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Ike Anya    

Bear Watching in Tofino

Ike Anya, Nigerian writer and medical doctor, lives in Bristol, UK


We woke up to the sound of the Pacific Ocean crashing against the rocks crouched warningly right outside the windows of our bedrooms. In the gray half-light, we dressed to the cawing of the exotic wild birds whose strong beating wings we had heard all through the night. We dressed carefully, silently and then walked down through the hushed corridors of the guesthouse to the car park where the hired cars waited in silent row after row. We had dressed warmly, having been advised the previous day to put on several layers. So over my white T-shirt, I wore a fairly thick cotton shirt, which I then proceeded to cover with a grey woolen hoodie, of the kind that has now become notorious in the UK as the emblem of a whole generation of delinquents. Over my hoodie, I pulled on a bright yellow slicker thoughtfully left in the wardrobe by the guesthouse staff. They presumably were used to many of their guests venturing outdoors in inclement weather. Tofino, the small town on Vancouver Island on which we had berthed was a nature-lover’s paradise, framed by the powerful waters of the Pacific and the plunging green-forested mountains-home to all manners of wildlife- eagles, ospreys, cougars and bears.

It was our quest for the last of these that had woken us up early on this Tuesday morning. The previous day we had stopped by one of the numerous small shops advertising whale watching, bear watching, kayaking and all other kinds of wildlife pursuits. Pushing our way past the surfboards, the slickers and the other merchandise that lined the shelves, we had made our way to the counter where a blonde-haired man with a weather-beaten face presided over the cash register. We had asked for tickets for the bear- watching tour. In rapid Canadian accented English, he explained that we would need to set out at low tide, which in effect meant an 8 am start. We would need to be at the harbour in the marina at least 15 minutes before cast off and we were to dress warmly, in layers as it could get quite cold sitting on the upper deck of the boat. We would also need to have breakfast before coming on board and were advised to carry some food as eating during the trip would help keep us warm. We wondered aloud if we would be able to find anywhere to eat so early in the morning but were assured us that some of the cafes opened as early as 7 am in order to cater to fishermen and wildlife watchers like us.

And so at 7 15 am, we pulled into the car park outside Tuff Beans, the café in the heart of the central shopping area of Tofino and poured out of our cars onto the wooden deck that led into the small warm café. On the deck, a few dogs were tied up waiting patiently for their owners who sat inside the café having breakfast. The clientele were an eclectic mix-from young hippie types with dreadlocked hair and multiple piercing, interspersing every other sentence with the words “Like” and “Dude”, to clean cut all-American families with young children and dazzling teeth, good enough to grace a toothpaste advert.

We ordered our food- a Tuff breakfast for me and another of our companions, the others in our party choosing to go for cheddar scrambled egg breakfasts. I was asked how I would like my eggs done- “Fried” I said, only for the waitress to ask “Over easy?” This is something that always puzzles me in North American restaurants and diners - what exactly constitutes eggs over easy? The waitress came to my rescue asking if I wanted my eggs with the yolks runny or hard. Hard was my response - having never really warmed to the Western idea of runny egg yolks. As we quickly swallowed down our breakfasts washed down by copious amounts of coffees and teas, we asked the waitress if she could pack up a batch of muffins for us to take away with us. Sadly the muffins were still in the oven and would not be ready for another 15 minutes. We walked away, briskly heading for the harbour, which we approached via a precarious stairway consisting of a wooden ramp interspersed with aluminium railings that served as steps. I noted with silent gratitude that our boat was covered and sturdy- not being a fantastic sailor, I had had gut-churning visions of a small open boat.

Walking down the swaying wooden gangway, the air ripe with the organic rotting odour that is the signature of the sea, we make our way on to the boat, welcomed by our skipper and guide for the day- Mike, a retired Coast Guard officer. He shows us round the boat starting with the toilet and explaining how its flushing is regulated by a pumping mechanism. I find it hard to follow his demonstration and silently hope that I do not need to use the toilet during what he tells us will be a three-hour tour. One by one, the other passengers arrive- there is a Canadian French couple with their two teenage children- a boy and a girl and then there are two middle aged American couples and their friend in addition to our own party. In addition to the toilet, we are shown the upper deck, where we can sit and look out once the boat has started moving as well as the small galley where there is coffee already on the boil. We ask Mike many questions, all of which he fields with grace and patience.

What kind of bears are we likely to see? Mostly black bears, is his answer. How big are they? Adult males weigh about 600 pounds, so not as big as grizzlies. What else are we likely to see? Seals, otters, perhaps porpoises. Are we guaranteed to see bears? Maybe not, but it’s pretty likely. He’s been out every day this week and has seen several bears. Our tour and orientation over, Mike hands out binoculars to everyone and starts the boat and we begin to move out into open sea. I climb to the top deck where there’s a raw wind blowing and look out onto the vast, seemingly endless expanse of sea interspersed with rocky green islands that seem to go on forever.

