Snorkeling with Belugas
Floating facedown in Hudson Bay, I watch the scene below me. A pod of nine beluga whales slowly circle beneath, their blubbery white skin reflecting rays of sunlight that have somehow reached the murky depths.
The water near Churchill, Manitoba is where thousands of belugas converge in the summertime, and I'm surrounded by these curious giants. Like an alien in another world, I eavesdrop on the squeaks of whale conversation.
Suddenly, a 14-foot beluga whale is beside me, her large doe-like pupils eyeing me up and down. I stop breathing and stare back, trying not to move. Twenty feet away, my friend who has bravely accompanied me to this sub-arctic outpost has her own encounter with a pod of whales.
Sure, the water is just three degrees Celsius and the dry suits we're wearing over winter jeans and coats make us look like fattened seals. But this is an experience we'll never forget.
Getting here, however, was no easy task.
Located over 1000 kilometres north of Winnipeg and not far from the territory of Nunavut, Churchill is accessible only by air or train. Although not standard procedure, half of the seats on our Calm Air flight that day were filled with canned food and boxes.
It was well worth the trip. Upon first glance, this quirky town and its 850 residents seem to be right out of the TV show Northern Exposure. Right around this little town, two of the most amazing animal congregations in the world take place.
In the summer, thousands of beluga whales come to feed in the rivers emptying into the Hudson Bay. During October and November, hundreds of bears congregate near Churchill, waiting to move onto the ice for the winter.
Churchill overflows with tourists during that time, but it's summer now and most of the bears and tourists are gone. My friend and I are left with the whales, the wide-open spaces and Churchill residents in relaxed summer mode.
That laid-back spirit was immediately evident when Dawn Daudrich of Lazy Bear Lodge, our home for the week, picked us up at the airport.
"How about a tour of Churchill?" she offered, tossing our luggage into her van. We roared into Churchill down Kelsey Boulevard (one of the few paved streets in town), then we cruised past the town's multi-purpose complex building on La Verendrye Avenue, which houses the library, school, indoor pool and other community services, then skipped over to Canada's most northerly seaport at Hudson Bay.
"And that's about it," Dawn said, pulling up at the Lazy Bear Lodge. Our in-depth tour had taken all of 10 minutes, but at least we now knew the lay of the land.
Our main reason for coming, of course, was to see the whales. So we met up that afternoon with Mike Macri, a former engineer who now owns Sea North Tours. Soon we were zooming across the Churchill River in his custom-built jet-powered boat in search of the creatures we had heard so much about.
Within minutes, we saw what looked like hundreds of white-capped waves dotting the surface of the water; yet as we neared, the realization sunk in—they were whales surfacing. Everywhere.
The belugas come to the Churchill River each season to molt, arriving in mid-June and leaving at the end of August. Mike estimated there were more than 2,000 whales in the surrounding water, and we saw more than we could possibly count.
"This is Churchill's best attraction," said Mike, hooking up an underwater microphone so we could hear the canary-like whale sounds below, "but few people know about it. This is the best place to watch belugas in the world."
No doubt. But there is more to Churchill than whales.
The next morning, we met up with nature specialist Paul Ratson for a hike in the sub-arctic tundra. His company offers hikes, road trips, birding tours and even bear security for anyone working or walking in the countryside.
This explained the shotgun he carried. "We have to be prepared in case we run into a bear," he said, "though the chances are greater of getting hit by a car than of being attacked by a bear. Still, it pays to be careful." The last fateful bear/human encounter in town was in 1983.
The weather in the sub-arctic is unpredictable. During summer, it can be sunny and 16 degrees Celsius or hailing and cold. In winter, lows often reach -45 Celsius. But on this day, the sky was bright blue and the sun warm as we followed Paul along Polar Bear Alley, a deserted beach outside of Churchill. He carefully checked each rocky outcrop, a favourite napping place for bears.
Paul clearly loves the land – he showed us sea beach sand wart, which grows on the beach and is used in salads and dips, and is even eaten raw. He offered us cloudberries (an orange-coloured berry that tastes like cinnamon-baked apples) and pointed out one-sided stunted pine trees, reduced by strong winds to one protected side.
Although we saw no bears during our trip with Paul, we saw plenty of whales in the distant waters. The Hudson Bay itself belongs to Nunavut, so several whales are harvested here each year by the indigenous population. Still, the Western Hudson Bay Beluga whale population is a healthy 27,000. This includes the 3,000+ whales that summer in the Churchill River estuary, and is considered the largest readily accessible beluga population in the world.
Sea North Tours and Lazy Bear Lodge are the two Kayaking outfitters in town—the season begins in May, as soon as the ice begins to break up. Wanting to get even closer to the sea mammals, we grabbed our paddles and slipped into our individual kayaks.
"It's challenging but rewarding to manoeuvre around the ice floes during break-up in order to see the seals," our guide told us. The waters are home to ringed, harbour and bearded seals, while Arctic terns seem to fall from the sky as they dive into the water to fish for capelin.
We followed the terns, piloting our kayaks in the water and paddling out into the Churchill River. The whales swim 19 kilometres up the Churchill River each day during high tides, where the waters are almost 21 degrees Celsius. Then, as the tide retreats, they return to the bay. We planned to follow this daily whale ritual.
At first the creatures were shy, but gradually swam closer and closer to our kayaks. A mother and calf passed by, and then whole pods of young males. Each brief encounter was a thrill, and within an hour, we were hooked.
But now it was time to meet the whales face to face – so we traded in our kayaks for a zodiac boat and some (very) cold water snorkelling gear.
Which is how I ended up face down in the frigid water, breathing into my snorkel. But the whale parade continues, and soon I'm engrossed as hundreds of the graceful white creatures surround us, swimming slowly and at ease. Some have small grey calves—baby belugas!—swimming close beside them. Belugas are one of the few whales with flexible necks, and they often cock their heads in seeming curiosity. Perhaps we are as strange to them as they are to us.
"What can you see down there?" Wally Daudrich yells from the boat. In addition to running the Lazy Bear Lodge with his wife Dawn, Wally runs one of the snorkelling outfits in town. He has picked the perfect spot for our swim.
I can't believe that the amazing show in the channel's depths isn't visible from above the surface. I look over at my friend, who is motioning to the sea mammals with her arm.
"Did you just wave to a whale?" I ask her through my snorkel.
"I can't help it!" she laughs. "They just seem so friendly!"
They do, indeed.
Finally, the water wears us down and Wally has to haul us back into the boat. Our teeth are chattering, but we hardly notice. As the boat skims back toward Churchill, all we can talk about are the whales.Plan your Churchill Adventure: