When we hear the word "wolf" nearly every one of us will think of wolves in a forest. Perhaps in our mind's eye, we see a pack of wolves chasing down an elk or bison in Yellowstone, or monitoring a herd of caribou in Alaska, looking for the weakest link. But what we likely don't think of is a wolf standing in an estuary stream catching salmon, or strolling along a beach poking through washed-up kelp for barnacles and other morsels to eat.

Yet that is exactly what happens among a very specific population of wolves living on the coastal islands of British Columbia. These wolves don't hunt deer, in fact many may go their whole lives without ever seeing a deer. Instead, they rely on what the tide brings in. Fish roe, crustaceans, seals and washed-up whales are common meals for these wolves, which have been named sea wolves for their reliance on the ocean for food.

They are entirely unique and with behaviors that have scientists fascinated, but they are also heavily persecuted by humans. Between this and a future threatened by climate change, the outlook for these wolves is tenuous at best.

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Photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier recently went on assignment for National Geographic, spending weeks in the field crouched in a blind to photograph the intimate lives of these secretive wolves. We spoke with them about their experience, as well as what the average person can do to help preserve a highly unique and little-understood population.

Coastal rain wolves live on the outer Islands of the BC coast. Wolves on these Islands live on a very diverse selection of food including deer, chitons in the intertidal zone.Coastal rain wolves live on the outer Islands of the BC coast. Wolves on these Islands live on a very diverse selection of food including deer, chitons in the intertidal zone. (Photo: Paul Nicklen)

MNN: You spent weeks on the ground, waiting for sightings of a pack of wolves. What was it like the very first time you laid eyes on them?

CM and PN: We arrived on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia where we knew a couple of wolves had been sighted. We used our zodiac (small raft) to circumnavigate the island — a journey that took about 1.5 hours, until we sighted paw prints on the sand. The trick for us was to predict the patterns, trails and times the wolves were patrolling certain beaches, and to try to be there before them.

The first time we saw them it was a total fluke. We landed the zodiac on a beach and as Paul and Oren went up a stream to check things out, I stayed with the zodiac and was utterly surprised when one of the wolves came trotting out of the bushes. A small, slender female, she was completely calm and she just kept trotting my way until she was just 30 feet away.

At the same time, Paul and Oren rounded the corner of the stream and came into the open beach. Now the wolf was in between us. Instead of panicking, she just sat on her haunches, did a long, lazy stretch and then just went back the same way she had come from.

It was a comedy of errors, in which the wolf played its part and we, as photographers, fumbled and made mistakes and ended up with only mediocre pictures of a perfectly lovely encounter.

You had the unique opportunity to watch wild wolf pups hang out with their family. What was it like to witness the family structure of the wolves?

What we found was a pack of five pups being watched by a single adult female, presumably their mother. When pups are young, the entire pack helps take care of them. All the members bring food to the mother, who has to stay with the young pups. On this occasion, the pack must have been out hunting and when night fell and we had to leave, they still had not returned.

The next morning, when we returned to the beach, the pups were gone, so presumably the pack returned and they all moved on to another den site.

A mother and pups on the beach is a rare sight for anyone, and these photographers put in their dues to be able to witness it. A mother and pups on the beach is a rare sight for anyone, and these photographers put in their dues to be able to witness it. (Photo: Cristina Mittermeier)

You two spent weeks in a tiny blind, waiting for opportunities to photograph the wolves. What do you do to stay, you know, sane?

Working in the blind gave me a whole new level of respect and admiration for photographers who specialize in wildlife. We spent a total of 28 days working from this blind, and it was hard.

The first few days were fun and busy as we selected the site and slowly and carefully set out to build the blind. One has to work slowly and early in the morning as not to disturb things. We laid a tarp on the ground to keep ourselves dry.

Unfortunately, the material crinkled and made noise every time we moved, so we had to remain really still. This meant stiff muscles and boredom. To pass the time we read books and scheduled our snacks and meals.

I suppose the sliver lining was the opportunity to spend a lot of time together. It teaches you a lot about a partner, when you have to be jammed in a small space and unable to move or talk for long periods of time. I have to say I enjoy Paul’s company very much.

Three wolf pups play with a piece of kelp. Three wolf pups play with a piece of kelp. (Photo: Cristina Mittermeier)

Why these wolves? What sets them apart so much from other wolves as an extra concern for conservation?

The wolves of British Columbia are very different from any other wolves we have ever encountered. Unlike the gray wolves of the BC interior or the much larger timber wolves, rain wolves or sea wolves as they are known are small and dainty.

Unlike any other wolves, these ones don’t mind swimming between islands, sometimes for long distances but what truly sets them apart is the fact that over 70 percent of their diet is marine. They patrol the beach during low tide and eat mussels, clams and other marine life.

They are also very adept at hunting for salmon as the fish make their way up forest streams. Most impressively, they are able to hunt seals and sea lions.

These wolves are specialists in the meals that are available along a coastline. These wolves are specialists in the meals that are available along a coastline. (Photo: Paul Nicklen)

Which is the most pressing concern to the future of these coastal island wolves?

Very little is known about them and preliminary DNA studies by scientist Chris Darimont from the University of Victoria indicate they might be a distinct race or even a subspecies.

For us, the real driver, however, is the fact that these fascinating animals are not protected by provincial or federal laws and people are not only allowed, but encouraged to kill them.

They are so curious and their habit of patrolling the beach exposes them to the danger of shooters who can spot them from boats.

The coastal island wolves are used to getting their feet wet for a meal. The coastal island wolves are used to getting their feet wet for a meal. (Photo: Paul Nicklen)

What can the average reader do right this minute to help protect coastal wolves?

One of our partner organizations, Pacific Wild, a small NGO based in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, is doing a lot of work to make authorities more aware of the ecological and indeed, the cultural importance of these animals.

The recent approval of a plan to slaughter 400 wolves in central BC makes it even more imperative to encourage the drafting of some laws that offer some protection.

Pacific Wild has gathered almost 200,000 signatures in a petition to the Premier of BC, Christy Clark to protect rain wolves. Supporting such a petition, opposing the wanton slaughter of wildlife, and educating themselves about the impacts of recreational hunting of apex predators is the best things people can do.

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Find out more about Nicklen and Mittermeier's conservation work at SeaLegacy, a nonprofit working to document the planet's fragile marine ecosystems and inspire advocacy for their protection.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.