November 12, 2013

Animal Profile: Spirit Bear

The Great Bear Rainforest is one of the last great wildernesses in North America. Located in British Columbia, Canada, the moss-covered forests of the Great Bear are home to some of the world’s most magnificent animals. In these misty forests you’ll find an abundance of wildlife, including bald eagles, moose, wolverines, wolves, black bears, and grizzlies. And if you’re blessed with a bit of luck, you might even catch a glimpse of one of the most unique creatures on earth, the mythical spirit bear.

Now, get this: The spirit bear is a black bear that is actually white!

A rare sighting of the mythical spirit bear. Gribbell Island, British Columbia.

A rare sighting of the mythical spirit bear. Gribbell Island, British Columbia.

Hard to believe, I know, but it’s the truth. This phenomenon is caused by a recessive gene that results in the occasional birth of a white bear. Some scientists believe that there may be fewer than 400 spirit bears in the wild today.

Weight: ½ pound at birth, 150-300 pounds fully grown
Diet: Omnivore, feeding mostly on plants, berries and salmon
Life span: Up to 25 years in the wild
Habitat: Great Bear Rainforest, with the largest populations living on Gribbell and Princess Royal Islands
Name: Spirit bears are also known as Kermode Bears, named after Francis Kermode, a museum director who was one of the first to study the bear

While conducting research for Travels with Gannon & Wyatt: Great Bear Rainforest, we spent eight long days searching for a spirit bear. Despite the numbing cold and constant drizzle, the setting was magical. High granite peaks rose from the lush, rain soaked forest. Waterfalls cascaded from high cliffs. Eagles sat perched on spruce branches. Mist moved through the trees like ghosts.

Gannon on a bear viewing mission in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Gannon on a bear viewing mission in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Each morning before first light we would find a promising location along the banks of stream, and there we would sit in complete silence, hoping that a bear would eventually come to the shore to feed on the spawning salmon. After seven days, we hadn’t had much luck. We had spotted a couple grizzly bears at a distance, but both had disappeared into the forest just as quickly as they had appeared. There had been no sign of a spirit bear.

Cold and shivering on the eighth day, we were about to call it quits and return home, when our guide, Norm, noticed something rustling in the bushes just up river. We all held our breath. Was our luck about to change? Could it actually be a spirit bear?

Sure enough, emerging from the forest was a beautiful bear, its coat as white as snow. We watched with wide eyes as the spirit bear made his way across the river, climbed atop a fallen tree, and plucked a salmon right from the river. To see such a rare creature in the wild is nothing short of spectacular.

Later that night, en route to Hartley Bay, we all celebrated the magical experience we’d had in the Great Bear Rainforest. There was a giddy excitement among our group, a lightness of being. We recognized that we had been given a gift of the rare sort that allows one to grasp — a little more completely, at least — nature’s immeasurable splendor.

For those interested in learning more about the Great Bear Rainforest, visit Pacific Wild. There you will learn more about current threats to the spirit bear habitat and what you can do to help protect this magnificent ecosystem.

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