A day in the life of: a bear watcher!

Easily one of the coolest things I have ever done: this past weekend our friend Lauren, Andy and me headed across to Vancouver Island to base ourselves in Campbell River, and catch a boat up to the Toba Inlet to see some grizzlies in their natural habitat. It was a mission of a weekend, but it was also an amazing experience and one that I will remember for a very long time to come. Not only did we spot multiple grizzlies hunting for salmon before they head into hibernation in a few short months, we also saw them swimming and chilling out, and, by virtue of catching a boat several hours in each direction, we managed to see a number of humpback whales as well. Below is an account of our day, although I’m not sure that any of the photos can match the magic of the experience.

6am: BEEP! Our alarm went off brutally early for a Saturday morning. We had caught the ferry across to Vancouver Island and driven up to Campbell River after a full workday on Friday, so it hadn’t exactly been an early night for us. As I peeked outside, bleary eyed, I was relieved to see the nasty weather front had not yet arrived and I crossed my fingers and toes it would stay away until the evening. We groggily got up and layered on our warm clothes, before heading down to the front desk of our hotel to collect our ‘breakfast bags’. Inside our bags was some yoghurt, fruit salad, muffin and a juice box – I felt like I was back at school again!

We drove the 2 minutes down to the marina where we checked in with the tour operator: Campbell River Whale Watching and Adventure Tours, and met our guide for the day: Rob. There were 11 of us in our group, and as I quickly realised, most were very competent photographers. Funnily enough, there were another 2 New Zealanders in our group, and of course one of them even went to the same primary school in Dunedin as Andy (although many years apart). Our boat was only small – a seat indoors for everyone and then a rooftop which had the capacity for 6 at a time, but it was perfect for what we were setting out do.

7am: Shortly after 7, we were on the water heading away from Campbell River and through numerous inlets, bays and channels with our final destination being the Toba Inlet. Being on the water at this time really reminded me why I like mornings so much: the water was so still and glassy, the sun was only just emerging over the side of the horizon and everything about the day was brimming with potential yet to be realised. There were lots of birds in the water, enough to make us feel like we skimming across a giant pond, not the middle of the ocean.

8am: Whale sighting! We could see several blows on the horizon in the distance (i.e. water droplets lingering in the air ejected from the whale’s blow hole) so Rob chose a group of active looking blows and we headed over. He slowed the boat and we headed outside the cabin to watch two humpbacks skimming the surface, then diving down into the water – each time revealing their majestic tails. Rob was full of information and we learnt a lot about how whales feed, their habitats, their dangers and how they sleep. We spend about 30 minutes watching the pair and it wasn’t until we were about to leave that another boat showed, meaning we basically had the spot to ourselves.

We moved on to another set of blows; this time we could actually see a calf breaching (jumping) out of the water. As we approached, the three whales calmed and seemed to go to sleep… boring! We watched them for a bit – when they sleep they tend to stick close to their surface of the water (as they need to breathe) which makes them very easy to spot, but their movements are predictable and repetitive. It seemed as though there was a mama whale and perhaps two calves blowing their way along the strait.

9am: We still had a fair amount of distance to cover before we reached the inlet, so Rob put his foot on the gas and we made up some of the time we had spent watching the whales. I (bravely) chose to sit on the roof for this part of the trip: lucky I was wearing as many clothes as I was, because it was positively freezing and extremely windy – I felt like the air was just rushing straight through me! We weren’t allowed to move from outside to inside (or vice versa) while the boat was in motion though, so I did my best to get comfortable. The scenery was spectacular, in every direction. Sharp, jagged mountains; extremely low hanging fog and clouds speckled across the morning sky. Once we reached the Toba Inlet the wind just dropped, and it suddenly felt like a still, calm paradise.

10am: We pulled up at the dock and were treated to a snack of a half bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon – slightly ironic, given the situation. We were greeted by our bear guide, Stu, a member of the Klahoose First Nation tribe. He was a wealth of information, anecdotes and passion for the area. He explained some safety rules and then we jumped aboard the retro looking school bus. As he drove he pointed out interesting things like where his father used to live (it felt like we were 100 kilometres from anywhere, seriously), an old grizzly hunting shelter built up into the trees and numerous ‘day beds’ for the bears.

There were six viewing tours based along the river. We arrived at the first one (which was walking distance from a second) and went quietly up onto the platform. Everyone had their long lenses out, or for those without cameras (like Andy), binoculars glued to their faces. As everyone was searching the foliage and riverbed for signs of grizzlies, someone in our group hissed that he could see one. We all stopped what we were doing to peer down the river, where in the distance we could spot a big ol’ grizzly chomping on a salmon. To our delight, after finishing his snack, he continued to playfully amble down the river towards us. He seemed extremely active, pouncing on fish the whole way down and splashing in the water. He appeared oblivious to us, passing below the tower and onwards down the river. Meanwhile, a second grizzly appeared from the trees directly across the river from where we were and made his way down to the water. He caught a big fish almost immediately and retreated to eat it.

11am: We kept our eyes on both bears, eventually walking to the second of the towers to have a slight change in scenery. From here we could spot the first bear bounding around in the shallow rapids, catching fish and then eating them on the beach before trying to hunt another. We enthusiastically watched for a while, before our guide suggested we try moving on to a different tower to see if there were other bears in the area.

