The wondrous surprises of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest

We don't so much spot the humpback whales in the distance as see their blows, which shoot up and hang in the still air. All of a sudden they're near us, surrounding our boat, perhaps two dozen in all, circling, cruising. The big black beasts rise and crest, rolling forward in slick dives, showing us the point of their dorsal fins, and, when almost close enough to touch, their rippled pectoral fins, which resemble the blades of a fan. 

We're on day four of an eight-day cruise through the fjord lands of Canada's British Columbia province, heading south from a tiny town called Terrace towards a tinier one called Bella Bella, a few hours' plane ride north-west of Vancouver. The whales migrate thousands of kilometres to this region every year to get fat and full. And so they keep heading down, down, down into the darkness, then come shooting upwards through the food column, straining krill and small herring and pilchard in their baleen – those long "teeth" that act like a natural sieve, gathering food with each gulp of the Pacific Ocean.

We're in the midst of the Great Bear Rainforest, a 400-kilometre long, 6.4-million hectare wilderness area just slightly smaller than Tasmania that's been described as the "Amazon of the North" or "Canada's Serengeti". All around us are vertical slopes of rock and soil, covered in lush red cedar and western hemlock, Sitka spruce and conifer. It's cold, perhaps 8°C, but the sky is a perfect blue and the sun is out. Fog lingers on the mountain peaks and thin quilts of mist rest on the water.

Environmental advocacy groups and First Nations people helped create this wilderness area almost a quarter of a century ago to protect it from logging. Although the felling of old growth forest still occurs, the region is thankfully no longer known by one of its former names, the Mid-Coast Timber Supply Area. Now part of the world's largest coastal temperate rainforest, it's a hub for education, research and a handful of small-footprint tourism trips like the one I'm fortunate enough to be on.

By day, our boat, the SV Island Solitude, motors through narrow passages that feel almost like rivers between islands. We make shoreline excursions, often to sit in Zodiacs or on moss-covered logs, waiting for nature to reveal itself. By night we drop anchor in secluded bays. Our 10-member group skews older and American. An elderly couple from San Diego. A pair of middle-aged doctors from Washington state. Two young nature photographers and self-confessed "bear freaks" from Ohio, who've previously trekked from the Arctic to Alaska to see and photograph various bear species in the wild.

There's an on-board naturalist to answer any question that might come to mind, from the name of an obscure inter-tidal mollusc to the colour of whale poo. (It's red because of their diet of krill.) The skipper is funny and calming, and keeps us up to date with nightly "chart talks", explaining where we've been each day and where we're going next. And the ship's chef keeps us fed and watered with one lovely, fresh, inventive meal after another, from a chilli and lime halibut to, as timing would have it, a Thanksgiving feast with turkey and yams.

But what we're all really here to see, hoping to see, is a spirit bear. Otherwise known as the kermode bear, it's a subspecies of the American black bear which carries a single recessive gene that, in about 10 per cent of offspring, is expressed through a brilliant white-blond coat. Sightings and educated estimations lead people to believe there are anywhere from 50 to 300 of these luminous creatures up here.

On day three we venture onto Gribbell Island, the most likely spot for a sighting. We hike up a stream, shown the way by a young Gitga'at guide, then sit for hours by a bubbling island brook, waiting. Eventually a lone black bear, having exhausted the supply of huckleberries and crab apples in the forest, wades through the clear, cold water to our hushed delight, stalking the stream for pink salmon, chum salmon and sockeye salmon. Two more of his black brethren wander by over the course of the afternoon. 

We see three more bears a day later and near the end of the trip spot a pair of grizzlies, most likely siblings, with their big backs and blond faces. They lumber across wet land in a wide estuary valley; even at a distance their size is shocking. We find track marks from one bear; the claw scrapes in the mud only hint at the damage they could do. Tourist numbers into this area are limited, managed by a patchwork of protocol agreements with First Nations groups in each territory. Our guides are certified to deal with bear confrontations through a mixture of body language, voice and – if needed – mace. "We have yet to pull the trigger on a can of bear spray," says one. "But there have been some stern conversations with them."

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Sadly, no spirit bears reveal themselves, but none of us is very fussed. The whales have a way of stealing the show, and our week in the rainforest is filled with other wondrous, unexpected moments. Like the afternoon I go kayaking. Slicing through water that's as still as glass, up from the fathoms below pops the head of a seal, honking and barking as his whiskers shake. Or our cacophonous morning audience with sea lions, all brown and beige and yellow, slippery and fat, bellowing and arguing together on a few small rocky islands. And the occasional lion's mane jellyfish, pink and bulbous and silent, the size of a basketball, hypnotically pulsing just under the water. And, of course, the dozen-strong pod of orcas, cutting across the choppy sea at speed, occasionally bobbing up like periscopes, as if to see what was going on.

Looking skyward, where the binoculars of the "birders" on our boat are seemingly always trained, we spot over the course of a few hours all manner of birds: a red-necked grebe, a western grebe, a black turnstone, a harlequin duck, a surf scoter, a great blue heron, a California gull, Bonaparte's gull, glaucous-winged gull, common merganser, several bald eagles and, of course, the raven, that bird most important to the First Nations people of this coastal land. For the Haisla and the Gitga'at, Kitasoo/Xai'xais and Heiltsuk, the raven is the bringer of everything: the light, the sun and the moon.

The forest floor wherever we go is a mess of moss and lichen and mud, decay feeding new growth. Many of the river beds, too, are places of death, in this case salmon, which have come here to spawn, then, job done, die, their bodies feeding new life. The sea floor is colonised by dungeness crabs, which scavenge and feed on it all, until we feed upon them, with melted butter and chardonnay.

One night, as our Zodiac zooms into shore, we enjoy the tranquil aqua glow of bioluminescence – phosphorescent plankton – firing and dying at the edge of every drag and push. We're headed to a dock in a place called Bishop Bay, where there's a famous hot spring pouring forth from the mountain side into a steamy granite pool.

After a late-night scalding bath we head back to our berths, where the gentle rocking of boat on water lulls us to sleep.

Konrad Marshall travelled through Great Bear Rainforest with Bluewater Adventures (bluewateradventures.ca), as a guest of Destination British Columbia (hellobc.com) and Destination Canada (canada.travel).

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