Not your average bear

an albino grizzly bear climbs large rocks at the shore, a driftwood log is in the background.As Raincoast’s research vessel Achiever pulled into the inlet on British Columbia’s north coast I glassed the port side shoreline with my binoculars, checking for wildlife.  It was that magical time right before dusk when unexpected and unusual things often manifest in the coastal fall alpenglow.

No one else was on deck and I was standing in the observation tower. On the port side of the inlet, at the water line, was a bear. As I focused in I could see this was “not your average bear,” to paraphrase a well-known (cartoon) bruin. Everything about its appearance was distinctive. The coat was a champagne-type colour I had never seen on a coastal bear.

At first I thought it might be a Spirit bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), but as I peered through my binoculars it appeared to have all the physical characteristics of a grizzly, with the dish shaped face, the hump between the shoulders, the size of the feet and length of the claws.  But the perplexing factor was that this bear’s skin colour – the pads on the feet were pink, the fleshy end of the snout was pink, the skin around the eyes was pink – all signs of albinism.

Was I really looking at an albino grizzly?

I called my colleagues to come up on deck from down below.  They all emerged with binoculars in hand and we proceeded to go back and forth speculating on exactly what kind of bear we were observing.  There seemed to be consensus that it was an albino, but whether it was a grizzly or not was discussed and debated at length.

To this day I’m convinced it was Ursus arctos, although in the end I suppose it doesn’t matter – seeing an albino bear of any species is a once in a lifetime experience.  More importantly for me, it was yet another confirmation of the power and mystery of the Great Bear Rainforest in the half-light before sunset.

Did You Know?

Animals can be pure or partial albinos. Pure albinos usually have pink eyes, scales and skin. They’re pink because, without colouration, the blood vessels show through. It’s estimated that at least 300 species of animals in North America have albino individuals.

BC’s Spirit bear is a black bear that has white fur due to a rare genetic trait; it is not an albino, as it typically has a brown nose and eyes.

A version of this article first appeared in the Seaside Times April 2010 Issue.

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Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.