The Great Bear Rainforest

Outdoor Photography

Lying on a sandbar 20 yards from this grizzly, I felt completely safe as she contentedly dug for clams. She knew I was there but had no interest in me so long as I respected her boundaries and didn’t make any sudden movements. The versatility of my 200-400mm lens allowed me to get the framing I wanted without invading the bear’s personal space.

She knows I’m there, a quiet observer watching while she sleeps. Even my breath feels loud as I attempt to make my 6-foot-4 frame as small and unnoticeable as possible. It’s only been 10 minutes, but it seems like a mere moment and a lifetime all at once. Just as I notice my breathing has slowed to mimic hers, she begins to stir, and my pulse quickens. Camera to my eye and finger hovering above the shutter, I’m lying on my belly just 20 yards from a giant female grizzly in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest.

She could easily lunge and be right on top of me, but dozens of clams litter the ground between us—and luckily, she prefers shellfish over humans. As she stretches and shakes off her slumber, my guide whispers, “It’s time to move. Go slow but go!” I carefully climb to my feet and back away from the grizzly; the sound of cracking clam shells fills the air as we creep slowly toward our rigid-hulled inflatable Zodiac. The boat silently slips from the shore as a bald eagle glides overhead. I find myself smiling as I marvel that the Great Bear Rainforest exists at all.

Photo of a humpback whale breaching

Humpback whales repeatedly lunge when feeding in the nutrient-rich waters of the coastal rainforest channels, offering plenty of time to set up this shot. Before breaching, the whales blow bubbles around schools of fish to clump them together. By lowering a hydrophone into the water, I heard the same whale make the call before every breach, so I was ready with my 500mm lens as soon as they broke the surface.

The Great Bear Rainforest: A Pristine Wilderness

A spectacular 250-mile stretch of forest along the central and northern coast of British Columbia, Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest (GBR) extends from Knight Inlet to the Alaska Panhandle. The subject of many an argument between conservationists and developers, the GBR remains one of the most unspoiled landscapes in the world, largely untouched by humans. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. referred to the Great Bear Rainforest as “the planet’s last large expanse of coastal temperate rain forest.” I’ve photographed in some of the most beautiful places in the world, and this is one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes I’ve ever seen.

Photo of a waterfall

Forest photographs tend to be compositionally challenging due to the visual chaos of so many elements in the scene, and green can be a bit of a color bully. The Great Bear Rainforest covers 25,000 square miles—equivalent in size to Ireland—so that’s a lot of green. This shaft of light provided a focal point to balance the waterfall with the trees on the left, creating an image that not only conveys the feeling of being there, but to also tells the story of the water, the energy from the sun and the forest.

Behind the evergreen curtain of the GBR is a healthy habitat of wildlife, including coastal gray wolves, Sitka deer, cougars, mountain goats, grizzly bears and the rarest bear in the world, the white Kermode (or spirit) bear. Sea lions and sea otters play near the beach, orca fins slice through the ocean’s surface, and humpback whales lunge feed on krill and breach in breathtaking displays. Whether on land or at sea, it’s a magical experience, like stepping into nature’s fairy tale: peaceful, pristine and, at times, surreal. 

Great Grizzly Adventure

There are no roads into the Great Bear Rainforest. Access is by boat or floatplane, and only a handful of operators are authorized to tour these waters. Limiting the number of people allowed inside the GBR boundaries provides a true sense of respect between bears and humans, as the animals seem to understand that they are safe from harm and stay relaxed, providing for up-close and intimate encounters.

Photo of a bald eagle

Scouting for bears in the Khutzeymateen Inlet, we spied a bald eagle in a tree at the water’s edge. With lenses pointed at the sky, we waited for him to take off. I took plenty of decent-enough shots of it sitting in the tree, but the decisive moment came after a 10-minute wait. The eagle took flight, and I was ready. I panned with his movement using my handheld 500mm lens and this was the only image I got of his journey through the trees.

As I thought about being near the bears in their natural environment, “Don’t get near mamas with cubs” played in a loop in my head. Not out of fear, but more out of a belief I’d formed by what I’d been told my whole life. That belief was challenged as we motored along the shoreline and our guide spotted a grizzly and her cub. When I thought we were probably close enough, the captain cut the engine, and we drifted even closer. Calm and curious, the bears were aware of our presence but not sensing we wanted to cause any harm; they just continued about their day as if we weren’t there. And in that instant, the rest of the world fell away. I saw that these giants aren’t scary monsters but co-inhabitants of our planet who, like us, are just trying to make it from one day to the next.

While watching the dynamic between these two bears, I knew the mother was on alert, but not because of us. Resident males will kill her cubs to mate with her to produce their own offspring. Cubs are born during hibernation, and when the adults emerge from their dens in the spring, they are thin, hungry and at the mercy of the ecological systems they rely on to survive. Females are especially focused on gaining strength as quickly as possible to protect the cubs, feasting on plants such as sedge grass, berries, nuts and fruits while they wait for the salmon run to begin in late summer or early fall. By the end of salmon season, the bears are fully nourished, some seeming so heavy that they can barely move.

