About Beluga Whales in Churchill

One of the main motivational factors of my travels is to travel to the places of the world where I can see my favorite wild animals. This usually takes me to some of the world’s most remote wilderness. This was also the case in finding the Beluga whale, a favorite animal of mine since I was a kid when I would visit them in the Minnesota zoo on school field trips. Their gentle nature, huge smiles, playful nature and shiny white almost alien like bodies always fascinated me. The Beluga whale is found in the far northern Arctic oceans and one of the best places to observe them in the wild is in Churchil, Canada. Churchil is an old fur trading town founded by the Hudson Bay Trading Company that later went on to be important for its strategic location for detecting inbound missile threats from the Soviet Union during the cold war. 

I came to Churchill with my wife and friend Richard and his son, Wes because every summer thousands of Belugas migrate up the Churchill River from the Hudson Bay to mate and the friendly and curious nature of the Belugas allows kayakers and snorkelers the opportunity to get really close to them. They are know for being playful with kayakers and for chasing boats and even sometimes  bumping into them. 

Location of Churchill, Manitoba

Belugas are called the canaries of the sea because they are extremely vocal. They communicate via clicking, chirps, whistles and they navigate in low visibility by echolocation enabled by their giant bulbus shaped heads.

Churchill Also Has Lots of Polar Bears

In addition to Belugas, Churchil also happens to be one of the best places in the world to observe the Polar Bear in the wild. In September and October hundreds of Polar Bears migrate into the shores of the Hudson Bay outside of Churchil to await its freezing so they can set off to hunt for the winter. This trip to Churchil was actually my 2nd trip. My first trip in October 2009 was via a long day trip from Winnipeg to see the polar bears. The trip was expensive, but I did see lots of polar bears from the safety of a large 4wd tundra buggy with a viewing platform on its end. 

Photo I Took from My 1st Visit of a Polar Bear outside of Churchil, Manitoba

Getting to Churchill

Churchil is a remote frontier town on the edge of vast Arctic wilderness. There is no road connecting it to the rest of Canada. It is only accessible via a 2-hour turbo prop flight from Winnipeg on Calm Air or via a 45-hour train journey from Winnipeg. The train journey can be reduced to 12 hours by driving 500 miles to Thompson and taking the train from there to Churchil. There are also two cargo boats that visit Churchil in the summer when northern sea passages are ice free.  On both trips to Churchil, I flew via Calm Air from Winnipeg. 

Downtown Winnipeg

Because of the flight times, flying to Churchil usually means you need to stay the night in Winnipeg. Winnipeg is a great town in the northern prairies of Manitoba bordering the vast Borreal forests. It was once a prosperous town because of its location along the railroad but since the railroad became less econimically important and cities like Vancouver and Toronto rose in prominence, Winnipeg found itself left to wither away in economic neglect. As a result, Winnipeg has become known for being one of Canada’s most dangerous cities. Yes we saw some homeless people, some very visibly shooting up in broad daylight but I never really felt a danger vibe when walking in the city, day or night. The Winnipeg I saw was one that seemed to be on the rebound. There was a lot of new construction, nice restaraunts and cafes. The city with many old brick buildings situated along the river was charming and is a good place to relax and explore for a few days.

Getting to Know Churchill

Churchil was not named after the famous Prime Minister of England, Winston but instead after a governor of the Hudson Bay Company in the 1600’s. The little town only has approx. 800 people, 2/3 of which is indigenous, Inuit, and other tribal cultures including one tribe that was forcefully transplanted from its home in the Boreal Forest to the south in the 60’s. Alcoholism and unemployment plagues the indigenous population. 

The town relies heavily on tourism and almost everyone in town works during the tourist season from June to November. Summer brings Beluga whale tourism and Autumn, Polar Bear tourism. 

Since the town sits along the migration route of Polar Bears, conflict with bears is ever-present danger. Polar bears are the largest land predator in the world and are known to actively hunt humans.  To avoid conflict with bears, Churchil takes every precaution. There are bear patrols, a 10 pm voluntary curfew- a horn sounds every night to announce the curfew, and polar bear warning signs are posted all over town. Garbage cans are modified to keep bears out and nuisance bears are captured and kept for 30 days in a Polar Bear prison, where they are only given water to make their stay as un-pleasant as possible, so they don’t want to return. Then after their stay, they are airlifted by helicopter some 30 miles away to another location. 

These efforts to protect the town and Polar Bears have worked relatively well and there haven’t been any incidents since 2017 when a girl was walking home from the bar and was mauled by a bear. The bear was finally chased off after hit with a shovel, being shot multiple times with a rifle and rammed with a vehicle. Luckily no one died but the girl did have to be airlifted to the nearest emergency ward in Winnipeg. 

Exploring Town

Churchil is a peaceful and beautiful town with a lot to see. We were fortunate to have sunny warm weather for 3 days while we were there and we took full advantage of this to explore the area. We stayed in the Lazy Bear lodge, a cozy log cabin lodge with good food, friendly staff and lots of stuffed polar bears. From the lodge we were free to walk around town, always on guard for polar bears. A sandy beach along the Hudson Bay, and the Churchil River can all be reached on foot. The town is small and can be easily visited in an hour by foot. There is a grocery store and a bar with slot machines and a pool table in town. 

