The Great Bear Rainforest is a vast chunk of the British Columbia coast between Vancouver Island and the Alaskan panhandle, roughly 12,000 square miles, that mostly takes the form of heavily forested islands. Today with nearly 30 percent of the rainforest protected from logging the provincial and local First Nations governments are on a path towards sustainable forest stewardship, especially important for an area so wild.
For three decades it’s been home to photographer and filmmaker Ian McAllister, who lives there with his family, drawn to the area by it’s untouched, raw wilderness. For the past several years McAllister has been busily shooting a documentary feature called, simply, The Great Bear Rainforest, soon to be released in theaters—on massive IMAX screens, no less—showcasing the place’s unique beauty and spiritual significance. The film, which is narrated by Ryan Reynolds, will be released on February 15.
We spoke with Ian last week about his reverence for his home and about the making of the film.
AJ: The Great Bear Rainforest must be heaven for a wildlife photographer, but it’s a pretty isolated place. How did you end up living there?
IM: It was one of those chance things in life. After high school, I had the opportunity to be a deckhand on a vessel doing research into the temperate rainforest that eventually became known as the Great Bear Rainforest. I grew up on Vancouver Island and witnessed the almost total loss of temperate rainforest from clear cut logging. The opportunity to go north and day after day sail through this vast archipelago of islands covered in rainforest, with no roads, no logging, and none of the destruction that I had witnessed down south, was one of those very formative, life-changing experiences. It redirected everything for me.
Is that area largely untouched by logging and resource extraction because it’s been protected, or just because it’s so isolated it’s not economically viable to get in there?
Well, in those days it was really because it was so isolated. There are only a couple of roads that penetrate the coast’s mountain range all the way from Vancouver to the Alaskan panhandle. So, it’s almost all boat access. The First Nation communities are very isolated, only serviced by float plane or boat. So it’s just one of these hidden jewels on planet Earth that kind of escaped time and managed to avoid the industrialization that has occurred in so much of the rest of North America. But mostly it’s the really challenging access, the isolation, and the remoteness that have been the safeguards.
The cynic in me assumes, surely, there must be developmental threats to the area now.
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Especially in the last 30 years, it’s been one battle after the other to try to keep the place still functioning. You know, there are thousands and thousands of islands, hundreds of really big river valleys, probably over 2,000 separate runs of salmon here. It’s more than half the size of the Pacific coast of Canada. So there are a lot of threats, not the least of which are deforestation and unsustainable fisheries. The salmon and herring populations have been hit hard. And there are many other threats that have been creeping up from the ocean, in terms of temperature changes, warming ocean, acidification, that’s really been impacting so much of the life on the coast because almost everything owes its life and existence to the productivity of the ocean. So, when we’re seeing so many irregular imbalances happening in the ocean environment, the impact is felt throughout the entire rainforest.
Have you seen a change in the 30 years you’ve been there?
Yeah, there’s been a lot of really profound, fundamental changes. We’ve certainly seen the collapse of wild salmon, herring, and forage fish. Lots of really disturbing collapses in the marine environment. But we’ve also seen some amazing recoveries. It was really rare 30 years ago to see humpback whales. Seeing fin whales was almost unheard of. Today, they’re common. There’s been a huge recovery of cetaceans on the north coast. So humpback whales are now seen everywhere. We’re seeing an increase in fin whales. They’re now returning to these waters. As recent as the 1940s and ’50s, there were whaling ships up and down the coast, killing the last of the whales. So it’s just really taken that long for the whales to feel safe again in these waters. But also to use them as foraging, feeding, and reproductive grounds. So there’s definitely some good news stories, but there’s a lot of bad news stories right alongside them.
Who’s the biggest advocate for protecting the area now? Is it First Nations? Outside groups? A combination of a bunch?
Yeah, absolutely, it’s a combination of a global citizenry that wants to ensure that places like the Great Bear Rainforest are protected, not unlike how I would want to know that the Amazon, the Serengeti, and the Great Barrier Reef are protected. So it’s really become a globally renowned area. But in terms of who is leading the stewardship, protection, and sustainability of these places, there’s no question it’s indigenous people, the local First Nations. There are over 20 different First Nations within the Great Bear Rainforest, each one with their own traditional territory. They’re really collectively doing remarkable work to keep the place protected and functioning.
