Thomas Peschak’s unique images of the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada showcase the diversity and fragility of its wild inhabitants.
The Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia’s north-west coast is one of the few remaining places where a wild land meets a wild ocean: a marine biodiversity hotspot that is home to many unique species.
This sunflower sea star – the world’s largest, growing up to 1m across – is endemic to the eastern Pacific.
But coastlines are magnets for development; wilderness is constantly pushed further and further into remote areas of the interior. Now this wonderful natural realm may be at risk: a proposed oil pipeline across the rainforest raises the prospect of tanker traffic in these waters and the environmental threats that could bring.
My aim when creating these images was to illustrate how interconnected the sea and the land really are. This split photo perfectly illustrates the point.
One of the most striking aspects of these waters is the incredible array of rich colours. I spotted this contrasting scene of purple sea star and green surf grass from far away, and fought the incoming tide to reach them.
The fish-eating anemone is among the largest in the world. Growing up to 30cm across, this dinner-plate-sized predator carpets the rocky reefs of exposed outer coasts, using its crown of tentacles to catch small fish and shrimp.
These vivid creatures were surrounded by a dense carpet of red sea urchins; I had to be careful not to let the waves and surge wash me onto this living pincushion.
The sunflower sea star is one of the most voracious invertebrate predators in the sea. Red sea urchins, a preferred prey, are normally sedentary, but when a giant sea star is on the prowl they spring to life and crawl to safety.
I captured this scene while free diving in a rocky channel between two islands; ferocious tidal currents allowed me less than 20 minutes to take this image before the water flow became too strong for safety.
At the estuary’s mouth, where the river meets the sea, I came across a massive swarm of jellyfish trapped by a strong tidal flow.
The seas of the Great Bear Rainforest are home to more than 75 species of these gelatinous creatures; this dense fluther was made up of lion’s mane and moon jellyfish.
To capture this photograph I had to descend through a tannin-stained freshwater layer and then a 2m-thick crowd of jellyfish before reaching the colder, clearer water just above the seabed.
Steller’s sealions are the largest of their kind, reaching 3m in length. The global population has declined by more than two-thirds since 1980; as a result, this species is now listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
One theory for this dramatic decline is the overfishing of groundfish species – for example, sole, flounder and halibut – which are important high-energy prey.
The sealions are curious yet cautious, and very camera-shy. They would approach to within just a few centimetres when my back was turned, but when faced with my camera they would almost always stay at the periphery of my vision, just out of range of my wide-angle lens in the murky water.
The dungeness crab has been described as the most delicious crustacean in the world.
The local stocks of these tasty creatures are an important food source for the Gitga’at First Nations people, who have lived in harmony with the ocean here for many generations, taking only as much as they need from the marine and freshwater realms to feed themselves every year.
These crabs are not found clumped in large swarms, but spread out across the seabed. Most flee when approached but a few stand their ground; this one even leaped all the way over my underwater camera housing.
Salmon are the keystone species of this region. Every summer they return to spawn in the rivers in which they were born.
I found two deep pools at the base of a small waterfall alive with pink salmon preparing to leap the cascades and continue their upstream migration. Here I wedged myself into a crevice – the only way I could hold my position in the freezing, fast-flowing water.
Salmon bring life, not just to seals, bears and wolves but also to the rainforest trees, which assimilate nutrients from the fish once they have died after spawning.
When the rivers run thick with migrating salmon, black bears feast almost exclusively on these fish.
In times of great plenty the predators gorge themselves, choosing only the most nutritious parts to eat: the brains and eggs of gravid females.
This year, however, the salmon were scarcer and I watched this bear repeatedly fail to make a successful catch. It eventually gave up and clambered onto a fallen log before shaking the river water from its fur.
Two different races of orca feed in the coastal waters off the Great Bear Rainforest.
So-called ‘residents’ prefer a diet of fish, feeding exclusively on salmon during the summer months. ‘Transient’ individuals have slightly more pointed dorsal fins, but the real difference lies in their behaviour: they prefer to eat marine mammals, including sealions, porpoises, dolphins and even grey and minke whales.
They are also much less vocal than resident whales, probably because travelling in silence enables them to sneak up on prey – essential for a successful co-operative hunt.
A planned pipeline through British Columbia would transport some 525,000 barrels of petrol each day from Alberta’s tar sands across the Great Bear Rainforest.
Supertankers would navigate treacherous coastal waterways to reach this pristine region. The proposed routes for these vessels would traverse the habitat of many species of cetaceans, notably humpback whales and orcas.
Any oil spills from tankers would threaten all of the creatures pictured here and, by extension, the livelihoods of the Gitga’at First Nations.
About Thomas Peschak
He has produced four books, and is a multiple prizewinner in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Thomas believes that photographs are among the most effective weapons in the conservation armoury. To enjoy more of his photography, click here
To explore the potential impact of the proposed oil pipeline, the ILCP, in partnership with Pacific Wild and the Save Our Seas Foundation, organised a RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) in September 2010, during which Thomas documented the aquatic realm. Through these images he hopes to promote the safeguarding of this precious area for future generations.