Changing Planet

Living with Spirit Bears: Great Bear Rainforest

You may have read about the Spirit Bears of the Great Bear Rainforest in Kermode Bears or in Pipeline Through Paradise both  featured in  the August 2011 National Geographic Magazine.  These articles feature images by Paul Nicklen and were supported by imagery from an expedition to the Great Bear Rainforest September 2010 with the International League of Conservation Photographers.  See what it takes to capture stunning imagery in this wild landscape with a behind the scenes footage and interview with Paul Nicklen here and an eyewitness account of this amazing ecosystem and the people and wildlife that call if home with photographer and conservationist Ian McAllister.

Wolves and Ravens - Rainforest wolves can successfully catch over 200 salmon in a single evening of fishing.

Q: What drew you to the Great Bear Rainforest? What is unique about it?

I was fortunate to have been born in British Columbia and formative years included exploring the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. Along the way I met local explorer/photographers like Mark Hobson and Adrian Dorst who were living out of zodiacs and documenting the wild beauty of the North pacific. The passion of these individuals, the contribution they were making to ancient forest protection and the lifestyle they pursued inspired me to forge a similar path. However, it was the brutal clearcut logging destruction of over 80% of Vancouver Islands old growth forests and the realization that the same logging companies were getting geared up to liquidate the rainforests of the BC north coast – a place now know as the Great Bear Rainforest – that really became the game changer.

It was an amazing time to be part of such a significant conservation campaign – but also a challenge to adequately document a coastal wilderness bigger than Switzerland while helping forge a science-based conservation design that would be supported by intransigent governments and timber companies. When I first saw the countless river valleys that formed the temperate rainforests of the BC north coast there was no turning back. Even today it feels like seeing the place for the first time – it is so full of life and beauty and mystery. To find huge tracts of intact ancient forests broken only by wild rivers teeming with salmon, grizzly bears, wolves, whales and so much else. To know that First Nation communities are still living in their ancestral territories and still being provided for by the ocean. It deserves the best kind of protection that we can give, it does not deserve to be a door mat for oil companies.

Canada's Great Bear Rainforest is the largest intact stretch of ancient temperate rainforest left on the planet.

Q: How would the GBR and the coast of BC be affected if the Northern Gateway pipline and resulting megatanker traffic goes through?

Over the last twenty years it has been inspiring to work alongside so many talented and dedicated environmentalists, First Nations, and citizens who have stood up for protecting this place. We managed to keep open net-cage salmon farms from expanding here, over 30% of the rainforest is now in various levels of protection, we bought out some trophy hunting licenses to help protect wildlife and First Nations are driving the conservation vision forward. There is plenty of work left to be done, but progress is being made. The idea of introducing super oil tankers, the noisiest vessels on the planet, to this fragile coast will displace acoustically sensitive marine mammals, such as humpback, Orca, and fin whales. Their ability to communicate and forage would become so compromised that they simply will not exist here. If a tanker disgorges its oil after slamming into any one of the countless reefs and islands along the proposed tanker route our coast would be finished. It would cause a cascading series of ecological collapses culminating in the ruin of coastal communities and economies. First Nations with over ten-thousand years of continuous occupation here simply have nowhere else to go. Their way of life would be so fundamentally altered that this pipeline proposal is being described by many as a form of cultural genocide.

Q: If you could choose 5 words to describe the GBR what would they be?

Culturally, ecologically, spiritually – rich and profound.

Spirit Bear in Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada.

Q The Spirit Bear clearly is a local treasure. Is it more than a valued anomaly? Does it have magical or shamanistic qualities? What role does it play in First Nation iconography? How do the First Nations protect this region?

The Spirit bear is a worthy ambassador of the mystery and magnificence of this rainforest. Hidden from the outside for so long it has been forced to emerge as an icon to inspire people to protect its threatened coastal habitat. Conservation photography and film work is needed as much today as it was twenty years ago. Case in point. We are being contacted from people around the world who have just read Paul Nicklen and Bruce Barcott’s feature story in the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine on the Spirit Bear and the Enbridge pipeline/tanker proposal. This is conservation journalism at its best because people are simply being shown what a globally unique and rare ecosystem this is and the potential threat it faces. It does not take people long to reach the conclusion that it is a bad idea to be transporting half a million barrels a day of the dirtiest oil in the world across the rocky mountains and the coast mountain range, over some of the worlds most productive salmon rivers and a coastline of rock strewn wave encased reefs where hurricane force wind events are common.

We have every single oil company in the world (they are all invested in the Canadian tar sands) backed by a sympathetic and petro dollar blinded federal government lined up against the spirit bear, the majority of Canadians, and a long list of courageous First Nations. If I was an Enbridge shareholder I would be running the other way. In many respects this pipeline is a pipe dream but Canada won’t wake up until more people make their voice heard.

This grizzly bear is taking a break between fishing for chum salmon.

Q: What can readers do to get involved?

