The first night of my tour to Churchill with Frontiers North, our guide Doug asked why everyone was there. One by one, almost every single one of my travel companions confessed that while they knew it wasn’t peak season, they’d come to this remote corner of Canada in search of polar bears. I, too, was anxious to see bears — and to experience the bizarre and beautiful little town that is Churchill.
But more than anything, I’d made this journey in search of the true star of Churchill summers: beluga whales.
Unlike the out-of-season polar bears, belugas couldn’t have been more abundant. Our trip over the last week in July overlapped with the absolute peak timing to visit the approximately fifty-seven thousand of iconic white whales that congregate at the mouth of the Churchill River each summer.
Throughout my four days in Churchill, I had three unique opportunities to get to know these magical mammals — each more immersive than the last.
Warming Up With the Prince of Wales and Beluga Whales Tour
You’ve got to ease into this whole “being best friends with belugas” thing. And there’s no better way than spotting some from the comfort of a boat bound for the Fort Prince of Wales. After receiving a briefing on boat safety and whale biology, we hopped aboard for the short ride over the river. Fun fact: the fort is only accessible by boat from about June to August. From December to April you can visit by skidoo and from October to November, it’s helicopter only!
Once we touched down across the river, we were met by both a Parks Canada interpretive guide and an armed bear guard, who had a rifle slung over his shoulder and a pair of binoculars around his neck. The morning we visited was cursed with what was unquestionably the worst weather of our trip, and we strained to hear our guide over the howling wind and our chattering teeth.
Built by the Hudson Bay Company in the 1700’s, Fort Prince of Wales tells the story of Churchill’s importance in the fur trade as the French and English vied for control of the area. Truth be told, I was more interested in pestering our guide with questions about modern life in Churchill after he revealed he was born and raised there and couldn’t fathom living anywhere else.
As we walked back towards the boat, the bear guide was on high alert — a few were ambling slowly in the far distance. While we all paused for a moment to squint at the white specks on the horizon, we moved on quickly. We had other mammals to get to.
It was a rough, rocky day and I struggled to stay steady on the boat while juggling my enormous rented camera lens weighing down my Canon 6D. With calmer seas, it is often possible to see the whales quite clearly below the surface. On these choppy waters, our best sightings were when the whales breached.
Belugas are born a dark hue and slowly lose their color as they grow older. I kept my eyes peeled for flashes of grey and delighted whenever babies made an appearance.
Churchill’s Hudson Bay coastline has the largest beluga whale population on earth. From atop the boat that day, we certainly felt surrounded.
Eventually, our captain dropped in a hydrophone, a special underwater microphone that broadcasts the whale songs onto the boat, and I put down my camera to eavesdrop on their conversations.
I couldn’t wait to get closer.
Kayaking Alongside Giants
Due to the choppy weather on our boat tour, we’d been warned our afternoon activity may be cancelled. Thankfully, the winds calmed, the skies parted, and those of us who’d signed up made our way back to river for an opportunity to get even closer to our blubbery buddies.
Kayaking is technically an add-on activity, meaning it isn’t a part of the itinerary of the standard tour itinerary. But I was happy to trade a few hours of free time for a kayak paddle, as were four others on my tour. Other add-on options included snorkeling (see below!) and helicopter tours (which one family in our group tried and loved.)
Our guide Jocelyn was no casual kayaker. This amazing adventurer scoffed at the idea of taking a plane or a train to Churchill, and instead spent sixty-four days paddling there — nearly 1,000 miles from the capital of Winnipeg. Needless to say, we felt we were in good hands.
That said, feeling a spray of the icy water on my hand, I knew I’d never wanted to flip a kayak less.
The day was gorgeous, and I felt a sense of exhilaration before we’d had even a single wildlife sighting. Yet it didn’t take long before curious whales began breaching alongside our vessels. My fellow paddler Tiffany and I laughed and shrieked as we spotted bubbles around each other’s kayaks, a sure sign we were about to hear the distinct sound of a blowhole exhaling beside us.
