Bears are an iconic Canadian creature and Vancouver Island has more than its fair share of these beautiful beasts that play within plain sight! Because of this, it’s no surprise that bear watching tours are one of the top things to do on Vancouver Island. Whether you’re up near Port Hardy, are exploring the west coast in Ucluelet and Tofino, or are taking in the sights of Campbell River, there’s a chance to embark on an adventure and witness these magnificent creatures in a safe, and non-invasive way. So, what do you need to know about bear watching on Vancouver Island? Read on to learn about the different areas, types of tours, types of bears and what to expect on your adventure!
Vancouver Island is estimated to be home to about 7,000 black bears, which marks it as the densest population for these bears. They can be found pretty well anywhere on Vancouver Island, but there are definite clusters in places like the Pacific Rim National Park!
With darker fur than its mainland brethren and a few other distinctions such as a larger size, the Vancouver Island black bear is a clear subspecies of the black bear family. Females grow up to 180kg (~395lbs) and males up to 275kg (~605lbs) – you can’t miss them when they’re on the shore looking for fish!
Black bears are omnivores and eat pretty much anything and everything when it’s available. In the spring, meals consist mostly of light roots, shoots and berries, with the occasional crab when they flip rocks at the shoreline. Fall is an active time, as the black bears get a salmon feast when the run returns to the rivers!
Cubs are born during hibernation in groups sizing from one to five, although two is a usual occurrence. When the family emerges from their den, the cubs are some mere three-or-so kilograms! They spend their first year learning survival skills from their mom and then head off on their own into the temperate rainforests of Vancouver Island.
While grizzly bears do not live on Vancouver Island, it isn’t far to go in order to see these big guys first hand. Departing from Port Hardy, Telegraph Cove or Campbell River, the Great Bear Rainforest is just a hop away! In fact, it’s so close, that there was the first reported case of grizzly bears on Vancouver Island in 2016 with the assumption that they merely swam across from the mainland.
About 15,000 grizzly bears live in British Columbia. Their big shoulder hump and long claws are their major identification cues. When they first emerge from hibernation, females weigh about 130kg (~287lbs) and males about 220kg (~485lbs). By the time they’re ready to go back to bed for that winter beauty rest, they’re anywhere between 30-40% heavier! The bears hibernate from November to March, during which time they go without eating, urinating or defecating. At the same time, they still manage to burn about 4,000 calories a day in order to maintain their minimum body function.
Grizzlies are considered the second largest carnivore in North America after the polar bear, although a lot of their diet consists of grasses, berries and roots. In fact, they eat about 70kg of sedge grass every day in the spring! They will also consume spawning salmon in the fall, crustaceans, shell fish and can hunt deer and elk calves.
Grizzly cubs are few and far between, with females producing about two per litter. Cubs are sometimes taken care of by her for over two years before they’re ready to head out on their own!
As of November 30, 2017, there will no longer be trophy hunting for grizzly bears in B.C. Up until then, around 250 grizzlies were shot by hunters annually.
The west coast of Vancouver Island is major black bear territory, with the Pacific Rim National Park as one of their main stomping grounds. Plenty of tours depart from both Tofino and Ucluelet until about October. Even on the drive to the coast along Highway 4, and between the two towns, black bears and their adorable cubs can be a common sight. If you do see bears on the highway though, remember to give them space and respect the fact that you are in their territory. Mother bears are very protective of their young, and putting them, or yourselves, at risk for a photograph is never a good idea.
The coast itself is a beach and wilderness paradise with enough outdoor activities to please even the most active of adventurers. Besides bear watching tours, there is whale watching, surfing, hiking, kayaking, beach combing, tide pooling, birding and plenty more! Be prepared to plan in advance however, as accommodation in the summer season can be tough to come by!
The city of Campbell River is a great adventure destination, with bear watching tours as just the tip of the iceberg. Tours depart until the end of October, and typically head out across to the Bute Inlet on the mainland. Campbell River is home to a stunning marina, beautiful waterfalls, a quaint downtown and art scene, and numerous outdoor activities.
Fishing, kayaking and mountain biking are available, as are whale watching expeditions and the unique opportunity to snorkel with the spawning salmon! With plenty of provincial parks to hike in and rivers to raft down, Campbell River is a destination worthy of a few, action packed days.
