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DREAMSCAPES SPRING/SUMMER 2021
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IN SEARCH OF HUDSON BAY'S WHITE WHALES
 
(2021 - Spring/Summer Issue)

Writer: SHAFIK MEGHJI



As I paddle across the placid Churchill River on a crisp summer morning, a ghostly white shape passes beneath my kayak. I swing round to see a beluga whale break the surface beside me, arching its torso like a dolphin before expelling a cloud of spray from its blowhole directly into my face. To peals of laughter from a fellow kayaker, I wipe myself dry, consoling myself with the fact that I can tick off being “sneezed” on by a cetacean from my bucket list. 

Beluga Spotting in the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”

A gloriously remote frontier town on the southwest shore of Hudson Bay, Churchill, Manitoba is famed as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Flanked by boreal forest and subarctic tundra, Churchill sits on the migration route for the 900-strong Western Hudson Bay polar bears. Before the pandemic, thousands of tourists visited during the peak October-November season, when the bears head out onto the frozen bay to hunt seals. Yet in the summer, the waters surrounding Churchill play host to an equally captivating creature. Between June and early September, 60,000 small, white beluga whales gather in the coastal areas of Hudson Bay to give birth to their young, with 3,000 of them making their way into the Churchill River basin.

I spot my first belugas within hours of arriving in Churchill, which lies 1,000 km north of Winnipeg, and is only accessible by plane or train. After checking into the cozy, wood-panelled Lazy Bear Lodge, guide Jason Ransom drives me along the wide, largely deserted main road, past a motley collection of one- and two-storey homes with snowmobiles and 4X4s. Several buildings are decorated with huge murals depicting polar bears and beluga whales, providing a welcome flash of colour. Jason tells me that a couple of weeks earlier, a bear wandered through town, stopping periodically to peer at the houses. Attacks are rare, he continues, but it is important to keep your wits about you at all times.

“Canaries of the Sea”

We stop at Cape Merry at the northwest tip of the Churchill peninsula. The fur traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) built a cannon battery here in the early 1700s and although only ruins remain, it is an evocative place. Watched over by an armed polar bear guard, we cross the rocky site, admiring the vivid purple fireweed. In the mouth of the river, less than 25 metres away, Jason points out a pod of belugas. A pair of adults, bright white and around 4.5 metres in length, skims across the water followed by a clutch of smaller grey and tan adolescents and a few-months-old grey calf, a little bigger than a house cat. 

Eager for a closer look, the next morning, I test out Lazy Bear Lodge’s newest activity: aquagliding, an adrenalin booster involving a floating mat. After wriggling into a dry suit and strapping on a mask and snorkel, I lie hovering atop the icy river on the floating mat, towed behind a slow-moving Zodiac boat, and dip my face into the frigid water. Seconds later, belugas start to approach. A pair gracefully glides alongside me, while another one playfully swoops beneath the mat, spiralling like a gymnast. One beluga swims straight towards me, stopping just inches from my mask, rotating its seemingly smiling face and peering at me curiously. It is a strange, intimate, beautiful experience.

Back in the Zodiac, Jason tells me that belugas are known as the “canaries of the sea” because of their distinctive vocalizations—some even have mimicked human speech. He drops a hydrophone into the river and we listen to a remarkable array of whistles, chirps and clicks that sound vaguely like a submerged rainforest. Jason explains that the whales often respond to the noise of engines, outboard motors and even music. On beat, sure enough as we set off for shore, the volume of the “beluga songs” increases.

The next day I head out on the Sam Hearne, Lazy Bear Lodge’s passenger boat, towards the choppy estuary of the Hudson Bay. Soon we are surrounded by scores of belugas. In two hours, I spot a hundred or more! Jason points out scratch marks on several adults, the result of near-death encounters with hungry bears. Nearby, a mother beluga balances a tiny calf on her back as she zips through the water, as if the pair are synchronized swimmers.

Suddenly, there is a burst of excited chatter and a chorus of camera clicks at the front of the boat. I follow the rapt gazes along the rocky shoreline, until my eyes fixate on a jagged outcropping, crowned by a female polar bear gently nursing her cub. We watch, mesmerized for several minutes, before the pair slowly rise to their feet and plod away.

Beyond Belugas and Bears

Churchill has plenty more to offer visitors, particularly in the summer when the temperature (6 ºC to 25 ºC) is much more hospitable than in the winter, when it can get as low as -45 ºC. The Northern Lights are visible for most of the year, though cloud cover obscured them during my stay.

The weather was perfect for visiting the dramatic ruins of the Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site. Later, I took a tundra tour aboard the Arctic Crawler, Lazy Bear Lodge’s massive four-wheel-drive vehicle, before I got an insight into Churchill’s history, the region’s indigenous communities, and the impact of the climate crisis at the Parks Canada Visitor Centre. 

But the experience that will live longest in my memory came on my final morning, when I kayaked along the Churchill River in the company of a “sneezing” beluga.

Travel Planner

For more information visit or call Travel Manitoba. travelmanitoba.com;

phone 1-800-665-0040.

The beluga whale season runs from June to early September. There are no major roads between Churchill and the rest of Manitoba but there are regular flights and overnight trains from Winnipeg.

For adventure tours, dining, and overnight stays visit Lazy Bear Lodge. lazybearlodge.com; phone 204-663-9377. 

 
 
 
 
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