For centuries, wolves have been feared by villagers who feel the canines might snatch children from beds or wreak havoc on the village’s livestock. Wolves, those villagers think, are snarling animals thirsty for blood and hungry for red meat.
While these legends have been amplified due to the fact that most wolves spend their time hunting in packs on land, there is one type of wolf that breaks all of those wolfy stereotypes — and it will change the way you look at the breed forever…
There are three recognized species of wolves with numerous subspecies varying from region to region. These packs are made up of fearsome predators who easily dominate their prey. Their main nutritional source is red meat.
The most common and well-known wolf is the gray wolf. These wolves live all over the world, but the second largest gray wolf population inhabits Canada. In fact, 90 percent of the historic habitat range remains the same for these gray wolves.
Although Gray Wolves widely inhabit Canada, there is a small group of wolf species that lives in a remote part of Canada. Many Canadians have never heard of them, and most Canadians have never seen one in the wild.
They might be widely mistaken for one of the three main wolf species, but they are quite different in every way from their hunting habits, living environments, and their demeanor. They live a totally different lifestyle on the secluded coast of British Columbia.
This wolf inhabits the vast 250 miles of coastline and roughly 25,000-square miles of forest in the Great Bear Rainforest. Glaciers have carved out massive fjords with dangerously steep inclines and finger-like tidal areas that drain into the rich ocean teeming with marine life. What animal would be tough enough to live here?
A sea wolf, of course! They get their name for their preferred diet of seafood only. There are several months out of the year that sea wolves strictly prey on fresh salmon entering the ocean, but that’s not all they will eat from the plentiful coast.
Sea wolves also hunt larger animals like sea lions and seals. Sometimes they opt to eat a far less strenuous meal by digging up clams or catching crabs under rocks. So, the first way these creatures differ from your average wolf is by diet. Some sea wolves go their whole lives without ever even seeing a deer.
According to Ian McAllister, a photographer who has studied these animals for more than 20 years, “DNA studies show that these wolves are genetically distinct from their continental kin.” So, while they may have “wolf” in their name, they’re actually something quite different.
“They are also behaviorally distinct,” said McAllister, “swimming from island to island and preying on sea animals.” They are capable of swimming for miles to get from one island to another. They can also completely survive by island hopping without ever needing to leave the coastline.
McAllister also stated, “They are also morphologically distinct — they are smaller in size and physically different from their mainland counterparts.” This main physiological difference can be attributed to the distinct evolutionary path the two wolves experienced. The smaller wolves, sea wolves (left), being more agile and better equipped for aquatic living.
As mentioned, the wolves’ favorite foods are clams, mussels, and salmon. They have access to plenty of land-dwelling creatures upon which to feast, but for some reason — probably due to their genetic makeup — they prefer the saltier things in life.
Scientists and researchers believe that sea wolves would eat even more salmon than they do already if it were not for the presence of large bears. The sea wolves (wisely) leave the fish grounds alone when bears are present and will not compete with the far larger predator for fish.
But don’t think these unique wolves are shy, either! Ian was able to swim right up to them and get some truly amazing shots. “The curious canines approached me so closely that I could hear them grunting into my snorkel,” he said. “I took several frames, then pushed back into the deeper water without daring to look up.”
Thanks to McAllister‘s diligent research and beautiful photographs, we can all finally get an up-close look at these rare wolves and see the magical world in which they live in. Can we get as close as Ian did? Likely not — but these photographs sure can make it feel that way.
McAllister is encouraging the British Columbia and Canadian government to list sea wolves as a species and recognize their evolutionary differences and significance. If he can get the government to do so, then it would help protect sea wolves in terms of conservation.
“Currently, they are not only unrecognized but completely unprotected,” he said. “They can be hunted and trapped even within protected areas. There is nowhere within their range on the central and north coast of British Columbia, where they are free of human [persecution].”
It is believed that these creatures used to live along the Pacific Coast from northern California to Alaska. Human inhabitants settling in the area drove them from their homes and drastically decreased their range.
“The government still considers wolves as vermin,” McAllister said. “We have learned a lot and society has changed in how it views wolves, but there is still a lot of work to be done to really recognize how fortunate British Columbia is to have these unique wolf populations.”
In 2018, McAllister was prepared to really spearhead the educational aspect of his photography and research so the general public and government leaders had the knowledge needed to advocate for these creatures. He even worked with National Geographic on magazine articles to kick off his campaign.
So if you travel to the coast of British Columbia, keep your eyes peeled! Who knows, you might just get a chance to catch a peek of one of Mother Nature’s unique animals — and become an advocate for sea wolf recognition!