Responsible tourism on Canada wildlife vacations

On one hand, wildlife vacations to Canada are, by nature (ha ha) a responsible form of travel. You’re educating yourself about a vast, fragile environment and learning how to guard it. You’re investing in wildlife stewards like First Nation lodges and kayaking guides. And when you hike, kayak and sail in small groups – and take your time to watch and learn – you’re massively reducing your impact on the animals’ landscape.

On the other hand, a wildlife watching vacation heaps a whole load of responsibility on your shoulders. You’re placing yourself in tundra and rainforests that are built for bears and whales – not people. You’ve got to ghost in and out, tiptoeing as lightly as you can. The best way to do that? Travel with a tour operator who uses guides committed to leaving only a positive impact on the wildlife and environment. Go with guides that value the safety of animals almost as highly as your safety – and that, in fact, value the wildlife’s happiness over yours. Read on to see what makes a responsible wildlife vacation to Canada.

Responsible bear watching

Living with bears

Images of bears crossing roads, fighting over scraps in rubbish dumps or snuffling around porches are a dime a dozen these days. Canadian bears have evolved at a remarkable pace to adapt to human company. Now that more and more people are hiking, biking and camping in their territory, they’re also losing their fear of people and cars.
You’ll hear that old British Columbia adage again and again: ‘A fed bear is a dead bear.’
Worse than that: bears are wandering into campsites and towns, tempted by the intriguing aromas of barbecues and rotting rubbish. Parks Canada rangers have started using noise, sprays and paintball guns to reinspire a fear of humans, reckoning it’s better than the alternative – the euthanasia of an aggressive bear defending its food source. They’ve also enforced a no-stopping zone west of Jasper in the Rockies, so that bears can forage for berries in peace without coachloads of tourists stopping for a gander.
What you can do
Travel with an experienced tour operator that hires local guides more diligent than Scouts. The best tours start with a briefing about the environment you’re entering and the code of conduct you should stick to. Many bear watching tour guides are part of the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of BC, which has developed protocols for viewing grizzlies, pooling their knowledge with guides from Alaska. The best guides believe that the bear’s need to forage, sleep or back away is more important than our need to see it. Campsites are honeypots for bears. A bear can smell a smidge of smoothie left on a rinsed bottle a mile off and can’t resist investigating curiosities like sun cream, perfumes and toothpaste. A great guide will teach you how to keep your picnics and campsites bear-proof by, say, cooking and storing food a good 50m away from your tent. If you do choose to hike without a guide, travel in groups of four-plus, stick to marked trails and follow park advisories like the law. No one wants to surprise a 180kg grizzly. Never get out of a car if you see a bear while driving. Consider asking the driver to slow – but not stop – so that the bear can continue to do its thing. If you happen to get between a bear and her cubs, remove yourself from the picture pronto (or she will).

Habitat loss

Habitat loss goes hand-in-hand with human-bear conflict. In the Canadian North, polar bears are spending longer near easy food sources – say, towns like Churchill – while waiting for the ice to form, which they need to hunt seals from. Contrary to popular belief, more polar bear sightings don’t necessarily mean that their numbers are increasing. It means that their icy territory is rapidly shrinking, moving them towards easier pickings.

For a country that touts its green credentials – banning captive cetaceans, top-notch recycling facilities, cities powered by hydroelectricity – the Canadian government is pretty bad at saying no to oil pipeline development. The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline through the Great Bear Rainforest has been shelved, but there’s always another in the works.

What you can do
Simple: go on a wildlife tour. They are guaranteed to instil a sense of stewardship in you – as well as a sense of responsibility to do your part in slowing climate change and deforestation. The Arctic and rainforests are simultaneously some of our hardiest and most fragile ecosystems. Don’t drive on vegetated tundra and avoid hiking off-trail. Stick to footpaths and beaches instead. Stay in eco lodges that use renewable electricity. Support indigenous communities campaigning against habitat loss by staying in their lodges and supporting them as guides.

