Grizzlies at Knight Inlet: an interview with Michaela Strachan
Wildlife TV presenter Michaela Strachan and her family travelled with us to British Columbia, staying at Knight Inlet Lodge on the trail of the region’s famed grizzly bears. We caught up with her to find out more about their experience.
We hear that this isn’t your first visit to Knight Inlet. When did you first go there and has it changed much since?
I first went there about 10 years ago to film for a series called ‘Postcards From The Wild’, a series I made with Chris Packham for Animal Planet. We actually hadn’t planned to film grizzly bears, we were there mainly to film orcas, but the opportunity came up to fly into Knight Inlet for the day during the salmon season. It was a lasting memory and an amazing experience.
I went back for a series called ‘Michaela’s Wild Challenge’ for Channel 5. We stayed a couple of days, I had to complete a couple of challenges; one was to see a grizzly baby, which we managed fairly easily. This time it was springtime, out of the salmon season, so the bears were chilling and foraging on the banks, so easy to spot. The second challenge was to get a kiss from a hummingbird! A bit random, but Knight Inlet is a stopping point for Rufous hummingbirds on migration and there are lots of feeders at the lodge which they come and visit. I had to patiently stand by one of the feeders with lips covered in sugar and red lipstick to try and attract one of these gorgeous little birds. My patience paid off and I eventually got my kiss! And there’s not many people who can say they’ve been snogged by a humming bird!
Anyway, I fell in love with Knight Inlet, it’s such a magical, special, beautiful place, and it went on my bucket list of places to go back to with my family.
It had changed a bit since I was there as it had been re built after a fire in 2012, but it was just as special as I remembered and of course the scenery was just as stunning. The only thing missing from my first visit was a jaccuzi on the deck! I had a lasting memory of drinking a gin and tonic in the bubbles after filming thinking I had the best job in the world! I guess a jacuzzi isn’t the most sustainable thing to have in the middle of nowhere though.
Knight Inlet is renowned for being one of the best places in BC to spot grizzly bears – how did you get on?
I’ve been there three times now and every time has been incredible for bear spotting. We were there for four days this last time in July, and saw bears easily every day. They tended to be the same bears and I reckon we saw eight different individuals including a few cubs. It definitely lives up to its name of ‘the Great Bear Rainforest’.
They call Knight Inlet bear boot camp as you’re kept pretty busy every day either on boat trips to see the grizzlies, walks up the mountain, kayak trips, boat trips to see the whales, talks on the local wildlife. It’s amazing but you don’t go there to rest!
The lodge supports pioneering grizzly research and conservation. Did you get a sense of this while you were staying there?
It’s very obvious that Knight Inlet has done a huge amount to protect the area and of course the bears. The original fishing lodge was only 10 acres, over the years the Wyatt family, who own the lodge now, have bought a further 451 acres.
Hunting grizzlies is still big business in Canada. Every year Knight Inlet buy the tag that allows grizzlies to be shot in their area. They’ve been doing it since 2006 and have saved the lives of many bears. They sell ‘stop the hunt’ wrist bands and water bottles to help fund the purchase of the hunting rights. They also help to manage the spawning channels and even operate their own hatchery to supplement the salmon stocks.
They fund a lot of research and in fact we met a young student who was doing bear research while we were there. He had visited Knight Inlet as a child with his parents when he was just 9. It had such a big impact on him, he kept in touch with one of the guides. He’s now 21 and back doing research for his wildlife conservation degree.
All the guides are incredibly knowledgeable, helpful and constantly answer questions. In my opinion Knight Inlet is a real conservation success story and the perfect place to visit if you want to contribute to grizzly bear conservation whilst on holiday.
What other wildlife did you see on your trip?
