The all white Kermode or Spirit Bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) is the rarest of the North American bears and something of a “holy grail” for wildlife enthusiasts and photographers, and of great spiritual significance to the Pacific Northwest First Nations community who consider its appearance to be a very good omen.
A genetic variation of the ubiquitous North American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), the Spirit Bear is not an albino but rather the product of two parents possessing a common recessive gene. Because both parents must possess the gene in order to produce a white cub, it is possible for a white cub to have two black parents (if they both carry the gene), or a white parent to have a black cub (if it’s mate does not carry the gene). Due to the delayed implantation common among bears which means a female may carry eggs fertilized by different males, a female carrying the gene may even have a mixture of black and white cubs in a single litter.
You can also be one of the lucky few to share this experience on a Wildlife Trails tour to the Central Coast of British Columbia in September and October. From a base in the heart of a traditional First Nations community you can travel by boat to remote locations on this island group and adjacent mainland where Spirit Bears are know to fish for salmon, and then view them on foot, often using natural hides, in the company of expert First Nations guides and well known wildlife conservationists and biologists. Due to the sensitivity of the areas visited, a maximum of 6 visitors are accommodated at any given time.
Spirit Bears can occur in any Black Bear population but are exceptionally rare, except on a cluster of heavily forested islands off the Central Coast of British Columbia where there is an unusually high concentration of the recessive gene. Here 1 in 10 black bears are born white, and on some of the islands the ratio may be as high as 1 in 4. Although otherwise identical in biology and behaviour to other black bears, there is scientific evidence to suggest that spirit bears have some inherent advantages due to their otherwise very conspicuous colouration. Studies have shown that spirit bears have a greater degree of success catching salmon in broad daylight than their black brethren. This seems to be a result of their lighter colouration and light reflection off the water’s surface, and may account for adult white bears being larger on average that their black contemporaries in the same area.
Spirit Bears are currently afforded no legal protection from trophy hunters but are in effect made safe in their island home thanks largely to the will and wishes of the First Nations people who lay claim to the land on which they live. A number of influential conservation groups are however actively working in partnership with First Nations groups to pursue legislation to protect Spirit Bears and their habitat, and is to be hoped that this popular movement will receive government backing so that future generations may still be lucky enough to glimpse this rare and elusive spirit of the Great Bear Rainforest.
Wildlife Trails have teamed up with an excellent First Nations community venture on one of these islands to offer the unique opportunity during the autumn salmon run to go in search on this rare and elusive spirit of the Great Bear Rainforest in the company of expert local guides. All bear viewing is conducted on foot, often involving patient vigils in natural hides. A boat is used to access remote locations on the surrounding islands and adjacent mainland where Spirit Bears are known to fish for salmon, or have been regularly seen in recent weeks, and the group (maximum 10 people) led by a local First Nations guide then hikes a short distance to a position offering the best view. Depending on the level of success with Spirit Bear sightings, there are also several locations in the area that the group can elect to visit in order to also observe Grizzly Bears in a similar fashion. The guides accumulate a great deal of knowledge about the whereabouts, habits and movements of Spirit Bears in the area from members of the community who come into contact with bears while working out in the field (e.g. forestry & fishery workers) in their traditional tribal territory, and from scouting locations themselves, prior to, and during the salmon season.