At number 4 – Vancouver Island

I first worked on Vancouver island in 1997 with a very good friend of mine, wildlife film maker Roger Jackman, for a film called ‘The Edge of the Sea’. We were stationed at the Bamfield Marine Science Labs where we built huge underwater sets to film the seabed creatures.  I fell in love with the island then and so I was looking forward to returning for Wildest Islands. Colin, Richard Kirby, Andy-Lake Cheewat Cedar

It didn’t disappoint. Last time I was confined to a small part of the island,  a stretch of spectacular coastline and small islands around Bamfield but this time we ranged over pretty much all the island.  Our central theme was the salmon run and the wildlife that the swarming fish attract, and it’s not just the black bears. The shoot didn’t start well. On Vancouver Island they had just had the driest, hottest summer on record and the weather was still dry and hot when we arrived to film in September. The fish only migrate up the rivers in response to a sudden influx of fresh water coming down the rivers and into the sea, but no rainfall meant no influx, so the fish were all still out at sea being hunted by Stellar’s Sea lions. It’s not often we hope for rain on a shoot, but this time we did.

The crew are dwarfed by this Giant Lake Cheewat Cedar

So while we waited for it to rain, we filmed Turkey Vultures ‘kettling’ in the south of the island. Just outside the small town of Sooke a spectacular number of birds gather for the migration south. Every morning for a month they rise out of the trees all at once and circle to gain height before launching themselves southwards over the Juan de Fuca Strait to mainland USA and warmer weather for the winter. We filmed Canada’s biggest tree and we tried filming Orcas in the Queen Charlotte Strait but found instead humpbacks and what an amazing encounter. A lone whale was swimming back and forth through kelp just a few metres from a tiny rocky island no more than a hundred meters across which we were able to land on. I set up the camera on solid rock and there she was, almost close enough to touch and there she stayed for 20 minutes spraying me with water from her blowhole. We had to get the salmon story and we just managed to put together the migration piece by piece with the few fish that were swimming upstream, but what we really wanted was the bears fishing and we didn’t get that until our last day on Vancouver Island after the first night of rain for 3 months.

Richard Kirby filming at Elk Falls(1)

I sat quietly by the river in the constant drizzle while the black bears emerged one by one from the dank forest and performed right in front of me. It was like a switch had been triggered, but then I suppose the bears had been waiting for the salmon run as eagerly as we had. One bear, a particularly huge one ambled towards me.  You’re supposed to move out of the way to let them pass but that’s easier said than done with a heavy camera on a heavy tripod so I just sat there. The bear approached to within a meter, turned and parked his big arse on a comfy looking mossy rock in the middle of the little river, his back towards me. He gazed downstream looking for the telltale signs of a big Chinook salmon flapping in the shallows.

Richard filming at Elk Falls

A big black fluffy bear in an emerald green watercolor, he looked like he’d just dropped out of a children’s  storybook. But this big Baloo of a bear can move terrifyingly fast when he eyes his potential dinner. It takes only a second or two from spotting a salmon to pouncing on it and holding it tight with a giant paw. My bear was an expert. Sometimes he walked nonchalantly up to a fish and just picked it up, other times he ran and chased, splashed and pounced, but once he had that fish in his toothy jaws there was no escape. He took each one into the forest where he’d settle down and delicately pick at the freshest sushi in Canada. The bears take so many salmon in a season that they end up just picking out the livers, leaving the rest of the fish to rot down. Extraordinarily, rotting salmon contribute significantly to the soil fertility that feed some of the biggest trees on Earth!

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