Notes from the Great Bear

Connecting the little things.

A grizzly bears strolls an estuary walled by granite cliffs down which countless waterfalls drop hundreds of feet, as if straight from the clouds. The jet black dorsal fins of killer whales slice the ocean surface. A crash follows the breach of a humpback whale. These are the sights and sounds from a fall trip aboard Raincoast’s research vessel, Achiever. Encounters with these megafauna can typify experiences, and expectations, of a journey primarily through the territories of the Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nations, a place many know as the Great Bear Rainforest. This is a tale often told, these are the images we see, but it’s far from the whole story.

It’s in Mussel inlet where we see our first grizzly bear of the trip, sleeping in the rain and scouring the beach in final preparations for a winter that may be leaner than expected. The bickering of mew, herring and glaucous-winged gulls provides the soundtrack. Their diving draws my eye to the salmon carcasses that litter the river bottom and the softly bright salmon eggs. Maybe they lost their footing in the gravel, maybe they simply never reached them as rivers warm and water levels drop. While we focus on the grizzly, it’s these tiny orbs that really drive our coalescing in this place.

The otter’s predation of urchins and the resulting benefit to kelp serves as the classic example of a trophic cascade.  Tweet This!

En route to the outer coast we encounter Northern Resident killer whales – the A30s – quickly identified by their unique markings and scarring. Later, we learn that the same whales were in Johnstone Strait just two days after in search of what those salmon eggs would hope to become. Everyone, and everything, is working harder for the salmon that are arriving in numbers that constitute a fraction of their historical abundance.

On the outer coast we enter a different realm, where rafts of sea otters roam islands battered by waves and fed by the ocean. In extensive beds of giant perennial kelp we pause to meet a Northern kelp crab. The otter’s predation of urchins and the resulting benefit to kelp serves as the classic example of a trophic cascade. This coast has seen the extirpation of sea otters and now their successful reintroduction with dramatic changes that I can touch in the water. Kelp is critical not only for the direct habitat it provides, including shelter for those salmon, but for its global significance via the absorption of carbon. The irony being that climatic change is now driving a loss that sea otters may not reverse.

Achiever rests in the waters near a mountain and intertidal area in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Photo by Ross Dixon / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

On our last afternoon we power down to loll in Fisher Channel. Over the still water comes a behemoth’s breath, each blow a reminder that these Humpback whales are mammals, just like us. The noisy phalaropes wing their way past and, somewhere in between, a Savannah sparrow lands aboard Achiever, its plumage as intricate as the knots in our rigging. I’ve taken hundreds of photographs, but this is the one I prize.

On my last day, after our guests leave and as the Achiever gets a thorough clean and laundry spins, sandhill cranes call overhead, headed south to warmer climes. It’s where we are all headed. It isn’t what is familiar that I will remember from this trip, it’s the little, often less noticed things. The way each species of salmon jumps differently or the names of the tiniest of shells we gather on a beach. Youthful years of knowledge shared by our skipper Farlyn Campbell and my mate, first mate and naturalist, Nathaniel Glickman.

Two fins from Humpback whales stick out of the water.
Photo by Ross Dixon / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Umbrella species like the grizzly bear and apex predators such as the killer whale are a focus of Raincoast’s conservation efforts precisely because they are reliant on a broader range of species and processes, and a more complex system to which they contribute to and depend on. Our focus on wild salmon recognizes their role as the foundation species of the coast. 

On parting, we snatch a glimpse of the then unopened Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv (house of the Haíɫzaqv) – a powerful reminder that the Heiltsuk, as other nations, continue to regain agency over their territories at precisely the time when our impacts are becoming so starkly apparent. As each component of the coast plays its part, large or small, for me this journey served as a poignant reminder that so must we, now more than ever. 

Thanks to Farlyn and Nate and to the Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nations whose lands and waters we visited.

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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.