Climbing back into the bus we drove down the river to another pair of viewing towers. Out our windows we could see a big solo bear plodding down the side of the river towards us. We climbed out of the bus and made our way to the tower. As I was approaching the stairs, I paused as I could see the bear had become aware of us. He rose up onto his hind legs (God, he had QUITE the presence) and after checking us out, he bounded across the river and made his escape up the side of the bank. I was heartbroken, as this had had the potential to be such a great sighting! It was pretty magnificent watching him rise on his legs though (I’ve only ever seen that happen on documentaries) even if it did make for a rather fleeting encounter.

 We waited at this tower for a while hoping that he would come back down and continue his journey, but it was not to be. Instead, another bear emerged from around the river bend, probably one of the bears we had seen earlier. We watched him from a distance, as he didn’t really come any closer. He seemed perfectly content with the one fish he had and then he found a log in the water and treated himself to a long lazy scratch on it, before taking a paddle and leaving us through the trees on the other side of the river. We walked to another tower where we didn’t see any bears, but we tried liquorice root, saw a heron and touched some grizzly bear fur in a somewhat informative talk from Stu!

12pm: Last but not least, we headed back to the bridge at the centre of the towers for what would be our greatest bear sightings yet. As we got out of the bus, I could spot grizzlies on each side of the bridge, and another group of people watching from the top of the bridge. Stu directed us to the tower which sat alongside the bridge. The grizzly closest to us kept walking towards our tower, before submerging himself into a stagnant, shallow part of the river sheltered by logs for a bit of a mud bath. We figured the water must be warmer there, because he stayed in for about 15 minutes, rotating his body around! It made for great entertainment and he kept looking over at us too.

The other grizzly seemed unaware of his buddy (or probable non-buddy) a mere 30 metres down the river, and he was content playing on a log that had fallen into the river, near a relatively deep spot. He clambered off the log into the water and went for a wee swim, at times dog paddling around and at other times standing up on his back legs in the water in order to touch the bottom. A fish seemed to magically appear in his paws while he was in the water, so he nibbled on that for a bit before releasing it – poor fish, probably didn’t survive that one!

Nobody wanted to leave, but when 1pm was starting to rapidly creep up on us Stu hustled our group on to the bus, as he was guiding another tour starting at 1pm. As we left the tower, the first grizzly decided he was finished with his bath, and picked himself up out of the water and crossed to the point of the river closest to where we were. It was somewhat intimidating/electrifying knowing how close he was and how much danger we could be in, if the situation was slightly different. We were still very careful though!

1pm: Back at the dock we said our goodbyes to Stu and sat down to open our ‘lunch bags’. I hadn’t expected our second meal of the day to also be out of a paper bag, but given Covid, I guess it makes sense. We were treated to some yummy sandwiches, cookies, coffee and fruit before getting back on the boat and beginning our journey back to Campbell River. About 50 metres from the dock lay a series of floating logs that were covered in harbour seals. They were extremely cute all piled up next to each other, and they all raised their heads to check us out as we glided past in our boat. Rob then showed us relatively thunderous waterfall about 5 minutes away.

2pm: Remarkably, not much further down the inlet we came across a lunge-feeding humpback whale, who had been residing in the inlet for the past three weeks. Given the beauty of the surroundings and his serious lack of competition, I could see why he might never leave! The humpback was unusual in his behaviour for the fact he was doing something called lunge-feeding: instead of diving down and feeding (and showing his tail on the way), he was just lurking close to the surface and rising with his mouth open, in order to catch everything he could on his way up. This meant he didn’t need to dive at all, so the entire time he’d been a resident of Toba Inlet no-one had seen his tail – and he therefore had not yet been identified as a certain individual. This behaviour made it hard to predict where (and when) he was going to rise next, so it was hard to get a good photo as it would always happen so quickly!

3pm: Rob sped back through the channels until we got to a bay nearby to where we had been earlier that morning. Here there were two whales diving around in the late afternoon sun. It was a beautiful scene: the colours on the horizon were stunning and the shadows of the mountains across the landscape were positively surreal. Add in the glassy water and the whales and it couldn’t get much better. We commented that the only thing that would improve the situation was some wine and cheese, and maybe an orca pod! Following the whale sighting, we coasted forward a few hundred metres to the famous rock that was inhabited by about 20 massive sea lions. They were noisy characters: grunting and puffing, throwing their weight around. They were extremely animated and I could have watched them for much longer, especially the sole male who was very keen to make his presence known.

4pm: We boosted back to Campbell River, where Rob sat us down and explained the Carbon Neutral programme that the company is a part of, and gave us all little post cards with a QR code that we could go online and claim our 1m2 patch of forest on the Toba Inlet! It was a very cool initiative and made me happier that we had chosen them to tour with. It had been a huge day, and I felt very sorry for Rob who then had to stay on and clean the boat in preparation for the next day’s tour.

5pm: Home sweet home for these extremely tired but very content souls. We drove back to our hotel where we freshened up, before heading out for some much craved pizza at Session Brewery. It was definitely nice to not be eating from a paper bag. That night,  as the rain was pelting down our windows, we started looking through some of our photos and videos of the day – which was extremely exciting, as it felt like we were living the day all over again!

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