Puppy-Sitting for a Sea Wolf
As my partner Paul Nicklen and I dive into our conservation work in Mexico's Pacific waters, I feel thrilled at the prospect of continuing this journey with the support of people like you. However, every time I leave British Columbia, with its pods of orcas, Steller sea lions, and underwater gardens of colorful anemones, I always end up feeling a little homesick. And so today, I wanted to share my favorite wildlife encounter from the rocky shores of the Pacific Northwest— my home for the last decade.
Please grab yourself a coffee, tea, or whatever beverage you prefer, and settle down for a story about how a photographer became an impromptu babysitter for a pack of wolf cubs.
After sitting in a blind for weeks where a salmon stream fed into the sea, we barely even caught a glimpse of British Columbia’s elusive coastal wolves. Sometimes known as “sea wolves,” these coastline-dwelling canines are an incredibly unique population of small, lean wolves whose diet consists almost exclusively of seafood. They spend their days scouring the tidal zone for everything from barnacles to shellfish. For days, we kept finding little clues that the pack was close by– paw prints in the sand, half-eaten salmon carcasses, and a haunting chorus of howls that carried over the river. Every morning we rose before dawn and then hunkered down for yet another fruitless vigil until the sun set again.
At the time, Paul was shooting an article for National Geographic and was starting to feel the pressure of his deadline. With just three days left of the shoot and nothing to show for it, he finally caved and broke his own rules– leaving our perfect stakeout spot in search of better luck. I watched him traipse up the beach and vanish before returning to my watch. That was when I noticed movement at the forest’s edge.
At first, I thought it was yet another raccoon. But after squinting through binoculars, I suddenly found myself looking into a pair of bright, tawny eyes. A wolf pup had stepped out of the shaded forest and began trotting along the stream's edge. He was immediately joined by a sibling, and then another, until four puppies were tumbling and playing just in the little meadow across from me. Finally, their mother emerged like a shadow and turned to look directly at me.
For a moment, we stared at each other. I desperately wanted to call Paul on the radio, but knew that if I spooked the wolves away, they would be gone for good. So instead, I kept as still as I could and hoped she would understand that I was not a threat to her family. After sizing me up, she suddenly seemed to relax. She then trotted off, leaving her cubs under my supervision.
For the next 20 minutes, I got to play the part of the watchful babysitter while mama wolf foraged for whatever morsels the tides had delivered to the beach. The pups chased each other and played tug-of-war with a piece of bull kelp to keep themselves occupied, much to my delight. After a time, their mother returned, and the family retreated back into the shadowy forest.
I will never know for sure why a mother wolf decided to entrust her precious cubs to me. She must have known I was hiding in that blind for weeks and could have easily avoided me. Yet, she decided to reveal herself and felt comfortable enough in my presence to leave her family unguarded. Paul, of course, had missed the encounter. But he was happy I had experienced for myself one of the most unique and secretive creatures to call Canada home. And, as luck would have it, he had his own puppy-sitting experience shortly after.
Patience does not always pay off. But the most rewarding experiences in life will never come to us if we give up. When it comes to photography - or any art form for that matter- my advice to you is to keep at it. Luck will find you, but only when you are hard at work doing what you love.
I wish you the best of luck in whatever it is that makes you come alive.
Cristina "Mitty" Mittermeier