With snarls coming from their jaws, these bears look like they are ready to fight for the fish they're trying to catch, but the salmon are so thick in the water that sometimes the grizzlies just need to be a little patient and the fish will come right to them.
Despite their fearsome appearance, grizzly bears just love fishing for salmon, as these stunning pictures by photographer Gleb Tassarenko testify. There is a big difference between grizzlies that live on the coast and their cousins from the interior. The coastal grizzlies have their welfare tied to salmon in ways that affect their size, reproduction, and the amount of cubs they can produce. Catching the fish also contributes to the wider ecosystem because the salmon carcasses provide much needed nitrogen for spruce trees and other flora.
As you can see in this picture, perched on the edge of some rapids, the bears have the perfect vantage point for taking advantage of the thousands upon thousands of salmon swimming upriver to spawn. The bears are literally just reaching out as the fish jump into their waiting jaws – a far quicker death for the fish than awaits them at the end of the spawning season, when they die naturally. This is part of the life cycle of Pacific salmon: they all die after spawning, while Atlantic salmon may survive to return to the ocean for another season.
What a great catch on the fly! Even if this fellow does look as if he is about to slip down the rapids as he catches his lunch! These bears are experts fishers for good reason. The males bears' skulls grow larger the more salmon they eat, and the females not only reach reproductive maturity earlier but also have more cubs if they eat a healthy supply of the fish. The bears' droppings also act as a 'nutrient conveyer belt' within the larger ecosystem by dispersing significant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus into the earth.
As you can see, the salmon are vital to the bears' well-being. Barrie Gilbert, a retired wildlife photographer from Logan, Utah, explains: "The science of it says you're going to have a density of bears and productivity of the population proportional to the salmon base."
The salmon are responsible for providing a large amount of the coastal grizzlies' pre-hibernation fat – so in years when the numbers of fish spawning are down because of overfishing, there are fewer cubs born and the bear population as a whole is depleted. Here one of the gorgeous beasts is just getting his lunch, while another one reaches for seconds!
The red salmon are sockeye, fish that only turn red when returning to their spawning ground – and red must sure be one appetizing color for all those hungry bears! As the two grizzlies above continue to fish, they look as if they are in bear heaven...
Here we can see a whole group of the bears swimming, fishing, and generally looking like they're having a good time! Coastal grizzlies are better fishermen than most humans, but then it is hardly a fair comparison. While bears are super quick with their mouths and paws, they have to put a lot of energy into their fishing, as you can see from these terrific images. Then again, other times it seems as though they almost have to just open their mouths, and the fish jump right in!
With special thanks to Gleb Tarassenko for his permission to use this stunning set of images.