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Turner family approaching a bearJeff Turner with his family in the 1990's

On the central coast of British Columbia in the Great Bear Rainforest, there lives a creature of legend: the Spirit Bear.  The Kermode bear, known as the “Spirit Bear” is a rare white furred, black bear.  And this is the only place in the world where they can be found.  In the early 1990’s, Canada’s ‘first family’ of wildlife filmmaking, Jeff and Sue Turner, spent two years living on a remote uninhabited island off the west coast of Canada with their newborn daughter Chelsea, in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.  It was then that they captured the first ever footage of the mythological spirit bear that astonished the world and made their first nature documentary, ISLANDS OF THE SPIRIT BEAR (watch an excerpt) .  Now they return, with Chelsea and their son Logan, to follow the trials and tribulations of a white mother Spirit Bear and her two black furred cubs as she tries to find food for her family whilst keeping them safe.  Other bears, wolves, sea lions, humpback whales along with a host of other creatures all share this remarkable island environment with the Spirit Bear.

“The Spirit Bear is very special to us,” says filmmaker Jeff Turner.  “We made our first documentary for the BBC about the Spirit Bear 25 years ago.  We spent two years living on a remote coastal island with our toddler daughter Chelsea when we were just starting out in our career - it was one of the most amazing experiences we ever had with wild animals.  We really wanted to go back to that part of the coast again and try to reconnect with these special animals that hold incredibly special memories for us, and we really wanted to do it with our now grown children – our work has truly become a family affair.”

Neither an albino nor a polar bear, the Spirit Bear is a rare white North American black bear with an unusual recessive gene (similar to the gene that causes red hair in humans) found almost exclusively in the Great Bear Rainforest.  The region, comprises over 74,000 square kilometers, runs over 400 square kilometers down Canada's western coast, and encompasses a vast network of mist-shrouded fjords, densely forested islands, and glacier-capped mountains.  Grizzlies, black bears, wolves, wolverines, humpback whales, and orcas thrive along a coast that has been home to First Nations like the Gitga'at for hundreds of generations.  It is a haunting, wild, and precious landscape.

Jeff Turner with his daughter Chelsea

For many years, the Spirit Bear was considered a legend of the Gitga’at and Kitasoo Native Peoples. Their legends told of a time when the glaciers finally receded, and it was Raven, the creator of the rainforest, who made everything green.  Raven also decided to make one in ten black bears white, to remind him of the time when the world was white with snow and ice.  Raven decided to set aside a special area of the world for these bears – now known as the Great Bear Rainforest.  It was a remote paradise where the bears were to live in peace forever.

The Turner family arrives in early spring, to discover a mother spirit bear who has emerged from her den this year with two cubs- unlike their mother these cubs are black furred.  The Turners are lucky enough to film this spirit bear family through the spring and summer, observing this critical time that the mother must protect her cubs from predators and teach them to fish. 

Bear families like this will initially spend most of the spring inside the forest where there is little high protein food to eat, but fewer predators. Most other animals make their way to the coast where food is more abundant. Each year Pacific herring, the most abundant fish on the coast, come in from deep water to spawn.  Gulls, eagles, sea lions, humpback whales, wolves and bears all arrive to take advantage of the feast.

Finding a salmon

In the summer the Turners find the mother spirit bear has brought her young cubs to one of the island’s salmon streams. This is the chance they have been waiting – now they can get to know her and her cubs better. She is very good at catching salmon and her cubs are learning the ways of bears by watching their mother catch fish. But it’s a dangerous situation for a mother bear with young cubs. There are lots of other bears around and she must constantly be on her guard.

In particular the mother bear has to watch out for the big male black bear on the creek. He is the dominant bear in the area and one day he literally bumps into her while she is sleeping on the edge of the stream. The mother bear is surprised and attacks him. She succeeds in driving him off but the stress of the situation begins to show on her. Then the Turner’s discover another young black bear that has been killed on the creek. During the salmon season the stakes are high for bears as competition for the best fishing sites can be fierce.  The water levels are low at the end of the summer and the fishing has been difficult so the mother bear takes her cubs and moves back into the forest for a while.

The autumn rains begin in late September and water levels on the creek being to rise. Salmon that have been trapped by low water begin to move up the rivers again. There is always one best spot to fish on any set of rapids and when the mother bear returns to take advantage of the fresh salmon in the river she finds the big male black bear has control of it. 

She needs access to salmon, so the mother bear eventually works up the nerve to attack the big male’s position. He tries to hold his ground and intimidate her with his much larger size but she refuses to back down and eventually he decides to move on in search of other fishing sites. The mother bear has the falls to herself and begins to catch fish for her and her cubs. She seems to have won herself the top site on the creek and the Turners feel she is going to be in good shape to get herself and her cubs through the coming winter hibernation.

Mother bear with her cubs

The Turners have been privileged to once again see so closely into the world of the bears in this place. In a final amazing act of tolerance, she allows Jeff to get his camera right up next to her and her cubs to see how the world looks from their perspective. It’s an amazing end to their incredible journey this year with this amazing spirit bear family. 

SPIRIT BEAR FAMILY is produced and directed by Canada’s foremost leaders in the nature documentary field, Jeff and Sue Turner in association with the CBC.  Across a three decade-long career, the Turners have created multiple award-winning nature documentaries including THE BUFFALO WOLVES and THE EDGE OF EDEN, some of the most epic sequences in the BBC’s PLANET EARTH and FROZEN PLANET series, as well as last year’s critically acclaimed WILD CANADA series.

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