It is deeply frustrating to see how few North Americans are aware that Canada has joined the planets elite roster of petro states. The far reach of the Canadian tar sands should be of greater international concern, more people need to look closely at Canadian energy policy and what extracting oil from the tar sands is doing to the health of the planet. Currently our national energy strategy is 100% about rapidly increasing tar sands oil production and selling it to the highest bidder and when a country owns the second largest known oil reserves in the world it cares less and less about international obligations or scrutiny. Does Canada really need to hook Asian economies on the dirtiest most environmentally harmful oil in the world at the expense of one of the last great coastal rainforests?  Visit Contact us and we will help direct your support in the best way possible.

About Ian

An award winning photographer and author, Ian McAllister co-founded the wildlife conservation group Pacific Wild, a leading voice for protection of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. Ian continues to pursue photography and film work as a cornerstone of wildlife conservation on Canada’s Pacific coast. He lives on a small island with his family in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.  More about Ian.


The mission of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) is to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography. iLCP is a Fellowship of more than 100 photographers from all around the globe. As a project based organization, iLCP coordinates Conservation Photography Expeditions to get world-renowned photographers in the field teamed with scientists, writers, videographers and conservation groups to gather visual assets that are used to create conservation communications campaigns to foment conservation successes. iLCP is a 501 (c) (3) organization. Support our work at this link.
  • Bruce Farnsworth

    The Nat Geo article is a great story of the indigenous conservation ethic and great discretion they’ve maintained across generations to protect the wildlife of the region from trappers and other visitors. The Kermode Bear is a great icon, but remain focused on the broad – these are millions of acres of pristine watershed and forests that need protection.

  • Nadya Mahoney

    This article is an eye opener. It is both greedy and blind of us to destroy an area that has survived and thrived for 10’s of thousands of years as it is today, for something as transient as money and oil consumption. Are we humans so desperate that we can not and will not find another way? Truly where are our values?

  • Gerald Graham

    I was fortunate to see a Spirit Bear last fall, in the course of a sailing adventure aboard Achiever, the research vessel of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. As a marine environmental consultant specialising in oil spill prevention and response, I am all too aware of the threats posed by Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project.



  • Gwen Hadland

    While I’m a US citizen, I had the privilege of living in British Columbia & spending time in the spectacular & pristine forests where the spirit bear lives. I also read the National Geographic article & am appalled that this beautiful pristine area is being seriously threatened by greed. This area should be considered off limits & totally protected from the devastation this sort of pipeline could cause.

  • […] the U.S. but to the health of the planet. If we let our addiction to oil dictate our energy policy, spirit bears and other wildlife that flourish in the biologically diverse depths of the Great Bear Rainforest may vanish into the realm of […]

  • MalikTous

    We need the wildlife more than the pipe. We need intact forests more than old-growth lumber. Answers include geothermal and wind power systems and converting already slain forest lands into harvestable lumber farms that take the stress off old growth forests. Pipelines can go around if they’re needed at all.

  • howard curtis

    They want to run a pipeline from there to Texas also, creating the biggest potential carbon bomb on the planet. Protest/march in Wash. D.C. planned for Labor Day. It will probably be needed in Canada also. STOP THE GREED. Alternative, renewable energy is the ONLY answer!!!

  • Nishantha Marasinghe

    We have very less and we have to protect them.No body like to see them only in a photo.

  • chinna upulranic

    Save our forests & Save our planet..

  • onur KILIÇ

    thank you so much national geographic, for those natural photos.all of thems very professional.thanks ,thanks,thanks…

  • chinna upulranic

    Save our planet & Save our forest.

  • chinna upulranic

    Save our forest & Save our animals.

  • Gisela W. Walsh

    I agree that they should conserve the natur and wildlife and not being greedy but protect what we have and needing pipelines so build it around it

  • Gisela W. Walsh

    we should conserve our wildlife and natur becouse our next generation need to see all that how need it is to have wildlife and a beautiful natur wich we love very much

  • Nabi Yavuz Şenturan


  • balamurugan pavithran

    so nice;-)

  • […] More From National Geographic Magazine Here's an interesting article on the beautiful Bear: Living with Spirit Bears: Great Bear Rainforest – News Watch __________________ "Lately it occurs to me….what a long strange trip it's been…" […]

  • […] from Canada’s tar sands and shipped from the coast to Asia.  (Read more from iLCP: “Living With Spirit Bears” and “Spirit Bears in […]

  • Desmond

    vast enasxpes of trees, clouded mountains, and blue-water coves and inlets. The Kermode bear, or ?Spirit Bear? lives there and only there, and it is believed that just four hundred of them are left in the

  • Andreia

    Hi Christine:Thank you for the well whiess! We’ll miss you at conference this year. We’re expecting to see record-breaking use of social media during HIMSS11, which is very exciting. Via social media, I’m sure you’ll be able to get a glimpse and stay up to date with all that’s happening at HIMSS11.Sincerely,Cari

  • Kevin Wright

    I was fortunate to observe the spirit bear with Marven Robinson. Paul Nicklen was also with us for 1 day. Truely a magnificent and spiritual animal. It is appropriate for it to be an icon for an endangered ecosystem. What is happening with the proposed pipeline/tankers would have Aldo Leopold turning over in his grave and wondering what happened to the land ethic

  • Angela

    I agree with the point raised in this article. There should be more concern on a global level about the pipeline being built in Canada. It will have severe repercussions on the future of the planet if it goes ahead. It is an international issue and should be viewed as such.

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