Spirit Bears: The Next Environmental Superstar

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Spirit Bears and the Great Bear Rainforest
Conservationists hope photo spread will bring attention to pipeline proposal.
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The Great Bear Rainforest is not an easy place to get to. It's a wilderness area the size of Switzerland, all but cut off from the rest of civilization.

Our ABC News team traveled by float plane. There are no roads here and no landing strips except for the flat stretches of water along the fjords.

What brought us to this remote corner of Canada is the spirit bear -- "Canada's panda" -- black bears with white fur because of a genetic variation.

With no more than 500 of them on Earth, spirit bears are more rare than pandas.

Click here to see a slide show with photos of spirit bears.

The spirit bear is the marquee species for a region that's also crowded with whales, wolves and eagles.

"It's a magnificent bear," said Ian McAllister, director of the nonprofit conservation group Pacific Wild.

Today, the Great Bear Rainforest faces a threat -- a massive oil pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia, Canada. The plan would turn the spirit bear's home into a superhighway for supertankers.

"They want to bring Big Oil to this coast," McAllister said. "The only thing that's standing between that is really the spirit bear, the concerted efforts from conservationists and the First Nation [native] people."

Conservationists Call in the Cavalry

So the naturalists who long fought to protect the rain forest called in the photographic equivalent of the Green Berets -- the International League of Conservation Photographers.

"It is a SWAT team of photographers that are deployed to an area that needs immediate media attention," said the organization's president, Cristina Mittermeier.

"Some of them do large-format landscapes. Others are extraordinary wildlife photography shooters," she said. "We have an underwater photographer. The idea is to create a snapshot of this area."

Thomas Peschak, a photographer with Save Our Seas Foundation, spent most of his time in the frigid water eye-to-eye with the fish.

"There's large sea stars, colonies of Steller sea lions, humpback whales, orcas," Peschak said. "This place is just bursting at the seams with life. It's one of the richest systems on this planet."

Landscape photographer Jack Dykinga waited for hours for just the right light as aerial photographer Daniel Beltra worked from the open door of a helicopter.

Beltra spent the summer over the Gulf of Mexico, documenting the Deepwater Horizon spill in dazzling camera shots that make environmental disaster look like modern art.

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen's assignment was to capture images of the spirit bear.

"You have to have patience and passion," he said, sitting quietly in the woods. "You have to have both of those. There are very few spirit bears, so if you want to see them you have to put in the 18-hour days for six days at a time just to see a glimpse of this white bear."

Marven Robinson, our guide, is a bear tracker for the Gitga'at Nation tribe, which is native to the region. The Gitga'at Nation consider the spirit bear sacred.

"We call it 'moskam al.' Moskam means white and al means bear," he said.

Robinson said that until recently, his tribe spoke about the bears only in whispers.

"We weren't even allowed to talk about it," he said. "If we were sitting at the dinner table, you know, and someone mentioned that they'd seen one. ... They'd tell you, 'Shh, keep it quiet.'"

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