Hunting

Hunting is one of the greatest threats to bears in the Great Bear Rainforest. This near untouched 3,800km2 treescape is home to around 100 ultra-rare spirit bears, whose white-gold fur stems from a recessive gene. And while British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations has outlawed killing spirit bears, hunters with a permit are perfectly entitled to shoot a black bear that could potentially be carrying the recessive gene. In 2012, nine of the First Nations communities who live in the forest voted to ban bear hunting in their traditional territories. The government is still issuing hunting licenses.

Hunting polar bears is perfectly legal in Canada. It’s also the only country in the world that allows international exports of polar bear furs and skins. This isn’t usually hunting for subsistence; polar bears are a commercial commodity, with the biggest skins fetching up to £14,000. It’s a complicated issue. The Canadian government and conservation groups see polar bear hunting as sustainable, as they’ve recorded a healthy population of polar bears. They argue that climate change is more of a threat, anyway.

Conversely, some conservationists have suggested that the way polar bears are counted is flawed. And the very fact that hunters target the largest males means that the healthiest animals – the ones more likely to survive increasingly warm winters – are being removed from the population.

What you can do
By going bear watching in the Great Bear Rainforest and Canadian Arctic, you can show the government that bears are worth more alive than dead. And obviously, don’t buy bear products. Reduce the demand for them.

Responsible orca & whale watching

Cetacean crisis

Canada passed the ‘Free Willy bill’ – or less catchy Bill S-203 – in 2019, effectively banning the capture and breeding of cetaceans like whales, orcas, dolphins and porpoises for entertainment. Out in the Pacific Ocean, however, the 70 strong pod of southern resident orcas of British Columbia are struggling. Their plight was summarised by the image of one of the whales swimming with her dead newborn for 17 days. The pod’s first healthy calf in three years was spotted in 2019; it’s like a held breath.

Environmental stresses like PCB chemical pollution and heavy shipping are largely to blame. But disturbingly, the whole ecosystem is cracking up. Unlike the transient mammal-munching orcas of the Inside Passage and Baffin Island, Vancouver Island’s resident population depends on the disappearing Chinook salmon.

Salmon runs – which form the orcas’ richest food source – have crashed in recent years. Whale watching companies blame overfishing and agricultural waste. Fishermen blame warming waters and noise pollution from leisure boats and ferries. The Canadian government has responded by spending £36m setting up protected zones, limiting marine traffic and increasing food sources – including closing coastal waters off Vancouver Island to commercial fishing outfits. But many locals, including First Nation communities, are reliant on salmon fishing for income. It’s a complex picture.

Other whales unwittingly dice with danger, swimming through dense shipping grounds on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Canada. Propeller scars on slow-moving right whales are common. Malnourishment is another big issue. Over 70 underfed grey whales washed up dead between Washington and Alaska in the first half of 2019. Perhaps, like the orcas, their food stocks are shrinking; perhaps conservation measures have been so effective that the whale population has outgrown its food source. The jury’s out for now.
What you can do
Travel with a reputable whale watching company that sticks to Canada’s strict whale watching laws. Skippers shouldn’t get closer than 400m to the endangered resident orcas; it’s 200m for other whales and transient orcas. If you’re unsure about your Arctic tour operator’s credentials, ask. Being a member of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators and/or the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators is always a good thing. They abide by super strict codes of conduct when it comes to whale watching and sailing through fragile Arctic landscapes. Go on a low-impact small group trip: Arctic expedition ships that carry 100 people; Zodiac boats that barely make a wave; three-cabin cedar schooners carved in Canada. Belugas are curious creatures and will come right up to the boat. Look, don’t touch. Kayaking leaves barely a brushstroke on the environment – especially when paddling in the wake of a knowledgeable tour guide who can tell you exactly how close to an orca is too close. Small ship Arctic expeditions are an antidote for overtourism. Choose those that go in the opposite direction of the crowds – for example, to the little visited Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island or the empty Seal River estuary near Churchill. Go to all the talks you can. Most whale watching vacations come with a biologist, ecologist, or natural history expert who’ll give you the lowdown about conservation and social issues. You don’t have to strike fish off the menu, but do check the provenance of your salmon. Watch out for the Ocean Wise stamp for sustainable seafood. There’s a Kitasoo expression that goes, “When the tide is out, the table is set.” So, do as the Kitasoo First Nations community does and branch out to other seafood like prawns and mussels.

