shopping bags and black garbage bags tightly secured around the equipment and all seemed highly effective.  We all regularly dried our hands on towels before handling our equipment and one really useful piece of equipment I saw in use, but for some odd reason had never thought to use before, was a large black umbrella.  This was secured between two points adjacent to the stand and provided a very nice and dry work area for the photographer who had bothered to lug it through the bush to our location and was seated beneath throughout the day.

Black & white - Nikon D700 70-300mm VR F4.5-5.6 Lens

When photographing black bears in the bush l will often fire off a couple of bracketed shots in half-stop intervals down a stop or two.  I will then use the LCD screen and histogram, not just  the internal light meter, to establish what I feel is a better aperture for the situation and then I can use aperture priority.  I find being a half stop or so below the camera’s chosen aperture helps to bring out the deep black in the bears and being able to bracket is often a big plus in helping to get this right.  I found this helped with the spirit bears too, as often parts of the bear would over expose using the camera’s metering alone. 

Spirit Bear Steve Williamson ©

Bear in river - Nikon D700 200-400mm VR F4 Lens

To get to see and photograph these bears is a unique experience, there are so few of them and the use of a local guide or tour operator is a must.  Visitors must come with a sense of adventure and be willing and able to cross some rough terrain or live with an occasional lumpy sea.  The reward is often well worth it, but come with a sense of respect too.  A respect for the environment in which you find yourself, a respect for the wildlife you hope to photograph and a respect for the local people who know the land, the sea and the wildlife and are willing to help you get your once in a lifetime shot.  Access is difficult, park regulations require a permit and protection of the habitat is vital. 

Bookings can be made with Marven Robinson and accommodation reserved in the village through Gitga’at tourism.  This should be done well in advance, space is limited and the window of opportunity is short.

Alternately, you could book with one of the tour operators that tour the area by boat, such as Ocean Adventures.  The majority of these operators are highly knowledgeable of the area and are extremely environmental and wildlife conscious.  They will not do anything that will put you in any harm, whilst at the same time, they will not and will not allow you to do anything that will endanger the wildlife in the region either.  Whenever you go, plan for the weather.  Unless you are there only for a very short period of time, you will see rain at some stage and whilst this is not the most ideal condition for photography, the rain is vital for the region and for encouraging the salmon up river.

Bear on rocky throne - Nikon D700 70-300mm VR F4.5-5.6 Lens

On one particular occasion we were lucky and bears stayed in view most of the day, either black or spirit bears and sometimes both.  One nice observation that was made by one of the photographers with me, was that we had been so blessed with the attendance of the bears that at one stage by mid-afternoon he looked around and no one was photographing the bears, we were all just stood watching, enjoying the spectacle of the bears and enjoying their presence.

Steve Williamson ©

Bear with salmon carcass - Nikon D700 70-300mm VR F4.5-5.6 Lens

I know that many people go on these tours and see nothing or sometimes only a brief glimpse.  Nature runs that way and these are wild animals and attendance cannot be guaranteed no matter how much it may have cost you.  However, when the opportunity does present itself, of course, get your photographs, but try to enjoy the occasion outside of the lens too.



Conservationist and photographer Steve Williamson also works with Pacific Wild, a conservation charity based in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.  He has been interested in wildlife and nature photography for the last 12 years and lives with his wife, Pauline, on Vancouver Island, BC.

Web site: www.stevewphotography.ca
Email: info@stevewphotography.ca

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