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Adventures In the Great Bear Rainforest: On Expedition With SeaLegacy

Wolf Totem “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” - Jacques Yves Cousteau

It’s some time in September, although I’ve lost track of the days. But it’s September and I’m in Northern British Columbia and being dry is a distant memory as I lay in a field surrounded by tall grass, hiding from this enormous grizzly bear less than 30 metres away from me. I’ve never seen a grizzly in the wild before, and I should probably be a little intimidated. But it’s hard to be intimidated by this bear. It’s sitting in a creek entertaining itself by balancing a rock on its head, and this fearsome predator looks comical enough to play with.

Paul Nicklen would disagree. He’s also lying in the grass not far from me, and he’s had enough close encounters with bears to know that misjudging them can be dangerous. Despite its amusing appearance, the bear is well aware of our presence and keeps an eye on us as it goes from playing in the creek to digging up roots to eat. Finally, sensing something we don’t see, it charges back into the forest behind us. I’m cold and wet as we start to gather our gear together for the trip back to the boat, anchored in the bay nearby.

It’s day 17 in the field assisting the National Geographic photographer, and it’s still a little hard to believe I’m actually here.

Remember where we parked…

Big Things Have Small Beginnings

Exactly one year before my encounter with the talented bear I was in Costa Rica, part of a photodocumentary workshop with the organization Photographers Without Borders (PWB). Sometimes you can trace back through events and find a pivotal moment, a decision that changes the course of your life. In my case, a random internet search for photography courses in Toronto led me to PWB. Once I was there I met Danielle Da Silva, PWB’s founder, and Tallie Garey, the organization’s tireless image curator. Tallie was a graduate of a specialized graduate program called Environmental Visual Communications that’s offered by Fleming College in partnership with the Royal Ontario Museum. It didn’t take much urging on their part to convince me to leave my career and apply to the program.

My career arc hasn’t exactly been what you’d call average. A degree in biology, an entomologist, a commercial diver, a boat builder, and a research and development consultant. It’s a diverse skill set. And as it turns out, a skill set that was about to become very useful.

The goal of the EVC program is to bring art and science together, to teach people to communicate visually and bring scientific and environmental messages to people in a way that will motivate them to effect change. Fast forward a few months and there I am, going to class at the ROM every day. Photography, multimedia, communications, campaigns. All challenging, definitely. But the real challenge is being placed with a conservation organization to work with during the summer. It’s the first opportunity to get out and use your skills, and can determine the direction your career will take.

Tallie, an eternal optimist, is never afraid to suggest things a more cynical person would consider absurd. In this case she suggested I try to get a placement with SeaLegacy, an organization founded by Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier. Besides founding SeaLegacy, Nicklen and Mittermeier also happen to be two of the greatest conservation photographers in the world. But Tallie’s optimism rubs off on you and so I suggested the idea to Dave Ireland. I’m fairly sure Dave thought I was crazy.

Dave Ireland is the Managing Director of Biodiversity at the Royal Ontario Museum, as well as one the Environmental Visual Communications instructors. His skepticism was understandable. The idea of calling up Nicklen and Mittermeier and proposing I spend the summer working for them was certainly a stretch of the imagination. But several emails and a skype call later and Dave had done the impossible. Two weeks later I was travelling to Vancouver Island.

Swab That Deck!

The first month was all about boat repairs and preparations. Fortunately, some part of me actually likes crawling into the cramped engine compartment of a boat to fix the plumbing (you really don’t want to know what that entails) and perform some creative electrical wiring while hoping nothing catches fire. And then there was the gear. Nicklen and Mittermeier use a staggering amount of it. Still cameras, cinematic cameras, drones. And all of it had to be tested, organized, and loaded onto a 40-foot-long boat while leaving enough room for four people. It was SeaLegacy’s first official expedition. The goal was to cruise up the coast and channels of British Columbia, and document the beauty, biodiversity, and threats to one of the most amazing places on the planet – the Great Bear Rainforest.

What followed was four weeks on the boat and a daily routine that would be interrupted by episodes that bordered on the surreal.