Telegraph Cove is not quite as far north as Port Hardy, but takes you beyond Campbell River and into a more remote section of the North Island. A quaint, boardwalk community with picturesque buildings and a beautiful harbour, it is definitely worth a visit. Although it’s known especially for its whale watching, Telegraph Cove also offers plenty of bear watching tours. From the beautiful marina, tours will take you out to places like the Knight Inlet along the mainland to see grizzly bears firsthand.
For a remote experience, Port Hardy definitely makes the cut. It is considered the end of the line for the developed part of Vancouver Island and is the gateway to some incredible hikes on the northern tip of the Island.
Despite its remoteness, Port Hardy is still quite beautiful and there are plenty of days when the small fishing town is shrouded in fog with boats bobbing in its serene marina. From Port Hardy, a destination bear watching lodge awaits, taking you on excursions to the Great Bear Rainforest by boat.
Aside from hiking and bear watching, more adventures from Port Hardy take the form of fishing charters and whale watching. If you do depart on a hike, be sure to take a bear bell along – while seeing bears can be exciting, you definitely don’t want to run into the guys on the trail! Be prepared to create bear caches for camping and avoid bringing smelly foods/products!
Time of Year
Spotting bears, whether you’re on the lookout for grizzlies or black bears on your tour, is do-able nearly any time of year. That excludes winter, of course, when the bears are snoozing the rainy days away in hibernation. With different behaviours and activities going on for them depending on the season, you’ll have quite the show no matter when you go!
Spring is when the sleepy bears awake and the new cubs make their way out into the wilderness for the very first time. Mischief and curiosity make for playful days, and starving mamas seek to replenish their bodies after months without food. Spring is also a season of romance and the bears will be hoping to shake off the lonely winter blues with a special new friend or two.
June is still part of their summer of love and replenishment – the cubs are starting to grow and those bodies are starting to thicken up again! By mid-late August, the salmon have started to head back into the rivers and places like the Thornton Creek Hatchery in Ucluelet see a lot of action as the bears try their luck at fishing.
By fall, the fish are mostly back in the river and the spawn has started. This is a very active time for bears, as they are along the shores and in the shallow zones to have a feast before heading back to bed for the winter.
What to Expect on your Tour
Make sure that the company you are using has certified guides and follows the CBVA guidelines. These are put in place to ensure minimal disturbance of the bears, as well as for bear and guest safety. Remember, as exciting as it would be to see a grizzly or black bear right up close, these are still wild animals living in a fragile environment. Minimum impact on them is a priority!
Boat vs. Platform Viewing
Check out the type of tour the company you’re considering offers. Some will take you on zodiacs and covered boats to cruise close to shore, while others offer platform viewing of the bears. Depending on the type of experience you’re looking for, the type of tour could be a deal breaker.
Time of Year
The time of year will determine what behaviors you’re likely to see, where the bears will be and whether or not those cute little cubs will be out to play. Most tours run between May-October, with the west coast tours ending sooner than those on the east coast of Vancouver Island.
Where you choose to take your bear watching tour from determines the type of bears you’ll see. If you’re venturing out from Tofino or Ucluelet, you’re going to be seeing black bears, and only black bears. Departing from Port Hardy or Campbell River will likely take you over to places like the Great Bear Rainforest, where you’ll be watching grizzly bears go about their day. While both are magnificent, the kind of bear you want to see will determine where you should take your tour out of.
Bears in Urban Environments
While grizzly bears do not often venture into towns, or onto Vancouver Island, there are certainly some urban black bears that take to the streets in smaller coastal towns. It can be amazing to see these creatures up close, but it is important to respect them. This means putting garbage in secure, bear-proofed cans, hiking all of your trash out of the forest, and recognizing that you are in their home. Many tours will not let you participate if you’re wearing fragrant things like deodorant, perfume or cologne.
Tragically, many black bears are shot each summer when they enter towns and become a threat to the people living there due to unsafe bear practices. Read up on how to keep the peace between humans and nature and know what it takes to be bear-smart if you live in a place where the bears roam free, or are planning a visit. The more people learn how to keep their area bear-safe, the safer bears will be!
Contributed by: Laurissa Cebryk