Of the coast and its creatures

By Amy Reiswig, January 2015

Ian McAllister’s latest book immerses readers in the magic of the Great Bear Rainforest, as well as the threats to its health.

As rain drives sideways against my bedroom window, I burrow deeper under the covers and think somewhat enviously of the bruins cozily hibernating in their eponymous Great Bear Rainforest. And I think, not enviously but with awe, of conservationists like Ian McAllister who,  while the bears snooze through the cold, is heading out for another weeks-long research and diving trip to explore the rough, winter-clear waters of the north-central BC coast. If just for that, he’s a hero in my books.

But it’s not just that. The Victoria-raised McAllister has been working in and for the Great Bear Rainforest over the last 25 years with a truly heroic commitment to his adopted home. It’s also become home base for Pacific Wild, a conservation organization he co-founded that’s focused on studying, protecting and raising awareness about the region, a mission at the core of this versatile writer-photographer’s latest book, Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest (Greystone, October 2014).

The Great Bear Rainforest, covering about 70,000 square kilometres from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to southern Alaska (more than half of Canada’s Pacific coast), is one of the richest, most biodiverse areas on Earth. It’s home to many iconic BC species—like orcas, salmon, the white-coated spirit (or Kermode) bears, grizzlies, sea lions, eagles and the genetically unique coastal wolves—as well as thousands more you’ve likely never seen, heard of or know anything about. 

Did you know, for instance, that the rougheye rockfish can live up to 200 years? McAllister, meeting one on a dive, tells us: “This small mandarin-coloured fish…could well have been defending this same patch of rock when Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address and Canada was still working on Confederation. It could also have been alive half a century before the first barrel of oil was ever pulled from the ground in Texas.”

The Great Bear is a pristine place, where rare species can find refuge and can start to rebound—as have sea otters, humpbacks and fin whales. It’s also a place of great human history and diversity, and the First Nations communities of Bella Bella, Bella Coola, Klemtu, Hartley Bay, Prince Rupert and Kitimat are interconnected, integral parts of the ecosystem. As McAllister writes, “There is life simply everywhere.”

It’s this life McAllister celebrates and honours in his book, which is deeply immersive both from his perspective and ours. But all of this big life is smack in the middle of some big plans. Enbridge’s dream of piping diluted bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands and shipping it to the US and Asia hinges on a proposed terminal in Kitimat. If the Northern Gateway project goes ahead, as has been recommended by the National Energy Board (with 209 conditions), this ecologically fertile yet fragile region will see a huge increase in sea traffic. This in turn means threats such as underwater noise, pollution, whale strikes and, worse, the risk of spills as the massive tankers navigate an area ranked by Environment Canada as among the most dangerous sea passages in the world.

McAllister sees Great Bear Wild not as politically charged but, as he explains to me, as “telling the story of a beautiful coast and the people who live here.” Part well-researched journalism and part diary, the book carries us virtually in McAllister’s backpack watching and listening with him. Passages often start “On this day” or “Today,” and while he’s tracking coastal wolves foraging for herring eggs, almost getting caught by humpbacks bubble-net feeding, or visiting a Gitga’at matriarch as she laughs over Enbridge’s idea of steering tankers around whales, McAllister’s simple, personal writing and gorgeous photographs (about 100) ensure we share in his physical and emotional experience. 

Reached by phone between a book tour and an upcoming diving trip, McAllister explains that much of his writing happens “under trees waiting for bears to show up,” but that other times, things happen so fast he’s scribbling something on the back of a chocolate bar wrapper that ends up in a pile. “Then I have to go through it all and try to figure out what I was thinking,” he laughs. 

Despite random acts of note-taking, McAllister is an incredible observer and compiler. From the majestic grizzlies he’s watched grow up to the “tubby torpedoes” of tufted puffins, McAllister applies an equally loving eye: “Popping in and out of their deep burrows, they look like trusting old men wobbling about before launching into the powerful updrafts coming off the ocean.” McAllister admits that he can even watch sea slugs for hours. As the daughter of a marine biologist dedicated wholly to glass sponges, I get where he’s coming from, and I know that McAllister’s level of admiration for the world around him is as precious as some of the species he observes. 

Always attuned to how he can reach others by telling a story through words or image—whether of individual animals, hard-working people or how whole systems fit together in what he calls “ancient relationships”—McAllister sees more than just the beauty. And so he includes less heartening but important information: about the legality of killing female grizzlies in the trophy hunt; that in 2013, 50 seine boats discarded 300 metric tons of non-target chum salmon in order to catch 600 metric tons of pink salmon; that reduced salmon stocks and other environmental degradation seems to have a direct relation to the extinction of First Nations languages; that the Hartley Bay residents who came to the aid of the sinking Queen of the North have been left unable to harvest sea products around the oil-leaking wreck.  

He writes: “All of the safety standards in the world can’t mitigate unpredictable human behavior.” Threats to the area are therefore not just industrial but rooted in basic human nature and error, including poor research and management and a lack of integrated understanding. 

One of McAllister’s messages in showcasing the region’s diversity is, therefore, how little we ultimately know about it all—both a great opportunity and a danger. Noting that we have more understanding about the solar system than our oceans, McAllister cautions that we are at a critical point of learning about our environment, and the ways we depend on it, just as decisions are being made that can irreparably affect it. 

Thus, many of the photos feature a split frame, with the camera lens half above and half below the water. The waterline becomes a thin, silvery false edge, indicating not separation but interface. They are striking images and a moving message of how everything is connected.

Humble about his abilities, both written and photographic, I can almost hear McAllister shrug over the line as he says: “It’s just stuff I do, I guess.” But he then adds: “Part of the beauty of working in the conservation world is it allows for so many kinds of expression. I go to meetings and people ask: ‘What can we do?’ None of us knows. You just have to do what you do best.” 

And he is doing just that. A member of the International League of Conservation Photographers who has won the North American Nature Photography Association’s Vision Award, McAllister has published five other books, including the award-winning The Great Bear Rainforest (with his wife, Karen) and The Last Wild Wolves,  as well as several books for younger readers. For their ongoing environmental dedication, the McAllisters were dubbed “Leaders for the 21st Century” by Time magazine in 2010.

Reading Great Bear Wild is a gorgeous, intimate encounter and an education. It’s also a testament to what the world stands to lose, and McAllister sees it as a way of giving back for all the amazing experiences he’s had in the Great Bear Rainforest. As I imagine McAllister again slipping into the cold ocean with his camera, I think of his comment on the transcript of testimonies at the National Energy Board hearings that so inspire him. He says those voices are part of the public record revealing “the level of commitment to protecting this coast.” Behind this book is the story of McAllister’s incredible level of commitment, and that’s a story as inspiring as any he tells in text or picture. 


Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest, by Ian McAllister, with a foreword by Robert Kennedy Jr, is available at most bookstores. Go to www.pacificwild.org to learn more about Ian McAllister’s work and to see videos and other stunning photos. 

For the new year, writer, editor and diver's daughter Amy Reiswig commits to being less of a wimp and spending more time in BC's beautiful water, cold or not.