We saw loads of wildlife. In fact my son Ollie and I did an A to Z of all the animals we saw. We did end up cheating a bit by going to the Aquarium and filling in the X with Xingu river ray, and the Z with Zebra shark! But we saw plenty of wildlife in the wild too. We went to Victoria on Vancouver Island and went on two whale watching trips. We saw an amazing amount of orcas; spring and summer are the best times to see them. There are three resident pods around Victoria and tourists see them most days in the season. We went to Tofino to see the black bears which was fab, we saw plenty of them foraging in the inter tidal zone.
We loved the town of Tofino, it was very chilled and had plenty of organic cafes and smoothie bars. We stayed in Ucluelet in The Black Rock Oceanfront Resort which was a fab place. We saw more orcas on a marine tour from Knight Inlet as well as humpback whales, seals, sea lions. I was also keen to see bald eagles and around the inlet there were many. In fact they’re so numerous they call them glorified seagulls which I think is a bit uncalled for!
There’s a variety of ways to enjoy up close wildlife encounters along BC’s Pacific Coast, including boat trips, zodiac excursions, sea-kayaking and guided hikes. What did you try and what would you recommend?
I would recommend doing it all! We did kayak trips, numerous zodiac boat trips wearing the mandatory red floatation suits, short hikes and standard boat trips. We saw whales from both a zodiac and a boat and it was interesting to see them from close to the water level and then from higher up on a boat. We also did the float plane to Knight Inlet which my 9 year old loved. It was really interesting to see the forest from a height and see all the logging. It might be legal in Canada and managed but there seemed to be quite a lot of it.
You’re a well known wildlife expert – did you learn or see anything new?
I’m always learning! I never consider myself an expert. I have a wide knowledge but not a specialised one. I have filmed so many animals all over the world, you become an expert for that trip but then you forget a lot of it as you move on to the next place. I have only ever spent a few days with grizzly bears so there’s a lot to learn about them still.
I learned that grizzly bears gorge so much in the summer and fall to fatten up for their hibernation, that they can become obese without risking heart disease because cholestreol does not stick to the walls of their blood. They loose all that weight during their dormant winter state when they den up for 3 to 7 months and they don’t eat or drink. That’s one serious feast and famine!
Like all bears, grizzlies do something called delayed implantation. They mate with more than one male in the spring. When the female becomes pregnant, the development of the embryo temporarily stops. It only continues when she enters hibernation in the winter then the embryo implants in her uterus and begins gestation. However, if the bear does not put on enough weight before hibernation, the pregnancy will not proceed and the embryo will reabsorb.
I learned that the latin for grizzly bear is Ursus Arctos Horribilis, which was jolly handy as Ollie and I needed a ‘U’ for our animal A to Z!
Aside from the wildlife watching, what did you enjoy most from your holiday?
The highlight for me was without doubt Knight Inlet. Not only for the wildlife but for the sheer beauty, remoteness and sense of peace. It’s a dramatic and wild setting. I felt the stress lift off my shoulders in the 4 days. Even though it was quite a busy schedule.
I also loved the day we spent on Grouse Mountain. It’s a mountain playground just 20 mins from Vancouver. We watched a great bird show and a hilarious lumberjack show and played some crazy game with frizbies! Seemed far too difficult. I loved having so much to do outdoors from cycling round Stanley Park in Vancouver to going on a dinner cruise. It was all a lot of fun.
You travelled with your 9 year old son – what were his favourite experiences? Do you think BC is a good family destination?
It was a great holiday to do as a family in British Columbia. There was an ideal mix to keep Ollie interested. Travelling was fairly easy and places were accessible. He absolutely loved seeing the bears and the whales and never tired of the boat rides, and there were many! One of his favourite experiences was going under a waterfall in Knight Inlet on the boat and getting soaked. Apparently the first nations do it for good luck. They take their clothes off and bathe, it was a bit chilly for that, fortunately we had our bright red floatation suits on!
He loved Capilano Bridge in Vancouver, a fab suspension bridge for tourists and wonderfully wobbly. He also loved the fact that a lot of the hotels had telly with a sports channel so he didn’t miss all the world cup football games!