Marine–Based Wildlife Tourism on the British Columbia Coast

by John MacFarlane 2017

Knight Inlet

Knight Inlet is a long fjord that extends far into the Coast Mountains on the mid– coast of British Columbia. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

I took a day excursion by boat from Telegraph Cove to Knight Inlet to observe Grizzly Bears in their natural habitat at close range. Earlier in my career I worked in National Parks where bears were a common sight - safely at long distances. I had heard that the coastal bears, because of the rich forage on the beach and the separation of a stretch of water to the boats, that close viewing was possible with low impact to the bears. I was doubtful but decided to go now as changes in habitat may make these encounters rare or impossible in the future.

Tour Boat

The Tide Rip Grizzly, one of the passenger vessels used to transport participants from Telegraph Cove To Knight Inlet. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Three groups of twelve passengers each per vessel travel the long distance up Knight Inlet to the bear viewing area.


We also saw White–sided Dolphins while transiting the Inlet. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Salt Marsh

The tidal marsh area at Glendale Cove in Knight Inlet, our destination. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Marine–based wildlife tourism in British Columbia is a significant specialized sector of the overall tourism industry. It takes special equipment and special skills to do it properly.

Keogh I.R. #2

Keogh I.R. No. 2 Da’naxda’xw / Awaetlatla traditional territory. The sign indicates that to enter requires a permit and asks visitors to respect the bears.(Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The prime viewing area is on First Nations land at the place where the river enters the salt water. The river delta forms a beautiful example of a salt marsh meadow and an estuary which is ideal habitat for bears that forage in the inter–tidal zone, consuming vegetation after high tide, and also wait for the salmon that run up the river in the fall. Without this rich habitat it is unlikely that these bears could survive.

First Nation Guardians

First Nation Guardians in the Eagle Guardian II monitoring both Marine Channel 68 and the activity of visitors to Glendale Cove to protect the bears from undue pressures and interference. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Most of the time we were shadowed unobtrusively by First Nations Guardians who observed all activity in the area. There were other visitors in private vessels and other tour companies but all kept their distance from the bears and each other.

Bear Watching Boat

Changing from the larger passenger vessel to the observation barges. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

At Glendale Cove the three passenger vessels tied up and at the float location we disembarked, received a briefing and donned flotation devices. Then we all transferred into smaller, observation boats.

Bear Watching Boat

The tour company maintains a large float which is the operations center for the bear viewing area. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

All passengers were required to wear a flotation device while in the observation boats. Each had a small outboard motor that ran very quietly at slow speed. Once we were in range they were anchored and the engine switched off. It was impressively silent during the time we observed the bears.

Bear Watching Boat

The bear observation boat. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The observation boat appeared to be a highly modified herring skiff. Most of the visitors sat at water level but there was room for six passengers, usually enthusiastic photographers, to stand on an upper deck. Although it appears unstable it was actually very steady and never once gave concern to those on the upper level. The bears appeared unconcerned about our presence. The tours arrive every days so the bears are accustomed to their presence. The bots anchor a respectable distance offshore, and the bears sniffed our scent when they were downwind. The passengers in the viewing barge were very quiet, whispering and clicking of cameras were the only noises.

Grizzly Bear

Mother grizzly bear on shore. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The inter–tidal zone between the tides is a productive feeding area for the bears, who are anxiously waiting for the return of salmon to the river so that they can bulk up for the cold winter to come.

Grizzly Bear

A two year old bear driven away by its mother foraging on his own. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

We saw solitary bears, and family groups. After the tide covers the tidal flats the bears feed on vegetation along the shore or on the salt flats. They have to eat large quantities of vegetation each day to satisfy their basic needs.

Sow and cubs

A trio of grizzlies – a mother and two one–year old cubs. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The bears forage for small marine organisms in the inter–tidal zone. They turn over rocks to expose small organisms.

Grizzly bear

The incoming tide gradually covered the foraging area after which the bears disappeared into the shadows of teh forest. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Budget Boat

Budget wildlife tour visitors. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Not all the vessels we observed in Knight Inlet met the standards of the company we chose. Some appeared to provide minimal standards of comfort and safety. I would not have enjoyed being this cramped and this close to the water.

Naiad Explorer

The Naiad Explorer (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

There are wildlife boat–based tour companies in most of the major ports on the east coast of Vancouver Island. There are also some based in the Prince Rupert area.

The Naiad Explorer was built in 1998 by Reyse Marine Ltd. 15.33m x 5.1m x 2.13m In 1998-2017 she was owned by Mackay Whale Watching (Bill and Donna MacKay), Port McNeill BC.

Naiad Explorer

The Naiad Explorer (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

Captain Alec Provan, a veteran of several years of whale watching operations and fish camp operations, was very impressed by the vessel and the crew.

Naiad Explorer

The controls of the Naiad Explorer (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

There are other companies operating out of coastal ports all up the coast. Here is an example of a company operating from Port McNeil with a much more sophisticated vessel.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2017) Marine–Based Wildlife Tourism on the British Columbia Coast. 2017.

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