It’s not as well-known or revered as British Columbia’s spirit bear, but Nanaimo has its own animal attraction.
Newcastle Island is one of the only places in B.C. known to have blonde raccoons, a colour believed to be caused by a double-recessive gene.
It’s an “interesting phenomenon,” according to Sean Pendergast, wildlife biologist with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations, who said he’s also heard of people spotting white moose, deer and squirrels in different parts of the country. Even B.C.’s white spirit bear is a colour-phase of the black bear.
It’s not known how many of the blonde raccoons are on Newcastle, but Pendergast said it’s the only place in the West Coast region he’s heard of them being reported. If the raccoons did exist elsewhere in B.C. it would likely be at very low levels, he said, adding it’s not something the province keeps tabs on.
The colour could put the animal at a natural disadvantage in areas where there’s more predators, Pendergast said.
“To my knowledge it’s not overly common, but there have been reports for some time now or many years on Newcastle Island of seeing these blonde colour-phase racoons,” he said. “You need this isolated population with [a] low level of gene influx to allow the recessive trait to come out.”
Field naturalist Bill Merilees, a member of the Newcastle Island Society, has spotted the creatures over the years and calls it a “cool phenomenon.” Sightings take timing and a little luck, but the blonde raccoons are on the beach regularly, he said, adding the chances of seeing one on the island is better than anywhere else he knows of in the province.
Luck was on the side of Nanaimo’s Rabina Phipps this summer. The paddler was out on the water with friends when she saw a white speck on Newcastle Island. She and her husband, a Nanaimo native, have been trying to catch sight of a blonde raccoon for more than two decades with no success.
“I knew [it] was there, but we’ve never found it or seen it,” she said, adding she was beside herself when she caught sight of one.
“I said there it is! There it is! I was pulling out the camera and I had camera parts flying all over the place and the boat was drifting and I was yelling at the girls to hold the boat.”
Phipps has seen one of the colour-phase racoons several times now, which she says we’re special to have.
The animals are listed as one of Newcastle Island’s attractions on the trail guide and according to Merilees the best time to find one is in the morning during low tide, when raccoons come out to forage.