Twice, I locked eyes with a beluga as it glided beside me, staring curiously upwards at this strange creature sharing its path. Once, I felt the nudge of one gently bumping up against my kayak. It’s an expression that’s often used in jest or with sarcasm, but I truly felt high on life.
It was pure joy.
Going Eye to Eye on a Snorkeling Excursion
The next day brought my final, and most profound beluga encounter yet. Getting in the water with them.
While the rest of our group set off on a zodiac ride around the river, an adventurous few gathered to don ungodly amounts of neoprene and snorkels and get eye to eye with the whales that had been flirting with us for days.
I found myself anxious in the days leading up to this excursion, both out of overwhelming excitement and slight unease and the thought of the dark, cold waters I’d be slipping into. “What about polar bears?” was my primary question — and I fair one I thought, considering they and orcas are the beluga’s only natural predators. Our guides would keep an eye out, I was assured.
Summoning courage, I slipped into the water. The rain and wind of the prior few days had stirred the pristinely clear river into a cloudy mess, and all I could see were blurry flashes of white in the distance. After a few moments of straining to see, our guide offered to try another location. We zipped across to a shallow bank along the river and tried again.
This time, we got a clearer look. Still, I found myself frustrated with the images I was getting, and switched to more forgiving video instead. Our guide had suggested that the whales are attracted to vocalizations similar to their own, and so, face down in the water, floating like starfish at the surface, we hummed high pitch songs; my tunes of choice were the soundtrack from The Little Mermaid.
Finally we moved to one last location where it appeared a feeding frenzy was taking place. Though I knew the whales were completely harmless and I was becoming more comfortable with each entry, I still felt a rush of awe and nerves slipping into the water so close to them. This time, there weren’t just a few whales passing us by at a time. They were in every direction, to every side of us, a swirling blur of blubber.
With a relatively stable population, few natural predators, and intelligent and social dispositions, the whales approached us freely. While I didn’t get as close as I have in encounters with, say, manta rays or manatees, it was intoxicating nonetheless.
In one moment, a particularly curious whale swam eye to eye with me for what my camera later told me was almost a full minute — it felt like ten. When he finally broke away, the one fellow snorkeler left in the water with me and I exchanged looks of shock and whooped into our snorkels. There were tears in my mask when we finally gave into the cold and crawled back onboard to the hot chocolate and warm cookies that awaited us.
Thinking of heading to Churchill yourself? Taking a course like PADI Freediving could really help you get the most out of this experience, as could the PADI Digital Underwater Photography course. As I diver I felt a little frustrated bobbing on the surface, and wished I’d fulfilled my dream of taking a free diving course in preparation for this trip.
I spoke to one woman on my tour who confessed that she was quite curious to do this experience but was so uncomfortable the last time she’d tried to snorkel, that she was afraid to do it again. Which reminded me, there’s a course for that too! While I know some scuba divers can and do roll their eyes at a snorkel course (I may have been one in the past), it was an important reminder to me that everyone starts from different comfort levels in and around the water, and I wouldn’t want anyone who has an interest in this adventure to miss out if they don’t have to.
Even as an experienced diver it took me a while to adjust to the conditions — cold water, low visibility, lots and lots of restrictive neoprene and, ya know, whales everywhere! — and I wish I had more time once I kind of got the hang of things. To make the most of your time with the whales, I recommend making yourself as comfortable as possible beforehand with both your camera and the equipment you’ll be using.
While I was fairly disappointed in my images aside from one or two, I was thrilled with my video! If you didn’t get the chance to watch when I posted this on Facebook last month, now’s your chance:
It wasn’t until I arrived in Churchill that I learned there’s yet another way you can meet belugas — by stand up paddleboard! Not going to lie, I looked up how much it would be to change my flights for one more day in and on the Churchill River, stand up paddleboarding followed by one more snorkel session.
Unfortunately it was logistically impossible, but perhaps that’s for the best. I left Churchill with a burning fire lit in me to return again and spend more time with these majestic mammals of the sea, and it hasn’t quieted as time has passed.
Stay tuned for a post on my final wildlife encounters in Churchill!
This post was written by me and brought to you by Travel Manitoba. Many thanks for Frontiers North for hosting me.