Medford 2

Swimming — and Making Friends — with the Belugas

Three Beluga Whales Swiming together

Face down in the 42 degree water of Churchill River off Hudson Bay in arctic Canada, I’ve got company — a 16 foot, stark white beluga whale is staring at me, sly little grin on his face. I stare back and squeak into my snorkel.

He disappears, offended perhaps at whatever I said.

But maybe not … because then he’s back, now with a friend. And there are more, like ghosts, in the distance.

This is the OTHER Churchill: summer (sort of), whales, hardly any tourists. And an occasional bear.

Traveling halfway to the North Pole to escape the city heat does seem a tad extreme, but this quirky little town of 850 on the western shore of Manitoba’s Hudson Bay, where local guys wait for the fly-in barber to get their hair cut, is the crossroads for one of the most amazing animal shows on earth.

Beluga Whale Swimming at Surface

A ghostly white beluga churns through the water.

In fall, thousands of polar bears pad through, looking improbably cute as they play-fight and impatiently wait for ice to form so they can go hunt seals.

In summer, it’s beluga whales by the thousand, chowing down on capelin, giving birth, scratching itchy backs on rocks in the shallow rivers that empty into the bay.

And my friends and I have come to join them in the water.

But first, the wet suits … made of seven mil rubber thick enough to outfit a National Geographic expedition.

“It’s supposed to be tight,” a guide says helpfully as we stuff ourselves like sausage meat into bottoms, tops, gloves, hoods and booties. Masks with snorkels complete the ensemble.

And then we are off, past the blooming purple fireweed and white arctic daisies, past the huge town grain elevator which holds crops for European export, past the old fort. We’re riding in rubber Zodiacs, faces to the wind and looking disturbingly like a pair of Navy Seal boats on a mission.

We have sorta clear water. We have sun. And also, for a bit, we have no whales.

The day before, they had been all over us as we kayaked. Glistening white backs arced out of the water. Breathy little puffs surrounded us as the whales exhaled through their blow holes.

They bumped our tiny boats so, of course, I stuck my hand in the water. And, yow, something brushed my fingers. I could see him. He could see me. He felt like a hard boiled egg without the shell … soft-ish and slick.

Beluga Whale making its way to the surface

A juvenile beluga surfaces near kayakers.

But today, at Button Bay where the whales usually hang, we get, instead, a big ‘ole bear, slowly pacing the shore, twitchy black nose in the air. It’s maybe the same guy who showed up at a town dump the night before until driven off by the local bear patrol.

Bears are here in Churchill because they’ve always been here. It’s people who are the intruders. In summer, the bears are hot and lazy. We saw them by helicopter one day, lying sprawled like rugs across cool muck and wading in shallow water just off shore. They weren’t eating because nothing … not birds or fish or even people are worth the effort. They’re waiting for ice to form in the fall, so they can reach the nice, fat, calorie-rich seals.

Back at Button Bay, our bear continues his slow meander, turning his head every so often in our direction.

Does he smell us? There is a record of a female once taking a sharp right to find a rotting whale carcass 100 miles away. Yeah, he smells us. We’re not swimming anywhere near here today.

Polar Bear Sign at Churchill

Polar bears are part of the scene in Churchill.

As for the belugas, they are true creatures of the arctic. The 3,000 or so that come to Churchill every summer spend winters at the top end of Hudson Bay, which in whale terms is like sticking around the neighborhood.

They are tiny compared to your run-of-the-mill 50-foot humpback … rarely more than 16 feet, with that silly dolphin grin and hearing sharp enough to pick up sounds in water 15 miles away.

Beluga swimming started in Churchill about 15 years ago. Back then, you’d be lucky to see a couple after spending an hour in the water. Today, you are likely as not to be mobbed. And the various tour companies have worked out a good summer itinerary which includes trips across the tundra and visits to sights in the area.

In town one afternoon, we visited the Parks Canada visitor center to learn more about Churchill, which lies just 550 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Hudson Bay, itself, is a wonder … 850 miles long, 650 miles wide and 100 to 300 feet deep in most places. It is a vast thumb of ocean water that is frozen eight or nine months of the year.

In winter, Churchill is truly wretched, with howling, hurricane force winds and temperatures that can hit 70 below. Visitors to the town fort are told that by winter’s end during the early years of European settlement, walls of the fort’s living quarters were lined with sheets of ice, turning the rooms into frozen closets. No wonder the fort, which took 40 years for the British-owned Hudsons Bay Company to build, was abandoned to the French 11 years later.

Because Churchill is actually 1,000 miles closer to Europe than Montreal, it is also one of Canada’s major seaports. Grain is hauled north from the vast wheat fields near Winnipeg in freight trains so long, they stretch to the horizon. From Churchill, it is shipped up the bay and over to Europe during the bay’s three months of ice free weather.