People & culture

Indigenous communities are often the first people to notice – and protect – the animals and ecosystems they’ve lived in sync with for centuries. It’s especially true of indigenous Canadians, whose traditions and values have grown out of harmony and respect for nature.

In British Columbia, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nations have partnered with university researchers and NGOs to research rare white spirit bears (or Moksgm’ol) in a non-invasive way. It’s a sacred animal to the communities, and they’ve learned that to protect them from hunting and logging then they’ve got to get scientific proof that the numbers – and salmon they depend on – need staunch protections. The provincial and federal governments have got behind them, investing £71m in a stewardship programme for the 27 indigenous nations of the Great Bear Rainforest.

The rainforest First Nations communities have also pioneered eco-lodges inspired by ancestral long houses – car-sized cedar dining tables and ocean-view windows included. Indigenous people are often the only permanent residents of the most remote communities in BC’s far north and Baffin Island, so they’ll give you a new perspective on Canada and the wildlife in it.

What you can do
Use tour operators that work in communion with indigenous groups – especially those that travel through their historic territories. Stay in a First Nations-run property. The hosts have lived in remote regions for generations, and can tell you about the salmon runs (or lack of), take you to the bear haunts, and tell tales of the forests – including the origin story of the sacred spirit bear. Some lodges in the Great Bear Rainforest work with the Coastal Guardian Network that helps First Nation communities take control over the stewardship of their traditional lands. Eat local foods and support local craftspeople. Pick organic coffee from Quadra Island over Starbucks; your taste buds (and conscience) will thank you. Stock up on Inuit and Thule textiles in Pangnirtung and Qikiqtarjuaq; you’ll probably get a story to go with them, too. Choose a vacation that sails into the boardwalk settlements of the Gitga’at and Haisla people. Talking and listening gets you understanding the challenges these remote communities face, as well as their porous relationship with wildlife. You could also go on a wildlife vacation that puts you up in other locally run properties – perhaps an eco-lodge on Hudson Bay run by people who were raised in this wilderness. The best ones are built by local craftspeople from recycled timber and driftwood harvested in Manitoba. Dinner is often country food like local fish, game and berries.

Responsible tourism advice

Vanessa Sumpmann, from our northern vacation specialists Magnetic North Travel, shares her thoughts on responsible tourism in Canada:

First Nations in action

Spirit Bear Lodge is a great example of wildlife conservation, and cultural preservation, as it fosters a close relationship with the local First Nation community. By widening its scope beyond wildlife observation, travelers can enjoy a deeper, more immersive learning experience, while the local community benefits from sharing their stories in an authentic way.”

Plastic vs. mining

“We've been delighted to hear about Canada's ban on plastic in 2021, which should increase the health of its marine wildlife. Issues that continue to put pressure on wildlife are mining projects which disrupt the salmon run and the ecosystem around it. Oil pipelines running toward the coast also pose a permanent risk of an oil spill.”
Tom Brown from our wildlife vacations specialist Natural World Safaris shares his views on polar bear hunting: “The Inuit do have quotas for hunting polar bears, which comes out of a cultural agreement as they have historically always hunted them. However, there is an issue around some of them selling their quotas to hunters. We had one visitor who came on a tour who was very anti-hunting, but when she got here, it changed her perspective on the issue. Hunting in a responsible way is a good thing in terms of keeping the numbers down and so on, but when we overhunt it becomes an issue. Hunting isn’t a risk to polar bear population numbers anymore. The biggest risk to the polar bear is global warming and the loss of ice.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: chris salt] [Living with bears: Mike] [Fin whale caughts in bow: Mike]
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