GREAT BEAR RAINFOREST, British Columbia, Canada, Oct. 13, 2010 — -- 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.'"
Pipeline Through the Rain Forest
The residents of Hartley Bay, Robinson's hometown of 150, held a potluck dinner for the visiting photographers. Among the delicacies was fresh seal meat and smoked sea lion.
Helen Clifton, a tribal elder, said the elders strongly oppose the pipeline.
"We, the red race, were to be keepers of the land," she said. "We need all of you to help our spirit bear that we have out there."
But proponents of the pipeline say there's no cause for alarm, that the pipeline would skirt the Great Bear Rainforest. The oil would travel through the region only in modern, double-hulled tankers and guided by tugboats. They add that the pipeline would bring jobs to the region.
"We believe the potential for a spill is remote," said John Carruthers, president of the Northern Gateway pipeline project. "We'll also put in very thorough plans in the event of a spill, but the public needs to know we can respond very effectively if there is one."
The Enbridge oil company, unfortunately, has had some practice. An Enbridge pipeline in Michigan burst this summer, spilling 1 million barrels of oil into the Kalamazoo River, which flows into the Great Lakes. Last month, one of the company's pipelines in suburban Chicago started to leak.
It's little wonder that the fishermen are skeptical and worried that an oil spill could destroy their way of life.
"This is my bread and butter," one said.
The second day of our hunt for the Spirit bear involved a strenuous hike into an even more remote patch of woods.
Robinson, our bear tracker, said the area was off limits to everyone. Only he and his guides were allowed to enter.
The moss was so thick and soft, it could be used as a pillow. The place was so quiet that the only sound, besides the rapids, came from the salmon swimming upstream and the ravens flapping their wings overhead.
There was plenty of evidence that bears recently had been there -- fresh salmon killed on the rocks of the river and fresh bear droppings in the woods.
We hid quietly by the side of the river.
"This is where the bears are most likely coming to feed on salmon," Robinson said. "[With] the carcasses all over, you know, there's good signs."
The Search for the Spirit Bear Continues
Almost immediately, a white form emerged from the woods -- a lone wolf surprised to see humans. Black bears arrived. We waited and waited until the light faded. Disappointed, we trudged out of the woods.
On our last day of shooting, we set off early in hopes of better luck. And suddenly, there he was in an open field at the edge of the woods.
"It really feels like a ghost," said National Geographic photographer Nicklen. "You feel like you've seen a ghost -- the way they so seamlessly slip back into the forest and they're gone again. You have to look at your pictures to realize what you've just seen. It's just amazing."