So, shifting to the movie, you’ve lived and worked in the Great Bear Rainforest for 30 years—what made you want to make a movie now. Were you waiting for something like IMAX technology to come along?
Well, general storytelling, as you imagine, has always been an important part of our conservation work, alongside research and community economic development and all kinds of other approaches to protecting the place. But there’s really nothing that compares to the giant screen or IMAX model, in terms of educating a lot of people, but also showcasing a place that is as grand and spectacular as the Great Bear Rainforest. So it’s always been in the back of my mind that a film for the IMAX theaters on the Great Bear Rainforest would be a really important way to showcase the place, and inspire people, educate people, but hopefully motivate people to continue to want to protect the place.
But also, even if I had appropriate funding to do this film not many years ago, it would have been a very different film, and a very difficult film to do, because, as you mentioned, the camera technology for IMAX films was very cumbersome, heavy, and expensive, and loud. There was just so many factors that really would make it challenging to do a wildlife film, especially underwater. So the conversion of camera systems to digital has really only come into its own, in terms of a resolution for the giant screen, just in the last few years. And I mean just in the last three or so years.
It’s very, very recent that digital technology has caught up to be able to use on these giant screens. So the timing was really perfect for us, to be able to go out and really immerse ourselves in the rainforest, and be able to capture unique behavior that had never been captured before, and bring to not just the big screen, but the giant screen.
Can you talk a little bit about how you go about capturing what you want to capture? I suppose you can’t sit down and do a storyboard for this sort of thing. Or maybe you can. Did you already have in mind things that you wanted to shoot when the project started or were you letting nature present itself, and you just followed whatever was happening at the time?
Yeah, you always have a shot list and a storyboard of the stories and sequences that you want to tell. It’s usually based on previous experience. I’ve been exploring, filming, and documenting the Great Bear Rainforest for decades, so when I thought about this film, I thought about the very best experiences that I’d ever witnessed. I wanted all of those within the 42 minutes of run time. But that’s a pretty tall order. Of course, salmon had to be part of this film. And whales and these genetically distinct wolves that feed on salmon. Of course, the incredibly beautiful and globally rare Spirit Bear, and grizzly bears, and the amazing herring spawning event. So there were some natural cycles and focal species that I knew had to be starred in the film. And the story had to be told through the voice of First Nations, of course.
In practical terms, you know, we would prepare for these voyages, and we would set sail and not return for a few months. We never knew exactly what we would film. We would be traveling along the coast, observing nature, and finding stories to tell. And a lot of those stories weren’t on the storyboards, necessarily. Some years are much better for salmon, some years are much better for the return of herring. So there’s lots of things that you can’t really predict. The weather in that part of the coast is very much a logistical challenge, and would often set us off in a different direction, hiding from hurricane force winds. Yeah, just so many unknowns, variables, different factors that conspire to really changing the storyboards, for sure.
Spirit bears are so rare, and actually, I’m not sure if they’re a variant of black bears or grizzly bears—but is it difficult to plan to film them?
They’re a coastal population of black bears that are genetically differentiated from the rest of the black bears in North America. They separated about 360,000 years ago. Then, within this unique coastal population of black bears, there’s this recessive gene that has produced this pure white black bear, though they’re not albinos. And they’re extremely rare. Some people think there’s probably less than 200 of them in the world, and they live on these remote islands in the Great Bear Rainforest. There are a few First Nations people that know where they are, so we worked closely with First Nations. But, yeah, there’s just a few of them known to people. It can be very challenging to film them.
How can people get involved if they want to either learn more about the Great Bear Rainforest, or aid in its protection?
Well, you know, I think the reason we did the film was to really showcase the place, because of the compounding threats that it faces, between pipelines, the risks of oil spills, deforestation, unsustainable fisheries. There’s just so many issues that are facing the coast. The idea of a film like this is to say, “Hey, we have an amazing gift right in North America’s backyard and there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that it stays the way it is.” I think that’s really the main point of doing this film. Pacific Wild is really one of the lead conservation organizations working in the area. They’re really dedicated to this geographical area, and they’re working on the ground, and probably the best resource and organization to contact for information or ways to support conservation efforts.