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The National Student Microadventure Challenge: Bear watching on Canada's West Coast


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Living on the west coast of Canada for the past two months, I have not managed to get out on the water as often as I would have liked. My internship has focused on protecting the aquatic ecosystem but, ironically, the ocean is still a stranger to me.

So, when my boss mentioned that she was taking her grand-niece on a coastal bear-watching trip, I hastily booked on (before the sight of my dwindling bank account could stop me).

I have been bear-watching in Alberta, but the experience was always tainted by various stresses. When one car stops along the road after spotting a bear, it takes only minutes for a crowd of cars and tourists to accumulate. I have seen people turn their backs on these beautiful, powerful animals to take a selfie.

I have spotted takeaway coffee cups scattered along the road, tossed by people who seem to have no consideration of protecting their surroundings. I have watched in terror as a mamma bear and her cubs crossed the road, holding my breath until they made it safely across. I loved watching the bears in Alberta, but the experience always made my heart ache with concern.

Bear-watching on the coast is an entirely different experience.

We travelled with Remote Passages, based in Tofino on Vancouver Island, for our afternoon adventure. After watching a short video and donning life-jackets, we clambered onto the boat and set off on our journey, delighted that our trip was taking place on a rare Tofino day when the spectacular mountain ranges are not shrouded in mist.

Leaving the pier, it takes very little time to be out of sight of the town and in the midst of pristine rainforest-wrapped mountains and calm inlets glistening in the summer sunshine. Suddenly, you are miles away from all your stresses.

Along the way, we spotted a bald eagle perched atop a tree, as well as a huge group of seals enjoying the warmth of the sun.

Travelling further along the coast reveals a bit of the history of Clayoquot Sound. Logging roads zig-zag as scars on the mountainside, often stopping abruptly as a result of the famous community-led protests which took place here in the late 1900s. There are areas of clear-cut logging (when the old-growth rainforest was shaved clean) but there are also signs of recovery.

Clayoquot Sound is the ultimate environmental activism success story, the little guys standing up to “the man” and winning. The area still faces a variety of foes, open-pit mines are being planned, fish farms are polluting the waters, and the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline means more and more tankers will weave through these waters. But the local people are still fighting.

And amongst this beautiful landscape, unaware of the messy politics surrounding resource extraction in their home, live the bears. The black bears of Vancouver Island can often be spotted by boat because they come out of the forest to search for shellfish to eat. 

We raced along the coast until suddenly coming to a stop, the engine purring gently. Our guide leant forward. Trusting his expertise, the rest of us took up our places. I perched at the back end of the boat, making sure to soak up the summer rays, and began to scan the shoreline…

There she was. A tiny black bear ambling along the stone beach, peering under rocks for an afternoon snack.

There is nothing quite like watching this wild scene from the safety of a boat, the salty breeze gently whipping through your hair, and the sound of waves lapping against the boat. Our group whispered excitedly, watching this adorable creature.

I still felt a little concern for the bear, aware of the threats to her habitat and, in particular, the impact of nearby fish farms on one of her major food sources, wild salmon. But I was glad that at least this bear was getting her fill of shellfish, seemingly unperturbed by our intrusion, and miles from anyone who could harm her.

Make sure to travel with an environmentally friendly and culturally aware organisation. Remember, these lands are not only home to the bears, but to the First Nations communities who have lived here for millennia. Try to learn more about how First Nations have co-existed alongside these magnificent creatures for generations, living sustainably before it became a modern trend.

My final week approached as quickly as a speeding wave, breaking on top of me before I even saw it coming, but now I am leaving with these memories at the forefront of my mind. Bear-watching was an eloquent ending to my time here, passing the fish farms, forests, and logging sites, which have been so central to my work here.

An experience like this, out on the open ocean, is the best way to experience the West Coast of Canada. Get away from the busy towns and discover the 360-degree rainforest panorama of Clayoquot Sound. 

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