Paula in the Lazy bear Lodge lobby room

Paula in our room overlooking the Churchil River in the distance. According to one staff member wolves were seen outside of the lodge in view of our window just a week before our visit. 

Inuit Stone Man Rock Formations can be found along the beach of the Hudson Bay. These were used to help Inuit find each other and to warn enemies to stay away. 

Inuit Stoneman Rock Formation on Hudson Bay

On two different occasions when walking around town, we were pleasantly surprised to see a tribal ceremony. These were ceremonies pout on for themselves and not for tourists or for commercial reasons. I never did find out what the significance of the ceremony was, and I didn’t want to linger too long because the ceremonies seemed personal in nature. 

A tribal ceremony

Churchil Government Housing at 10pm

A pioneer cabin that lays in ruins outside of Churchil

A World War II era cargo plane that crashed in 1979 because it was overloaded.

Paula in front of an old log cabin on the river

We wanted to visit the fortress built by the Hudson Bay Company in the 1700’s during the fur trade wars between the British and French but an ice floe blocked the channel preventing any visits. 

Hudson Bay Fort Built in 1700s by the British-where the French and British fought multiple battles for control of the northern fur trade

An old grain handling facility where grain is sorted and loaded from train to boat. The facility was abandoned and recently purchased by a new owner.

Snorkeling and Kayaking with Belugas

We arrived in late June to a sunny and warm Churchil in the high 50’s. The weather for this part of the world was as good as it can get. Since summer was still early, we were lucky to escape the worst of the mosquitos. We were also some of the first tourists of the season, and Churchil a town heavily dependent on eco-tourism was just starting to come to life and we were some of the few tourists in town. To take full advantage of the good weather while we had it, we joined a Churchil River zodiac boat cruise to get our first glimpse of the Belugas. During the next day we also kayaked and snorkeled with Belugas off of a foam board dragged by a zodiac.

Ice Sheets on Churchil River with the towering walls of ice in the background formed along the Hudson Bay

We found out that the Belugas had just started arriving during the week. Huge towering sheets of ice blown down from the northern Hudson Bay via a recent windstorm blocked the Churchil River inlet and piled up all along the shoreline. But luckily the Belugas were able to find a way into the Churchil River and we counted hundreds of water spouts in the river. They were simply everywhere!

Groups of Belugas swam alongside our Zodiac playing in our wake. We saw mothers with their babies and groups of giant males gathered in hunting groups. Belugas have very small teeth and mostly swallow their prey-fish and to help them hunt they surround fish and corner them by blowing bubbles. The adult Belugas were as white as snow, but the young ones are gray. Within the first year of a Belugas life, it starts to develop the camouflage white pigment and ceases to be grey anymore. 

Paula and I in a tandem kayak

My favorite was the kayaking. Paula and I had a tandem kayak, and during the 3 hours or so that we kayaked we were constantly being visited by curious Belugas. The water’s visibility was poor due to the tannins in the water from the run-off so we couldn’t see very far. Evidently August is a better month for visibility.

We were told Belugas are attracted to the movement of the rudder and to high voices so Paula sang the baby Beluga song to attract the belugas and it is hard to tell if this worked because the belugas were so abundant as it is. The younger belugas seemed to be the most playful. The older, bigger white ones were more interested in mating or compteting woith mates to care much about us. 

Belugas would approach us and float upside down blowing bubbles toward out kayak. One Beluga even hit our kayak. Another slapped our friend’s kayak with its tail. I dragged my Go-Pro in the water to record them and a young Beluga tried to swallow it, which I was lucky to record. The Beluga stayed by our kayak’s side for a long time and brushed up against my hand in the water. 

Beluga Group

Young Beluga Fluke

Pod of Belugas

The foam board pulled by the Zodiac that we snorkeled with the Belugas from 

Open mouth of Beluga that tried to eat my Gopro

baby beluga

beluga I saw snorkeling

beluga I saw snorkeling

Singing Friendly Beluga Who Visited me Underwater  

Hiking to the Ithaca Shipwreck

In the morning of our last full day, we hiked to the wreck of the Ithaca during low tide. Our guide carried his rifle with them in the event we encountered any polar bears. To reach the wreck we drove 20 miles outside of town on a dirt road and hiked a mile across the Hudson Bay at low tide across ice bergs and sea rocks. The Ithaca is a 1920’s era cargo ship that wrecked in a storm in the 70’s. The crew was able to safely evacuate but the ship was a total loss. 

Hudson Bay Shoreline

Not far before the turn-off to the Ithaca wreck is an old, abandoned NATO cold war era early detection nuclear missile early detection radar site. After checking to see if the site was clear of polar bears, we climbed up the rickety ladder to the top where the radar system is located. 

Cold War Era NATO Nuclear Missile Radar detection Site

Radar Site

The Ithaca can only be reached during low tide. To get there we walked approx. a mile through tidal pools and around stranded ice bergs. Our guide carried his rifle in the event we encountered a polar bear. We stayed together to avoid getting separated during a bear encounter and to look for intimidating as a group to a bear. We didn’t encounter any bears and the only animals we did meet were Canadian geese. The parent geese abandoned their young and flew away upon noticing us, and the ducklings in their confusion fled in our direction. 

Canadian Geese Ducklings

Stranded Ice Bergs

Wreck of Ithaca

Wreck of Ithaca

Wreck of Ithaca

Wreck of Ithaca

Wreck of Ithaca

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