Cruising along the Beluga Highway

Cruising along the Beluga Highway

Polar Bear Spotting in Churchill

Landing on a gravel runway in the middle of summer in Churchill, Manitoba pretty much threw out every image I had of the Polar Bear Capital of the World. It wasn’t cold. There was no ice and snow. Sitting in a small charter plane window seat, looking down as we approached the Port of Churchill, I saw pockets of small circular lakes dotting across the green and brown tundra and an array of brush and trees that made up the northern Boreal forest. I would later find out from our tour guide, Churchill is on the edge of three ecosystems and I would get reacquainted with geography terms I learned back in elementary school.

Early July in Churchill and it was the height of Manitoba’s hottest summer in recent memory, I found myself short on appropriate clothes for the trip. In fact, the fleece jacket, sweater, and long sleeved shirts would stay in my suitcase for my entire 4-day jaunt. There was absolutely no need for them in the 30 plus degree weather in Churchill. Unheard of weather according to our tour guide. The one pair of shorts I brought with me kept me cool under the hot Manitoba sun.

The shorts were comfortable as we made our way to tours of Prince of Wales Fort, Port Merry, the Town of Churchill and surrounding areas that comprised of the Arctic tundra, boreal forest and the Hudson Bay ecosystems. If you thought the mosquitos were bad in Winnipeg (this summer might be a bad example), the combination of gigantic horse flies and mosquitos were incessantly annoying. The mosquitoes were easy to deal with as we had full body mosquito suits. It was the horse flies that I was worried about. These big critters can take out chunks of skin when they bite.

The sun, heat and overwhelming need to swat every mosquito and horsefly were minor inconveniences given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many tourists that decide to visit Churchill, Manitoba. Tourists from all over the world travel to Churchill for one primary reason – polar bears. Late October and early November is polar bear season.

During the rest of the year, Churchill plays host to tourists interested in whale and bird watching, wild flower enthusiasts and outdoor adventures that cater to hiking, kayaking and summer safari thrill seekers.

On this trip, the main focus was to get up close and personal with over 3000 beluga whales that migrate to Churchill during the summer months. They play in the warm waters of the Churchill River estuary and the colder salt water in Hudson Bay. Flying into Churchill, our plane passed over the Churchill River and the school of beluga whales looked like little white specs in the brown and murky river.

The opportunity to watch the beluga whales can be as easy as hopping on a tour boat which can accommodate large groups. There were about 25 passengers hanging out on all sides of the boat as the belugas came around to swim just meters below us. The belugas played in the bubbles created in the boat’s wake, and provided an easy opportunity for tourists to get snapshot happy trying to catch the belugas as they came up to the surface. This was easily the most accessible option to view belugas.

The second alternative to getting up close and personal with the beluga whales is strapping yourself in a kayak and paddling in the Churchill River estuary.

This was going to be a first for me. I was nervous and anxious about committing myself to a single-man kayak. I’ve never been in a kayak before. The closest thing was probably a bamboo raft in Thailand where the water was warm. The Churchill River on the other hand, was cold. So after a short training session on kayak skills and water safety, I jumped into the kayak and off I paddled to the middle of the Churchill River.

It wasn’t even 5 minutes when I encountered my first school of beluga whales. I could see them coming in from Hudson Bay and I paddled furiously to intercept.

For the record, my kayak paddling skills were horrible. As luck would have it, my kayak crossed paths with the approaching belugas and from the small waves from my kayak and paddles, several beluga whales followed and eventually passed me. I was stoked. I had several beluga whales come right up to my kayak. I admit, the first bump on the underside of my kayak totally freaked me out. This repeated itself for about two hours and then it was time to paddle back to shore. That was fun. Extremely fun and exciting.

Day three was going to be the super extremely fun and exciting part of the trip. I was going to squeeze myself into a wet suit, jump into the frigid waters of the Churchill River and snorkel with the beluga whales. I had all my underwater camera gear prepped and ready to go. All suited up, we took an inflatable Zodiac speed boat to a popular spot in the Churchill River which our Zodiac captain termed the beluga highway. While we couldn’t see too many belugas topside, once I jumped into the water, several beluga whales swam towards me and the boat. My first encounter was amazing. It was a female beluga with her young baby and swimming next to them were two larger male belugas.

The family of four belugas slowly approached me from below and as they moved past me, they turned and flipped their bodies towards me. The were now swimming upside down looking up and directly at me. Satisfying their curiosities, they swam past me and slowly rolled back swimming right side up to continue along the beluga highway. The beluga highway was beneath me and any of the belugas that came by to say hello, were less than 15-20 feet away.

What might have seemed like an eternity, our captain pulled me from the Churchill River and back into the Zodiac. While the conditions on this day were not ideal for any video or photography, I was completely satisfied in the entire experience. As a photographer, I always have the need to capture everything on film. The day’s experience of peering into the depths of the Churchill River was one of those instances where I was happy to simply live in the moment and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature.

Four days into our tour of Churchill, and I still haven’t seen a polar bear. While July isn’t polar bear season, there are still instances where polar bears may be spotted or come into the town of Churchill. On the last day of the tour, it was our goal to see some polar bears. Instead of waiting for the bears to come find us, our group jumped into a helicopter to fly 30 minutes east of Churchill to drop in to a family of polar bears that were spotted earlier in the day.

No less than 12 polar bears were spotted along the northern shores of Wapusk National Park. While the helicopter circled above the polar bears, I was excited at capturing them while swimming and playing in the water. Other polar bears in the area were just as happy to lounge around in do nothing under the hot Manitoba sun. I was just as happy and excited to see them through my camera lens. My trip to Churchill was complete. I saw a dozen polar bears. I swam with the beluga whales. And the best part, Churchill is in our own backyard. It was definitely Manitoba Time during my 4-day tour of Churchill and excited for my return trip to the Polar Bear Capital of the World.

What’s next? It might be time to head back to Churchill during polar bear season and I’d like the readers of the Filipino Journal to join me for an opportunity of a lifetime.

In cooperation with Travel Manitoba, Heartland International Travel and Tours, the Filipino Journal is organizing a group trip to Churchill, Manitoba on Saturday, November 5th. Complete package information is also available on our website. If that’s not exciting enough, we’re teaming up to offer a trip to one lucky reader to join us as we fly up north to Churchill. Contest details are on the FilipinoJournal.com website.