We are four days into a cruise through the fjords, bays and sea channels of the Great Bear Rainforest and nobody aboard the tall ship, Maple Leaf, has seen what they really came for.
The Victoria-based adventure yacht, skippered by owner Kevin Smith, has drifted beside humpback whales, slipped into sheltered coves to let us scramble up salmon streams, dropped anchor off beaches laced with wolf tracks and launched Zodiacs to put us so close to sea lions that we choke on their pungent stink. Thousands of kilograms of fish processed through tonnes of sea mammal does not have a pleasant odour. You will have to trust me on this, or you could ask the woman from Alberta who, with remarkable dignity, has just barfed over the side as the inflatable boat lifts and falls on a Pacific swell.
Yes, we have seen a lot, halfway through our cruise along the fabled Central Coast of British Columbia, north of Vancouver Island and south of the Alaska Panhandle, which has become world famous for its wildlife and its vast swath of temperate rain forest. It is here that film crews from the BBC, National Geographic and others come when they want to capture dramatic images of the great bears of the Pacific Northwest.
But despite the impressive array of binoculars that the nine passengers have been using to sweep the darkly forested shoreline, and despite the hours we have spent watching pink salmon thrash about on their spawning beds, we have not yet caught sight of a single bear.
We have not seen any grizzlies, nor any common black bears. And we have definitely not seen Ursus americanus kermodei, the rare subspecies of black bear with a recessive gene that gives it a coat as white as a polar bear’s.
As the Maple Leaf pulled out of Bella Bella on the first day of the cruise, Smith asked his guests – three from Canada, two from the United States, two from Australia and two from Curaçao – what they most wanted to see.
All had come to experience deep nature in the 6.4-million hectare wilderness of the Great Bear Rainforest, a largely road-less tract of forest that sweeps up B.C.’s mainland coast. But everyone also really wanted to see bears – especially the white Kermode. For reasons not understood, about one in 10 of the area’s black bears are born with white fur, a trait that emerges only when both parents have the recessive gene. About 400 Spirit Bears, as they are also called, are thought to inhabit the region – the only place in the world where they are found. It is believed that the population is stable, but it is also small. Some researchers estimate there could be as few as 100, or as many as 500, but no one seems to have hard numbers. One thing is sure – they are elusive.
Smith did not promise that we would see Spirit Bears. But he did say that in 11 years at the helm of Maple Leaf Adventures he had never failed to find bears of one colour or another. Of course, he added, they are wild, unpredictable animals and we might not be lucky.
As we sailed into the rain forest, we saw the fins of blue sharks cutting the tranquil surface, we saw Dall’s porpoises, which played under the bowsprit, we saw seals, sea lions, eagles and flocks of seabirds. And high on a boggy mountainside, on one of our frequent shore excursions, we heard a pack of wolves howling in the forest below.
But bears remained elusive.
One day on a walk we found some scat.
“Well, we are definitely getting closer,” passenger Bob Douat said with a thick, Texas drawl as he peered at the droppings.
Every day aboard the Maple Leaf, a meticulously maintained 108-year-old schooner, was an adventure. And nights were too, with most passengers sleeping in a common cabin, bunks separated by curtains, waiting their turns to use two small washrooms.