Expedition Great Bear Rainforest
A glimpse into the secret lives of large carnivores.
Day 1: Spying on the Great Bear(s)
The Great Bear Rainforest is the most pristine temperate rainforest in the world. Stretching some 250 miles along the coast of British Columbia, it is home to grizzly bears, wolverine, salmon and the Spirit Bear — a pure-white race of black bears found only here.
In 2004, The Nature Conservancy began working with indigenous communities, the Canadian government, and other conservation organizations to set aside more than 5 million acres of this rare coastal temperate rainforest.
Over 100 new protected areas were established, while the entire landscape — 21 million acres in all — is now encompassed within a sustainable management plan. It is the largest international conservation deal (in both dollars and acreage) in the Conservancy's history.
Now we're here to check up on the bears. To do that in the remote inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest, we’re testing a new technology that could make non-invasive wildlife behavior documentation logistically possible.
The coast of British Columbia is not an easy place to get around. Fingers of water reach far inland — in fjords, lakes and ponds — until it’s hard to know if the landscape is mostly land with a lot of water, or mostly water with a lot of land.
Clouds seem to reach down so far that the air itself is permeated with water. The place plays havoc with paper and electronics — and though you get used to the wetness after a while, you never get used to the penetrating cold.
But it’s always beautiful — with granite dark waters, cliffs and towering cedar and spruce.
Unfortunately, the weather makes it challenging to camp and watch wildlife. Stingy shores and tidal mud flats do not allow for many camping spots. And boats are expensive.
So my colleagues — Ian McAllister of Pacific Wild and Dr. Richard Jeo, director of the Conservancy’s Great Bear project — have hit upon a way to monitor bears and other wildlife from a more comfortable location.
We are in the field testing video cameras (akin to the ones used in surveillance) that will monitor the gatherings of bear and other wildlife from afar and with minimum disturbance to the animals.
Grizzlies are sensitive to human disturbance and to the availability of seasonal food sources. In the fall, they gather in large numbers at select inlets to feed for a short period of time, when rivers are choked with salmon and before the long, dark hibernation of winter.
They become uncharacteristically "social." To be more accurate, they don’t fight as much, lest they miss the feast.
And this sociability provides a rare opportunity to watch and count bears whose secret lives would otherwise be hidden by their gigantic home ranges and the thickness of trees on the coast.
The cameras have to be ensconced in a waterproof housing and have their own power source. Using wireless routers, placed strategically along the inlets, Ian McAllister hopes to be able to log in to his website and downloaded the video filmed remotely, many miles away.
If things work out, he should be able also to direct the cameras remotely, panning or zooming in on a particular subject.
It is the “Big Brother for Great Bears.” From the privacy of our home or office we should be able to glimpse the secret lives of large carnivores on the coast of British Columbia — if things work out.
Right now, we are in Bella Bella, a Heiltsuk community of about 1,500 people smack in the middle of the Great Bear Rainforest. It is about two hours by prop plane from Vancouver.
No sooner had we landed than a hurricane warning was posted for the entire coast. And now it’s raining with a little more insistence than usual. Ian McAllister motored out on a small run-about to pick us up — halibut and daughter in tow.
At dawn we will sail on two boats — the 68 foot Columbia III (built in 1956, almost as old as The Nature Conservancy!) and the research ship, the 86-foot-long Canadian Shore — to begin our journey to deploy and test these remote surveillance cameras, under real world conditions.
If we are lucky, by week’s end we will have footage of bears and perhaps wolves to share with the rest of the world — and proof of concept that could change the way wildlife is monitored.
Along the way we will look for humpback and killer whales, otters, wolverine, seals, and perhaps, the Spirit Bear. We will also do some dives to look at the marine life wedged within these narrow inlets we will sail along.
The last time I dove was in the Coral Sea (between Australia and Papua New Guinea), where the wet suit was a nuisance to be tolerated because of stinging jelly fish. Here the water is dark and about 50 degrees.
Now our wet suits don’t look thick enough. I am already cold.
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March 02, 2011