Biologically and culturally significant, the spirit bear is a rare subspecies of black bear – and is possibly the rarest bear in the world.
A double recessive gene within a select population of coastal black bears causes the spirit bear’s coat of fur to be creamy white. This gene is found within a small sub-population of black bears on the North Coast of British Columbia and inland to Hazelton and the Nass Valley, the highest percentage of which are on very remote islands within the Great Bear Rainforest.
They are not albinos, and they are not polar bears. The percentage of bears in an island’s population that are white ranges from 5% on some to 30% on one island.
How Is the Fur White?
A spirit bear’s parents can have either white or black fur, so long as they each have the recessive allele present within their genes. This means that a black-furred mother bear may have a white cub, or a white-furred mother bear may have a black cub. It all depends on whether the recessive allele is passed to the cub from one parent only (resulting in black fur) or both parents (resulting in white). At times we even see a white spirit bear mother with one black cub and one white cub.
How Spirit Bears Live
Weighing only half a pound at birth, these cubs can grow to become 300 lb adult bears and will live up to 25 years. They occupy a habitat of coastal sitka spruce, red cedar, and western hemlock, and rely heavily on healthy salmon streams. They typically avoid large estuaries where there may be the threat of grizzlies, who are larger and dominant. Spirit bears utilize the smaller salmon streams, often found on islands, to feed heavily during the fall months before winter hibernation.
Critical to the success of both the salmon spawn and the spirit bears salmon feast are the rains that come at the end of summer and into the fall. This rain falls to the forest floor and replenishes diminished stream beds dried up from the summers heat. Once the streams have had a chance to be replenished with water salmon are able to reach upstream into the forest where the spirit bear awaits. Knowledge of this event and timing allows us incredible opportunities to view the spirit bear as it feeds on the returning runs.
Why Are There White Black Bears in the Great Bear Rainforest?
Recent studies by Dr. Tom Reimchen at the University of Victoria suggest that such a high concentration of spirit bears evolved here because they have an advantage fishing for salmon during the day. This is because fish in a stream tend to look up in the direction of the sky for danger (eagles, bears, wolves, ravens, etc.). The sky is light and thus the looming figure of a black bear would stand out far more than of a light-coloured bear; therefore, there are ecological attributes to being a spirit bear.
A Tsimshian story suggests the white bear was created as a reminder of the ice age.
Our Spirit Bear Viewing Tours
Maple Leaf Adventures has been conducting expeditions in the Great Bear Rainforest since the beginning of the 1990s. Our experience and knowledge of the region helps us to find these elusive bears for our guests to see and learn about, in an environmentally responsible manner. The welfare of the bears is our primary directive. We also support the local economy of bear viewing and work with additional local community guides, who provide a deep cultural connection to the bears. Read about our sailing ship’s spirit bear tours, or our tugboat’s spirit bear viewing tours.
Best Season for Viewing Spirit Bears
Spirit bears live in the Great Bear Rainforest year-round. The best time for the opportunity to view a spirit bear is after the rains have come in autumn. This means you should plan to come in September or October. It’s important to note that this is a rare bear that lives in an extremely rugged, mountainous environment. We do not guarantee that you will see a spirit bear, even in September and October. But because we know the area so well, we have an excellent track record.