One: The Eagle Has (Crash) Landed

We had been travelling for a few days and were anchored in God’s Pocket, a small cove near Port Hardy and a good place to shoot some underwater footage. Nicklen and I, along with our shipmate and guide Kelly, were in the small aluminum boat that we towed with us which we’d dubbed “Tinny”. It was a rough day and the diving wasn’t good. As we made our way back, Kelly, who’s parents should have named him Hawkeye, spotted a bald eagle in the water hundreds of metres away. Birds of prey can in fact swim by using their wings as paddles - they just don’t do it very well. Especially when under airborne attack from two other bald eagles. The unfortunate eagle was trying to swim to shore but at almost a kilometre away its chances weren’t good, even less so as it had to constantly roll onto its back to fend off the attackers. So we decided we’d rescue it (which leads to a debate about interfering with the natural order of things, but that’s a whole other conversation). As it turned out the eagle wasn’t all that keen on a boat pulling alongside it and trying to haul it aboard. Kelly, being young and brave, or maybe just a little foolhardy, made a few attempts at grabbing it. If you’ve never seen a bald eagle up close, they have talons - big ones. Eventually we tried a safer approach and used a towel to hook those talons and bring the eagle into the boat. It didn’t struggle after that. Maybe it was exhausted, or maybe it was just happy to not be drowning. By the time we got it to shore and released it, it was still giving us a look like it wanted to tear our throats out.

On board the Martin Sheen.

Left to right: Me, Paul Nicklen, Alexandra Morton, Cristina Mittermeier, Simon Ager, Tamo Campos

Two: Pirates Ahoy!

Sometimes the days would start out normally, doing what you’d expect to be doing on an expedition like that – riding around in Tinny looking for the next amazing sight. Then one morning you’re out filming a pod of orcas and suddenly you’re getting a call from Sea Shepherd, the somewhat notorious oceanic activists/eco-pirates, to drop by for a visit. [DI5] Their boat, an impressive 80-foot two-masted sailboat named the Martin Sheen (named for the actor Martin Sheen who bought it for them), was moored in a port near us. They had been asked by Alexandra Morton, a conservationist who has been fighting against fish farms on the BC coast for over 30 years, to help some local First Nations bands evict some fish farms that had been operating for years in their territory without permission. We were invited along to document the event. And suddenly there I was, in the cabin of a famous ship, with Alexandra Morton, journalist Simon Ager, and Tamo Campos, the grandson of David Suzuki.

The following day we joined a flotilla of boats, with the Martin Sheen, in the lead. On board they had the Hereditary Chiefs and Elders from the local bands in traditional dress, and I still wonder what the crew of that fish farm must have thought when they saw us coming towards them. We landed on the farm, and the band leaders performed a cleansing ceremony and served the eviction notice. One band member, Arthur, told me how he used to be able to make a living on the fishing boats catching wild salmon. But after they started to decline he was forced to work on a fish farm for $10 an hour. Whether you agreed with him, or supported fish farming, one thing you wouldn’t forget as you listened to him was the look in his eyes.

Arthur, a member of the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation, looks in a fish pen with the Martin Sheen in the background.

Three: Leviathans

It’s possible that at some point in your life, over the course of a single day, your sense of wonder can be completely redefined and your perspective of the world shifted. Maybe in that one day you’ll see things and meet people you could never have imagined.

A few days after the leaving the company of Sea Shepherd we were in a narrow channel near Bella Bella, almost a fjord. It was early morning and we spotted two humpback whales. It didn’t take long to realize the two were bubble netting, where they circle each other, blowing bubbles in a tightening circle, corralling fish as they rise. When they reach the surface, they lunge out of the water, swallowing as much of the school as possible. Try to picture it, then consider the fact that that your imagination can’t possibly do it justice. But there was more to come.

You had to be there…

In November of 2015, Fox Media, under James Murdoch (son of Rupert) completed its takeover of National Geographic. This change wasn’t well received by many people who were concerned that Fox would destroy NatGeo, despite Murdoch claiming he wanted to save the struggling magazine.. It turns out James and his family have a retreat in a narrow channel in the mountains near Bella Bella, and we were invited for dinner. For the record, I’ve never had dinner with someone who’s personal worth is close to four billion dollars. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what I got wasn’t it. He’s a nice guy. His wife is nice. They’re both environmentalists. And he may actually be trying to save National Geographic. Time will tell.

There are natural hot springs at the Murdoch retreat, landscaped by a Japanese master to fall into a series of pools, each at the perfect temperature. and That’s when it happened. Peak surreal. Sitting under the stars in James Murdoch’s hot springs in the mountains of northern BC with two of the world’s best photographers isn’t something you can get your head around easily.

I’m still working on it…

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