Naturalist's Notebook Guest Post: Photographing the Endangered Spirit Bear

British photographer, conservationist and environmental traveler Jenny Varley shared with us some of the amazing photos she took of Kermode (KER-mode) bears, one of the world's rarest animals, on the coast of British Columbia in Canada. Kermodes (named for Francis Kermode, a Canadian zoologist who studied them) are also called spirit bears because of their white, ghostlike coloration. They're the official mammal of British Columbia. Here's Jenny's description of these extraordinary animals and her experience watching and photographing them:

Because both parents must carry the gene mutation responsible for producing a white bear, white spirit bears can give birth to black cubs, which remain black all of their lives. (photo by Jenny Varley)

By Jenny Varley

Spirit bears are a subspecies of the American black bear. They are found only in the northwest coastal regions of British Columbia, predominantly in the 12,000-square-mile Great Bear Rainforest (see map below), in which they are the iconic species. On some islands in the Great Bear Rainforest, spirit bears may make up 40% of the (non-grizzly) bear population. It is estimated there may only be 300 to 400 such bears, which makes them rarer than giant pandas!

Studies have found that the white bears are more successful than black bears at hunting salmon during the day, when—from a fish-eye view—their coloration makes them less visible against the sky.  (photo by Jenny Varley)

Studies have found that the white bears are more successful than black bears at hunting salmon during the day, when—from a fish-eye view—their coloration makes them less visible against the sky. (photo by Jenny Varley)

Spirit bears are not albinos and although their predominant color is white they have varying amounts of ginger in their coats. Their eyes are pigmented and they also often have pigmented snouts. The genetic basis for the white pelage has been identified as a mutation in the gene encoding the receptor for melanocortin 1, a protein involved in the regulation of pigment production in cells called melanocytes. The mutation is recessive, which means that for a spirit bear to be white it must have two copies of the variant gene—one from each parent. This also means that, depending on the genetic make-up of individual bears, a black female may give birth to white offspring, or even one black and one white, and white mothers can give birth to black cubs. 

Interestingly, a variant in the same gene in humans is present in people with red hair and freckles and who tan easily.

The Great Bear Rainforest has been described as one of the world's largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest. In February 2016, after a decade of negotiations, the British Columbia government announced a deal to protect 85% of the rainforest from commercial logging. On March 1, 2016, as part of the compromise, the provincial government assured timber companies that for the next 10 years they would be allowed to harvest 2.5 million cubic meters of wood each year (down from 4 million a decade ago) under "strict, ecosytem-based management rules." 

The Great Bear Rainforest has been described as one of the world's largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest. In February 2016, after a decade of negotiations, the British Columbia government announced a deal to protect 85% of the rainforest from commercial logging. On March 1, 2016, as part of the compromise, the provincial government assured timber companies that for the next 10 years they would be allowed to harvest 2.5 million cubic meters of wood each year (down from 4 million a decade ago) under "strict, ecosytem-based management rules." 

Kermode bears have been known to catch and feast on as many as 80 salmon in one session. Five species of Pacific salmon spawn in the streams of the Great Bear Rainforest. (photo by Jenny Varley)

There are a number of threats to Kermode bears. Hunting and poaching are always a danger (even though hunting white bears is banned in British Columbia, hunting black bears that carry the white gene variation is not). Falling numbers of salmon returning to the area can result in decreased survival, particularly during hibernation. 

The most significant threats are man-made; habitat loss, industry (including the continued logging), and the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat, which could result in more than 200 tankers per year traversing the narrow and pristine waterways of the Great Bear Rainforest. That project suffered a setback in November of 2015, when new Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau imposed a moratorium on tanker traffic along British Columbia's north coast, but the Calgary-based Enbridge energy-delivery corporation says it has not given up on building the pipeline.

A male spirit bear can stand almost six feet tall and weigh 500 pounds; females, such as this one, are notably smaller and usually top out at about 300 pounds. (photo by Jenny Varley)

Many thanks to Jenny for bringing us face-to-face with these rare and remarkable bears! (photo by Jenny Varley)

On our visit to the Great Bear Rainforest, we were lucky enough to spend almost a whole day with a spirit bear and her two black cubs. One cub was very cheeky, being quite boisterous and stealing fish from Mom as she caught them. Our guide was the brilliant Marven Robinson, who, in addition to guiding, has done much to raise awareness of the dangers faced by these wonderful animals.  After a day watching the mom and cubs we saw a second mother walking along the shore.  A truly special day and such a privilege to see.  You can find more images of these bears and other wildlife on my website, www.jennymvarley.co.uk. —Jenny Varley

Stuck at Sea In the Antarctic With A Rescued Bird, A Paintbrush and a Stowaway

At 6 a.m. we had a problem. Waves and 45-mph winds were swaying our Russian science-research ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, as it cruised along the coast of South Georgia Island. Would our group of Antarctic expeditioners still go ashore by Zodiac at 7:30 a.m. as planned? Would we be able to explore yet another extraordinary part of South Georgia, the vast penguin and seal colony at Salisbury Plain?

Not on this day. The winds would soon top 50 knots (close to 60 mph), making Zodiac travel impossible. Instead, as the Vavliov searched without luck for a landing spot anywhere on South Georgia, we explored the Antarctic on board, through lectures, books, binoculars, conversations and, in Pamelia's case, art.  

