Spirit bears (or Kermode bears) are incredibly rare animals and there are less than 400 of them in the wild. They are a subspecies of the American black bear that carry a recessive gene that turns their black coat white. It’s believed their light coats give them an advantage at fishing as from the salmon’s perspective, the bears blend in with the sky and are less detectable. These special bears are only found in the Great Bear Rainforest, a temperate rainforest that covers 6.4 million hectares on the central and northern coast of British Columbia.
Spirit bears face many threats. One of these dangers is habitat loss from logging and mining projects. They also face pressure through hunting. While hunting of spirit bears is prohibited, black bears are still allowed to be killed, even those that may carry the special recessive gene. Spirit bears also face threats due to decline in salmon populations, which has a major impact on their food supply.
These beautiful, charismatic bears are culturally significant to many Indigenous peoples, and they also play an important ecological role. Bears in these coastal environments spread nutrients throughout the forest as they drag salmon up from the streams and rivers and feed on them in the woods. Once the bears are finished with them, the salmon carcasses are fed on by other animals. The remains also nourish the trees and plants of the rainforest.
When I visited the Great Bear Rainforest in 2018 in search of these elusive bears, the first spirit bear I saw was a female thought to be over 20 years of age. She was given the name Ma’ah, meaning Grandma, by the Gitga’at First Nation who have lived alongside her and other spirit bears for centuries.
My first encounter with Ma’ah was a brief one. In fact, it lasted only 3 minutes. We had set up with our cameras and tripods alongside a creek in the middle of the forest on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia. We had been there all morning in the pouring rain, anticipating the arrival of this special bear. Suddenly, a flash of white appeared against the dim forest and this spirit bear burst from the woods and splashed into the water, paws outstretched. She had been attempting to catch a salmon, but what appeared to her as a fish was actually only a stick. This elder spirit bear turned back and quickly disappeared once more into the forest from which she came.
That moment was wonderful but was over in an instant. Luckily, a few days later we once again spotted this same bear, Ma’ah. We were in a zodiac cruising along the shoreline of the island when we noticed another glimmer of white amongst the green of the woods. Several trees began to sway slowly back and forth and then she fully emerged. She looked so beautiful against the backdrop of colourful green and yellow foliage, with the rugged gray precipice below. We watched as she walked along the cliff’s edge, feeding on crabapples in the trees around her. She then carefully descended the cliff face to the beach below. There, she patrolled the shore looking for barnacles to eat. After feeding, she disappeared once again into the forest.
Spending time watching and photographing this beautiful spirit bear is something I will be forever grateful for. My hope is that the threats facing these bears will be addressed, and Ma’ah and the other spirit bears in the Great Bear Rainforest will continue to live peacefully for many years to come.