Survival with Ray Mears

Sunday, 25 April 2010, 7:00PM – 8:00PM on ITV1

In this episode, Ray tracks bears in the pristine wilderness of British Columbia’s Pacific Coast region.

On beginning his journey Ray says: “A lot of people fear bears. I think there’s no need for that. They’re only dangerous when they’re misunderstood. To me their strength and intelligence makes them among the most intriguing of all predators. I can’t wait to track them in their world.”

British Columbia houses some of the world’s most beautiful forests, which are inhabited by a healthy number of grizzly and black bears. However, Ray is also interested in the spirit bear. This incredibly rare bear has pure white fur, and is actually a black bear carrying a recessive gene. It is thought that that there are only 400 alive today, so finding one will be a daunting challenge for Ray.

Ray says: “Part of my quest is going to go in search of one of the rarest bears of all, the spirit bear. I want to find out what their future really holds in store. If I’m lucky enough to see one, it will be a personal first.”

Ray takes a small plane into the wilderness and touches down at Klemtu, a tiny fishing outpost, with his wildlife cameramen Shane Moore and Isaac Babcock.

Ray says: “We’re flying not just into back country, but to one of the most remote places on the planet. That was some flight. I tell you, these bush pilots are a little bit crazy, but also incredibly skilful.”

They hire a boat and find a remote spot, called Mussel Inlet, where Ray quickly finds tracks of grizzly bears, intent on devouring as much as they can from the annual salmon run which is in full swing.

Grizzly bears can be very dangerous if surprised or if a human gets too close.

Ray says: “We’re entering their terrain and we need to respect that. It’s up to us to avoid triggering a confrontation. Every year, two or three people are killed by bears. I think that misreading the situation is more to blame than animal aggression. It’s critical that we don’t surprise one. We have to remember that bears can sprint at 30 mph. We’d never outrun one.”

On his guard, Ray finds numerous grizzly prints that lead him to a grizzly mother and a couple of two year old cubs. They play for a while but are suddenly bullied away by a massive grizzly male ��” a giant that would be about 3m tall if he stood up.

Ray and the crew are watching the grizzly male from across the river when, without warning, he lakes a lunge for the river and swims over to them. At this point he is just 50 feet away and Ray is aware of the potential danger.

“This bear could well come along here now so I think what we’ll do is we’ll just gently back off.”

The bear gradually moves closer until he is just 20 feet from Ray and the crew.

Ray’s concern grows: “He’s on the move again, coming right towards us. We could have a real problem here.”

But he is clear on what they must do: “We have to make sure that we’re not blocking where the bear wants to go. What I don’t want to do is put myself in a situation where I’m in a bottle neck.”

The bear seems content but suddenly his mood changes and Ray detects some agitation. He advises the crew: “People behind the camera are moving fast. They endanger our lives by doing that. You’ve got to move slowly and gently.”

Gradually the group move away from the bear and out of danger.

Ray reflects: “There you go. We didn’t pose a threat to the bear; the bear wasn’t in the least stressed. This is their domain and if you treat them with the respect that they deserve, you shouldn’t come to any grief.”

The presence of the huge grizzly male leads Ray to conclude that he will not find any spirit bears at the river inlet he has chosen. Grizzlies seek out the best fishing spots and defend them ferociously.

They not only scare off smaller black bears but other grizzlies as well as. In order to find the elusive spirit bear Ray decides that he should first track down black bears since spirit bears share much the same habitat.

Black bears are much better tree climbers than grizzlies and this has helped them develop a survival tactic that involves seeking out habitat with dense cover.

Ray searches numerous smaller river inlets in the huge maze of waterways which make up the Pacific Coast. Eventually he finds an inlet bordered by thick forest. There are several lively black bears fishing for salmon in a river that is brimming with fish.

Ray says of one of the bears: “It’s striking how much more energetic this bear is ��” much more sense of urgency, no loping about picking at dead fish for him. Black bears are smaller and so much more nimble than grizzlies. It’s fascinating to see how he’s actually eating the salmon. Just look at that dexterity. He’s tearing into the heads, because the brain is where most of the fat is and leaving the rest to rot.”

But Ray is concerned not to see any one year old cubs. So far he has failed to see one year old grizzly cubs either. It dawns on him that something must have happened last winter.

He says: “These bears aren’t as fat as I would have expected for this time of year. And it’s peculiar that we haven’t seen any one year old cubs. I’d hoped to find lots of cubs being taught to fish by their mothers, and the more I think about it the more it worries me. What could possibly have happened to this year’s cubs?”

Ray consults local guide, Doug Neasloss, a member of the First Nation Kitasoo tribe. He explains that while the salmon run is strong this autumn, last year it was very poor.

Before hibernating, British Columbia’s bears gorge on salmon, putting on the fat that keeps them alive over the winter months. If they fail to eat enough fish, the bears can die of starvation over the winter, and the females may not be able to suckle their cubs. Doug believes last year’s lack of salmon may have contributed directly to a lack of cubs this year. He thinks that over-fishing could be partly to blame.

Ray is deeply concerned to hear this news. Spirit bears are often bullied away from prime fishing spots by grizzlies and he worries that last year’s poor salmon run may have affected them even more seriously.

Ray says: “I’m shocked to hear this news. If a poor salmon run last year led to bears dying of starvation over the winter, that might explain why we’ve not seen a single one year old cub. If over fishing is even partially responsible then I’m upset because that’s avoidable. If the bear population here has been hit what does that mean for the, already rare, spirit bear?

Leading the team on a final search, Ray makes an extraordinary find: white hairs on a bear trail near a babbling stream.

Ray says: “Look, fresh signs. And we’ve got ground marks. And lots of marks there at the base of that tree. I don’t know whether I’m going mad but am I wrong in saying that’s a white hair?”

Ray is overjoyed to find some evidence to point to the presence of the spirit bears.

He says: “That’s amazing, look at that. That could be the first tangible evidence of presence of spirit bear. That’s a white hair. This is fabulous news. Now we know we’re in the right place.”

With just one more day to go, he hopes tomorrow will lead to a sighting of these incredibly rare animals.

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