Touching Spirit: The Kermode “Spirit Bear”

Of all the remarkable beauty of the Great Bear Rainforest, one of its most distinctive characteristics is the Kermode, or spirit bear. Often incorrectly believed to be albino, Kermode bears have white or cream-colored fur caused by a recessive gene that must be present in both of its black bear parents to produce the anomaly. The term “spirit bear” is derived from a story told by Canada’s indigenous Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation that the bears were made to remind Raven, the creator of all things, of ice and snow. First Nation elders kept the existence of spirit bears secret for decades, fearing that they would be killed by fur or trophy hunters. Protection is a priority—Kermode bears do not survive in captivity, and it’s estimated that fewer than 200 of them exist in the wild. If you compare that to the 1,800 panda bears in both zoos and in the wild, it underscores the rarity of the Kermode.

Photo of a kermode bear native to the Great Bear Rainforest

As I waited to catch a glimpse of a Kermode, I noticed a beautiful shaft of light on a trail beside a salmon stream. I previsualized my image and preset my exposure in anticipation of a bear sighting. I knew this might be my only chance for a shot—it was the riskiest photo of the trip. Eventually, a rustle in the leaves told me the wait was going to be worth it. A lone bear emerged from the rainforest into that tiny pool of light, resulting in one of the most magical moments of my photographic career.

Getting to the GBR is an adventure in itself. Days of travel include multiple commercial flights, a floatplane, sailing for days, scouting from the Zodiac and hiking through the forest, all in search of these majestic creatures. The spirit bear’s survival relies on the cold, nutrient-dense waters of the northern Pacific Ocean. Saltwater streams fed by the ocean teem with salmon, the bears’ primary food source, so camping out by the salmon-filled river was the best bet for a possible sighting. I was ready. I waited, in the rain, for what seemed like endless hours.

I knew there was a risk of not even catching sight of the elusive Kermode, but just as I wondered if it was all for nothing, a flash of white emerged from behind the green forest wall. Nothing could have prepared me for how that felt. I’ve studied the photographs in National Geographic with great curiosity and wonder, but seeing a spirit bear for the first time was like seeing a ghost come to life. 

Exploring The Great Bear Rainforest’s Ocean Views 

Photo of sea anemones

A dip below the ocean’s surface reveals a wonderland of anemones and kelp, proving the lush environment doesn’t stop at the shoreline. The murky depths usually require strobes to capture ocean life, resulting in images that more closely resemble studio photography, but I wanted to use natural light for this image, so I stayed closer to the surface and opted for a more traditional landscape composition.

Venturing under water, the wonderland of the GBR transitions into forests of kelp, anemones and extraordinary animals, none more fascinating to me than the giant Pacific octopus. There is nothing quite like coming face-to-tentacle with one of these geniuses—with three hearts, nine brains and an arm span of up to 20 feet—while deep in the ocean. Far from intimidating, they are curious and playful; one octopus wrapped a tentacle around my camera’s strobes to soak up the warmth. My encounters with these Pacific giants have proven who is in control, and it’s not me. Once the octopus has satisfied its curiosity, it’s gone in a flash of color. All you can do is watch and be grateful that you were a guest in the sublime world of the octopus.

Photo of a wolf eel

Diving near Browning Pass, I was approximately 50 feet below the surface when I spotted this male wolf eel (technically a fish, despite the name) hanging out in its den. There was still some natural light at that depth, but I knew I would need strobes because much of the color had been stripped away by the water. I placed one strobe on each side of the den, dialed in my exposure and waited for the eel to poke its head out once again.

The GBR is also home to a large population of Steller sea lions that, after spending calm, contemplative time with the octopus, felt like a full circus act. Big, fast and a little too playful, these beasts are intimidating. After two hours in the water with them, I understood what it must be like to be a dog’s chew toy. Much like puppies, none of their bites are meant to be harmful, but at 800 pounds, even their gentlest nibble can leave a big bruise! But their natural curiosity makes for great photographs because they love getting up close to look at their reflections in the dome of the camera, creating fun, wide-eyed portraits.

Photo of a sea lion

I’d love to say that photographing sea lions is only a matter of skill, but it also takes a decent amount of luck—and a willingness to be battered and bruised by these playful creatures. While diving with Steller sea lions on Hornby Island in the Strait of Georgia, I pre-focused my camera and set the strobe exposure for a specific distance. There’s no way to do it in the moment; they move so quickly that framing and shooting are almost reflexive. When I saw this sea lion come within the strobe’s range, I hit the shutter. The light reflected in the white of its eye is exactly what I’d hoped to capture. Without the strobe, this photograph wouldn’t be as compelling.

Preserving The Wild

Conservation efforts have brought worldwide attention to this 25,000-square-mile section of British Columbia’s western coastline and, accordingly, an awareness of the importance of protecting the land, ocean and animals of the GBR. The significance of safeguarding this area has been made more tangible through the power of photography. Images provide a sense of how remarkable it is that the GBR exists at all. And as much as it will exist forever in photographs, it now has a chance to exist physically forever as well. In February 2016, the Canadian government, together with local First Nations, officially protected the old-growth forest, assuring a long-term home for North America’s biggest and most charismatic animals—and preserving it as one of the world’s truly wild places. We all need more of that. 


See more of Jon McCormack’s work at jonmccormack.com.

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