They may look like polar bears, but this mother and her cub are actually a rare form of black bears, believed by natives to be spirit animals.
These bears were spotted and photographed in December 2014 by Kyle Breckenridge as the mother taught her young cub how to fish in the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. It’s believed to be only the third time a white black bear and her cub have been spotted together.
The Kermode bear, as its officially known, is a living oxymoron – a white black bear. There are only about 1,000 in the wild, and they appear almost entirely in the Great Bear Rainforest, a 25,000 square mile area along the West coast of Canada. The bear is born white due to a mutation called Kermodism, which affects the same gene that causes pale skin and red hair in humans. No one really knows why the trait arose, although one theory is that it’s a genetic carryover from the ice age, when white fur offered more camouflage.
The white coat does have one clear advantage – it makes the bear a better fisher. Research shows salmon are less concerned about a white object on the surface of the water than a black one, allowing the Kermode to launch a better sneak attack. It is this unique ability that may be the reason why these bears continue to exist.
The native tribes of British Columbia called the Kermode mooksgm’ol, or “spirit bear.” They refused to hunt the bear, and taking one was considered taboo. They also avoided speaking of the bear, perhaps as to not alert European fur traders of its existence. Tribal ancestors still fiercely guard the animal in its native habitat, allowing the animal to flourish along with other species.
The bears also holds significance for visitors like Breckenridge, who said photographing the animals took his breath away. He witnessed the mother catch a large fish and then disappear into the forest with her cub, describing the sight as a “spiritual experience.”