So close yet so far: On a day of wild waves and constantly changing weather—including sideways-blowing snow and brief explosions of sunshine—we couldn't reach the spectacular South Georgia shores in front of us. 

The ever-fun One Oceans Expeditions team and trip organizer/zoologist/wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine had prepared us for high-wind days with a slide show earlier in the voyage. This was one of my favorite slides.

Even in rough conditions, our cabin window afforded Pamelia a good view for photographing birds and other sights.

Having passed the Antarctic Convergence (where cold and warm ocean waters collide and the Antarctic climate and ecosystems begin) we were seeing icebergs more regularly. They glowed blue from the light hitting an exceptionally clear, dense, air-bubble-less type of ice that absorbs every color of light except blue. It's air bubbles that make ice look white.

The ship brought us within sight of the abandoned Stromness whaling station. This is where the remarkable explorer Ernest Shackleton, desperate to find help for his stranded crew, arrived in May 1916 after surviving not only months with his ship locked in sea ice, but also a journey to desolate Elephant Island, an 800-mile open-water voyage to South Georgia in a lifeboat and finally a nonstop, last-ounce-of-energy crossing of the mountains shown here. We would be visiting Shackleton's grave soon. 

A few hearty souls ventured onto the bow during lulls in the winds.

This stranded-at-sea day had another surprise twist: Two stowaways were on the ship. One was in a cardboard box in a gear room on a lower deck. The other was our cabin, soon to be seasick. 

The stowaway in the box was a common diving petrel. The ship's ornithologist, Simon Boyes of One Ocean Expeditions, had found it during his daily check for any birds that had accidentally flown into or been blown into the Sergey Vavilov.

The petrel was not injured, just stunned. Whether he had been attracted by lights on the ship we couldn't know, but for days we had been required to darken all windows (and the ship had minimized its lights) to avoid just such an occurrence. Some of us gathered to watch as Simon released the fully revived bird—which would soon be back to its routine of diving up to 200 feet underwater to feed on crustaceans—early in the afternoon.

Simon Boyes held up the web-footed common diving petrel for all of us to see before releasing it from the side of the ship.

Just a handful of people on the Sergey Vavilov knew about the second stowaway. Pamelia and I had smuggled him on board in Ushuaia, Argentina, the day the trip began. Those who had seen him had reacted positively. "Good to know he's here," voyage organizer Mark Carwardine, the British zoologist and conservationist, had told us after meeting him. "We might call upon him if we need another after-dinner speaker one night."

The stowaway—whom One Ocean Expeditions trip leader Boris Wise referred to with a smile as "the ninety-ninth passenger"—was the fellow shown here:

Yes, Charles Darwin was on board.

Say what, you ask? History's greatest naturalist? The one who died in 1882? Well, nearly a year ago we brought Darwin back to life at The Naturalist's Notebook—see the Darwin Lives! header at the top of this page—and we have been traveling with him ever since. Taking him on this voyage made perfect sense because he had visited Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands in the 1830s while aboard the Beagle and both stops had helped him gather evidence that culminated in his world-changing 1859 book, On the Origin of Species.

Charles was so excited about revisiting parts of his Beagle route that (with some coaxing from us) he even began writing Charles Darwin's Blog (click on bold letters to read) at the start of this trip.

Here's Charles Darwin with us in May 2015 at his home, Down House, in England. This is the famous Sand Walk on which he took his daily strolls with his beloved dogs back in the 1800s. Darwin called it his "thinking path."

You'll see more of Darwin before the voyage is over, but for now I'll leave you with one image that illustrates how the great but seasickness-prone adventurer was feeling on this day:

As we rested with Darwin in our cabin, Pamelia took out her paint brush and inks and began a series of time-lapse penguin paintings, which some of you have heard about. For those of you who missed it, Pamelia began sketching penguins in order to get to know and identify them better. She held her pink iPhone in her left hand and taped time-lapse movies of herself painting with her right hand, all on a swaying ship. It was amazing to watch.

She said that the phone sometimes blocked her view as she was painting.

Check out the short video above to see her king penguin time-lapse, the second in her penguin series. We'll be posting others soon. If you missed the first time-lapse (painting a chinstrap penguin), scroll down and you'll find it. Or click on this link: https://youtu.be/8_0xjyI4sr4

In our cabin, the gallery of Pamelia's penguin and Falkland Island bird studies was growing. That large study in the middle was her second time-lapse attempt at a king penguin—and still she felt that she did not get it right. But that's why you do multiple studies.

For fun, Pamelia and I also made a 22-second time-lapse of activity in our cabin on this day at sea, below. Darwin's even in it (sort of)!

By early evening, the weather was looking more promising. The revised expedition forecast called for at least two landings, a big dose of history and wildlife galore on South Georgia Island the next morning. We Antarctic adventurers were back on track, and even Charles Darwin was feeling better.—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Sunset over South Georgia Island.

Coming next: Whaling, rat patrols, rare ducks and 10 a.m. whiskey?

Time-lapse Painting a Chinstrap Penguin on a Ship in the Antarctic

While in rough seas aboard the Sergey Vavilov, Pamelia began a series of time-lapse ink studies of penguins. Here is the first, of a chinstrap penguin: