Fishy encounters with grizzly bears

Paul Williams, assistant producer/ director

For the third episode, The Magical Forest, we chose to focus on the great forests that span North America. On the west coast of Canada lies the Great Bear Rainforest, spreading for 70,000 square kilometres. Here, grizzly bears gather along waterways, as millions of salmon make their autumn migration upstream to spawn. This is the best time of year to see grizzly bears and certainly our best chance of filming them.

Cameraman Mark Payne-Gill and I worked with local expert Tom Rivest to identify key spots for filming. We were looking for riffles, where the water was shallow enough for the salmon to spawn, and where the bears could easily catch fish. Once we had a spot, we hid amongst the vegetation on the bank and waited. The rain poured heavily. Salmon splashed in their hundreds, strenuously fighting the flow to head upstream. Some spawned amongst the riffles, whilst others, having spent their energy, turned over and died. Bald eagles were making the most of the banquet, and much to our surprise - it didn’t take long for a bear to appear.

The feast arrives

A mother with three cubs cautiously approached the water’s edge, keeping a lookout for dominant male bears. They would likely kill her cubs on sight. With the coast clear, mum dived straight in the river to catch fish, leaving her cubs to dig for salmon eggs amongst the boulders. It was thrilling to be less than 40 metres away from her as she crashed powerfully through the water to chase salmon. She then, greedily scoffed it right in front of us.

She only ate the really fatty parts, such as the brain and the ovaries packed with eggs – giving her maximum calories per bite. This selective feeding helps bears to quickly fatten up for hibernation and can almost double their body weight in just a few weeks. They consume as much as 60,000 calories a day, the equivalent of 500 chocolate bars, and by my count, she had eaten at least 20 salmon in just that one session! For every salmon she devoured, she would carry another back to the bank for her cubs. Occasionally she glanced in our direction and sniffed before taking another bite.

It wasn’t long before an adult male approached. The danger posed by these males is a key factor in how bears and salmon are important to the health of the forest. This danger forces subordinate bears, and females with cubs, to head for the safety of the trees to eat. After picking the fattiest parts of the fish, they dump the rest on the forest floor. So many bears feed here that an area the size of football field can have as much as three tonnes of salmon, giving the whole forest a distinctly fishy smell. When this fish rots, it releases a huge amount of carbon and nitrogen into the soil and these vital nutrients help the trees to grow.

Over the next few days, the bears were as regular as clock-work and turned up for breakfast at around 8:30am and then again for dinner at 5pm. My guess is that they spent the middle of the day asleep, in the forest digesting.

Close encounter in the forest

During our explorations, we discovered some fresh bear beds – padded down dig outs surrounded by lots of fish scraps. With the river level continuing to rise, the salmon were becoming more difficult to catch. Tom told me that if the rains continued, the bears would start spending more time in the forest polishing off the scraps that they’d left behind.

It’s incredibly dangerous to film bears within the enclosed confines of a forest, because it’s difficult to predict where the bears will be. So we setup various motion triggered cameras to capture the action. We had to act fast. Bears could be anywhere and there are around 40 in this one small valley! I was attaching a camera to a tree, when I heard a rustle behind me. I thought it was Mark the cameraman until I heard a grunt. I turned around to see a large female bear less than 10 metres away and a cub close behind. Her hungry eyes locked on me. Was I a healthy alternative to fish scraps or a threat to her cub? Either way, she was certainly surprised, and a surprised bear is a dangerous one. The hairs stuck up on the back of my neck, my heart sank. Instinct told me to run, but my training taught me that the best way to respond is to keep calm and talk to the bear. With Tom calmly standing by, I said ‘Hey bear... sorry for trespassing on your forest’. Thankfully, the bear understood my British accent and headed back to the river. I switched the camera on and we got out of there.

The river rises

More than 15 inches of rain poured over the next few days, and the river rose by an incredible 10 metres – extreme even for the rain coast! With fresh salmon now out of reach, the bears were leaving the river’s edge and we were encountering them more and more along the forest trails.

We were filming a waterfall, when behind us a bear powered its way out of the undergrowth. Dripping with rain, she stood glaringly amongst the damp mossy backdrop. She was less than 5 metres away and I could smell her fishy breath. I froze. Tom did his usual calm talking, ‘Hey bear’, and Mark carried on getting the shot. By the time Mark turned around, Tom had worked his charms and all Mark saw was a big wobbling backside sauntering down the trail. Only later did I tell him just how close we had been.

The next day, we were trapped in our little floating house on the estuary. Even the access road through the forest was deep underwater. It poured with rain for seven days straight, and we barely left our cabins.

Why the forest needs the salmon

This huge volume of rain is what makes the salmon so crucial for the forest. All this water continually flushes nutrients out of the soil and into the rivers. This helps to nourish aquatic plants and salmons’ eggs. Eventually the young salmon head out to sea, but when they return to spawn, the bears will be waiting. In turn, the salmon nutrients will be transported back into the forest and will help to keep the whole system in check.

Finally the rain stopped and the river level dropped, allowing the bears to continue their autumn feast and leaving us to get the footage we needed.