As for our little sojourn, back near the Port of Churchill we finally find whales. We can see dozens of sleek white streaks along the water’s surface.

We slip in and surprise, the wetsuits work. We’re plenty warm.

The deal is you hold onto ropes strung alongside the boat and the boat putters slowly, creating a wake that draws in the curious whales. Maybe the whales think you are part of the boat. Maybe this is familiar because baby whales swim in a similar way alongside their mothers.

Sunny summer day in Churchill

The town of Churchill in a sunny summer day. In the winter, the weather here is fierce.

The water is pea soup green which turns to glowing emerald, cut by shafts of sunlight. And the show is steady. First a single bull. Then a mom and her gray calf (they don’t get white till five). Another whale and then two more, side by side. Belugas are the only whales with articulating necks. They can turn their heads. And they do, staring at us sideways and upside down. I swear I can see a belly button on one.

So, I squeak again. The water vibrates with creaky clicks that seem to touch my bones.

And then it comes. An answering squeak. Whatever I said, I guess it was okay.

Must Dos

  • Miss Piggy and the M/V Ithaca – Two wrecks which, in past years, were town party spots. Miss Piggy is a Curtiss C-46 freight plane that made an emergency landing with no fatalities among the shore rocks in 1979. The M/V Ithaca, a cargo ship, ran aground in 1961 amid much controversy. You can walk up to it on low tide.
  • Peanut butter tarts at Gypsy’s Restaurant & Bakery. What Gypsy’s does best is dessert, a favorite subject in a town where winter temperatures can freeze water in mid air. This is like a Reeses peanut butter cup but much, much better and highly addictive. The rhubarb pie, also not to be missed, is made from crops grown locally. Check out the recipe.
  • Parks Canada Visitor Centre in the VIA Rail station – Learn about the area, peer into a gigantic bear’s mouth, see a bear den and an early native tent. But best of all, buy a map of North America from the northern perspective looking south.
  • Eskimo Museum – Shelves are lined with ancient Inuit carvings of tusk, antler and stone plus there are two traditional skin kayaks.
  • Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site. This is the massive stone fortress that the Hudsons Bay Company took 40 years to build in the 1700s, then abandoned 11 years later to the French without a shot being fired from its 40 cannons. Stories by the guides are worth the trip, alone.
  • Get your passport stamped with the distinctive circular polar bear stamp at the Post Office (located conveniently next to the local liquor store).
    Visit the Northern Store, the local answer to Walmart meets 7/11, to gawk at $5 lettuce and $10 gallons of milk.
  • Shop – Inuit carvings are for sale just about everywhere including the Eskimo museum and the Northern Store. The Arctic Trading Post has the most tourist trinkets along with T-shirts, jackets and moccasins. Northern Images has the high end art.

If You Want to Go

Whale season runs from ice breakup in late June to end of August. While it is possible to book individual snorkel and boat trips, most visitors do this on a package tour. The Churchill Nature Tours program eases you in gradually, starting with the tour boat, then kayak, then snorkel. There is also an afternoon on the tundra and a helicopter flight to see whales or bears.

Next year’s Churchill Nature Tours beluga tour is July 21-27 and runs $3,995 per person.

Arctic rover in Churchill

Arctic rovers like this one are one of the ways people get around the Churchill area.

Churchill, Manitoba is on the west shore of Hudson Bay in Canada, 900 miles north of Winnipeg. Tours all start in Winnipeg and include the flight up to Churchill.

There are three ways to see belugas:

Tour boat – a 30 passenger custom boat (it looks like a fishing trawler with seats) takes people to tour Prince of Wales Fort and visit whales. This is great for getting shots of whales arcing and sometimes looking out of the water. A hydrophone lets you hear the symphony of clicks, chirps, whistles squeals and clicks.

Kayak – more intimate, you are on the whale’s level. These are stable, easy to maneuver sea kayaks and you stay in protected water. Sometimes, the whales gently bump your boat and, if you are lucky, you will be sprayed as they exhale and might be able to pet them.

Snorkel – This is the most exciting. You are in the water with the whales, sometimes only feet away. You can hear them click and chirp and stare at them, fact to face.

— Text and photos by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Contributor

Churchill Nature Tours:

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Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor

Yvette Cardozo from the Seattle, Washington area, likes to visit interesting places and learn about interesting cultures and, if a tasty local dish is involved, so much the better. She’s eaten everything from gourmet food at the world’s finest restaurants to native food in Asia, the arctic, and all kinds of places in between.Yvette recalls being in Antarctica and going out on the land with Inuit elders in arctic Canada , then bagging a caribou. They dragged it back to camp and ate it on the spot raw. She quips, “Hey, if you like steak tartare….”Yvette, who is a veteran skier and diver, is RFT’s Ski & Dive Editor.