The younger eyes spot the bear first. The young man passes me the binoculars and points: “There, to the left of the white rock.” But I just see lumps on the beach. As the boat slowly moves closer and one of the lumps becomes a bear digging for clams, a guy with a giant camera lens starts clicking; grizzly paparazzi.
There are dozens of us on the back of the big yellow catamaran in Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, a grizzly bear sanctuary deep in an inlet north of Prince Rupert B.C. Most of us have binoculars glued to our faces scanning the shore “looking for movement.”
When we see it, there are no yelps, just excited whispers and frantic pointing. We have been well briefed to be quiet: “You do not want to be the person who scares the bears away!” We’ve also been told to leave any snacks inside the cabin and put our phones in airplane mode. We can see Alaska, a little fact that will be considerably less cool if roaming charges show up on our phone bills.
The bear on the beach keeps looking for food, aware she has spectators but apparently not too bothered by it. She lumbers along, digging in the sand and occasionally plopping down to eat. As we watch, we learn that she lost her cubs last year, and the year before. She’s one of half a dozen bears we get to know a little over the course of the afternoon.
Big Ears steals the show. We watch for 15 minutes or so as the three year old walks along the shore munching on long grass. The staff think Big Ears is female (“She squats to pee”) but whatever the gender, the bear definitely has attitude, turning its backside toward the boat and promptly pooping. We all groan, but very, very quietly.
On another beach, we watch Big Ears’ mom, Blondie and learn that Blondie’s mom (also called Blondie) was one of the first bears spotted up here 20 years ago. In 1994, Khutzeymateen was the first area in Canada to be protected specifically for grizzly bears. Since then a few tour operators have started bringing boatloads of people in to see the untagged and untouched grizzlies.
The sunny afternoon we head out, we see mostly females, they’re more tolerant of us looky-loos. “Some of the males will put up with us,” says Doug Davis, the captain and founder of Prince Rupert Adventure Tours.
The former tugboat driver sits in the bridge, his foot on the console, high-powered binoculars and camera at the ready. He picks up his iPad to show us the impressive gallery of photos and videos he’s taken over the years. “That one died last year,” he says pointing to the screen. “There were plenty of tears on the boat.”
We take turns at the best spots on the deck to take pictures. A few master the cheat of taking smart phone close ups through the binocular lens. And between the hushed bursts of clicking from the cameras with the long lenses, we can hear Big Ears chewing on the grass.