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Into the Wild: Swimming with Beluga Whales in Churchill, Manitoba

Floating in the face-stingingly cold 4C water, frigid seawater trickling down the neck of my wetsuits, I feel a jolt of electricity when our gazes meet. A pod of beluga whales surrounds me. One by one, they turn their heads and gaze over, their chirps filling my ears, their ghostly white bodies cutting swathes through the green saltwater of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba. Travel in Canada might sometimes be cold, but it’s pretty cool too. 

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Meeting beluga whales in Churchill, Manitoba

The marquee summer activity in Churchill, Manitoba is getting in the water alongside beluga whales. Photo courtesy of Mike Macri, Sea North Tours

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Churchill, Manitoba is Beluga Whale Central

If you love belugas, Churchill’s the place to travel during the months of July and August, when tens of thousands of the up-to-15-foot-long white whales migrate through Hudson Bay, with approximately 3,000 staying all summer in the estuary, gorging themselves on capelin before heading to Arctic waters for winter. In fact, the Churchill, Manitoba’s summer beluga population is the world’s largest readily accessible grouping, making a trip out with Sea North Tours a must on any whale hugger’s bucket list.

 

Belugas travel in pods and can be observed from shore as they surface for air. Because they’re small and in shallower water, you won’t see the spectacular breaching à la humpback or blue whales. Instead, belugas arc up to the surface as they travel along, in stereotypical dolphin-fashion. Unlike dolphins, they lack dorsal fins-a possible adaptation to swimming in icy Arctic waters.

 

Although observing them from shore is exciting (be aware of signs posting polar bear warnings and avoid visiting those areas alone), getting in or on the water with them is even better.

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Snorkelling with Belugas in Churchill, Manitoba

Snorkelling with belugas is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sea North Tours in Churchill, Manitoba provides all the gear you’ll need: snorkel and mask, two 7mm wetsuits for layering up in, booties, hood and mitts.

 

A small Zodiac takes you out into the estuary. When a large pod is spotted, you slip into the water, grab a towline, and hold on.

 

Any discomfort you feel when that frigid water hits your face dissipates as you’re immersed in a cacophony of whale song. Belugas are known as “sea canaries” for their chirpy vocalizations, which also include clicks, whistles and squeals.

 

At one point I counted six belugas around me (the guide told me later it was actually 11!), keeping pace or scooting off in a blur of white. Unlike many other whales, beluga whales move their necks laterally, thanks to their un-fused neck vertebrae. So yes: they really do turn their heads and look at you!

Mother belugas with calves tend to swim beneath snorkelers, remaining a cautious distance of 8 to 10 feet away, nudging their half-size, grey babies along. The moms actually turn and swim belly-up, gazing upwards at you as they pass.

 

Singletons keep pace alongside me, turning their faces to smile. For an hour-or as long as you can stand the cold-you can float along with the belugas, losing yourself in the wonder of their world.

 

Another must-experience is sea kayaking (also arranged through Sea North Tours). Follow whale pods and tap the side of your kayak or make your own whale calls over the water: they’ll come and investigate.

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Polar Bear Viewings in Churchill, Manitoba

Churchill, Manitoba is known as The Polar Bear Capital of the World. Although fall/winter is prime bear viewing season, my July 2010 visit was rife with the mammoth predators. After our snorkeling session, our Zodiac headed to the water near Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site (built in the 1700s by the Hudson’s Bay Company to protect its fur trade interests). On the rocks below the fort, were seven polar bears, an extraordinary sight, especially for summer.

 

A lone male was cooling off in the water, steering clear of the two protective mothers who each tended a pair of cubs. Polar bears are solitary, with moms raising their single or pair of cubs for two years, and males going it alone, so it was unusual to see so many bears in such peaceful proximity.

 

It was truly a magical morning on the water, one capped off with a late brekkie at the quaint Gypsy Bakery, and an afternoon checking out the subarctic tundra on a Tundra Buggy Tour, where more bears, as well as ptarmigan, arctic tern, wild orchids and other flora and fauna were seen.

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Don’t-Miss Dog Carting in Churchill, Manitoba

Another recent summer-season introduction is dog carting. Sled dogs like to keep busy even in summer, so Dave Daley’s Wapusk Adventures in Churchill, Manitoba pioneered a mush-worthy wheeled cart for summer runs.

  Sign up for an afternoon, and you’ll be able to meet the 20-odd canines at his dog camp in the bush just outside town, nuzzle some muzzles, and then sit tight as a team of dogs takes you for a hair-raising run along the backcountry gravel roads.

 

Afterwards, enjoy tea and bannock with local preserves as Dave regales you with stories of his adventures racing the 400km Hudson Bay Quest, an annual sled race from Churchill to Arviat, Nunavut, which he founded in 2004.

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Churchill, Manitoba Essentials

The service providers below operate in summer through winter. In fall/winter, attention shifts to polar bears, floe ice and frozen tundra tours, dog sledding and the stunning Aurora borealis. Prime beluga whale season is July to August and prime polar bear season is October to November.

For more info about Churchill, Mantioba’s bucket-list activities, check out:

Beluga whale snorkeling, sea kayaking and boat tours: Sea North Tours – seanorthtours.com

Dog carting/sledding: Wapusk Adventures – wapuskadventures.com

Tundra wildlife tours: The Tundra Buggy Adventure – tundrabuggy.com

Tundra/town walking tours, with stops at local historical sites including abandoned military sites: Nature  1st Adventure Walking Tours – nature1sttours.ca

For lodging, restaurant, tour agency and itinerary-planning info, please visit Travel Manitoba Canada (travelmanitoba.com) and their Everything Churchill micro-site (everythingchurchill.com).

The author wishes to thank Travel Manitoba for their travel assistance.