We are not too long gone when Mike asks us to look out at a wooden post in the sea on top of which is perched an osprey. It is a magnificent bird and as I struggle to get the focusing of my binoculars right, it sweeps out into flight beating its powerful wings. Next we go past a rock where several harbour seals, fat and slinky flop, blinking at us as we sail past, their whiskers quivering. We are not yet thirty minutes out of harbour and already we have come across seals and an osprey. What strikes me is how like their habitats these creatures are coloured. You could easily mistake the seals for outcroppings of rock.

As we enter into a little cove, the sense of expectation in the boat rises. We have been promised that we will see bears and there is an almost palpable yearning for that promise to be fulfilled. We scan the horizon, the rugged coastline that hugs the myriad small islands that are scattered in the water, looking for the distinctive black blobs that indicate a bear sighting. We are not disappointed as Mike triumphantly asks us to focus on a black creature far out on one of the islands and as we peer through binoculars, we are rewarded with our first sighting of a black bear. It is quite cuddly, and as it makes its lazy way across the small beach, flipping rocks over as casually as we would flip pancakes, Mike steers the boat into position so that we can have a better view. It is a medium-sized bear according to Mike, and we cannot determine what sex it is. We are struck by how utterly oblivious to our presence the bear is, calmly continuing its hunt for crabs and other small animals under the rocks. As Mike points out, because bears are pretty much at the top of the food chain in these habitats, they fear little from any other predators except fellow bears.

Apparently, male black bears delight in killing off young bears as this means that the mother bear goes back immediately into heat. According to Mike, one third of all grizzly bear deaths are due to killing by other grizzly bears. One of the American women laughs out loud, snorting “It’s always about sex with you men, isn’t it?” Another man retorts- “No, it’s simply about the competition to ensure that your genetic heritage and not that of another male gets passed on” We spend about thirty minutes watching the bear and then Mike asks if we are ready to move on. He starts the boat and we head off in the direction of another cove. A shout from one of the American men draws our attention- there on the far shore, he’s spotted another black bear, stomping its way out of the forest on to the rock-strewn beach. We move closer in the boat and watch again as this bear repeats the rock flipping techniques of its predecessor, occasionally pausing to dig its snout into the sand, presumably scooping up crabs and insects. The leisurely way in which he (we decide it’s a male although we have no objective evidence for this) does this fascinates us and Mike explains that they try to burn as little energy as possible during their foraging. Looking at the size of the bear, I muse that it must take a good many crabs to make a filling meal for him.

Another smaller boat soon pulls up by our side, filled with enthusiastic bear watchers like us. Because the boat is smaller, they are able to move much closer to the shore. But that flexibility comes at a price - their boat has no toilet, a facility that our American co-passengers say more than makes up for everything else. By this time we have settled into a warm camaraderie. One of the Americans is passing out cups of coffee and slices of banana walnut cake, which in the very cold weather out in the cove was very welcome. Sated with bear watching, we head out for a pile of rocks teeming with seals. These seals are of every imaginable natural colour, from slate grey to brown and black, and from a distance could actually pass for rocks - until they start moving. Unlike the bears, they are very interested in us and in our boat, staring and blinking as their whiskers flicker in the noon sun.

As we begin to turn around to head back to harbour, Mike points out a couple of harbour porpoises steaming across the water, occasionally breaking the surface. We watch them for a while through our binoculars but they soon skim away far beyond our visibility. Not far off, we spot our third and final bear of the day. He is right at the water’s edge and Mike is able to bring the boat in really close until he is just an arm’s length away. Now we can hear him breathing, the loud clunk as he flips over the rocks and the crunch as he chews on his breakfast of crabs. None of us has ever imagined that we could get so close to the bears in their natural habitat and an awed hush falls as we watch him make his way across the beach, completely oblivious of our presence. Mike warns us against making sudden movements, saying that this is more likely to scare him off than a loud noise. Behind the bear, a number of crows soon appear, hoping to scavenge on the leftovers from the bear’s meal. The birds hover round the bear’s behind, and as soon as he flips a rock over and is done with his foraging they move in to pick up any scraps he might have left behind. The bear appears totally unconcerned, and is seemingly happy for the birds to do this - perhaps a lesson in peaceful coexistence.

Having watched for a while, Mike reminds us it is time to head back to the shore. One of the other passengers asks if he has any other scheduled trips for the day and he reveals that he will be bringing out family and friends of a recently deceased local resident to sprinkle his ashes out here on the waters. As we make our way back through the calm, cool, pine-crested glades and the vast expanses of water, I am thinking there could be few nicer places for a final resting place.

An Oriki for the Poet

The Travel Commissar

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