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While much of the world greeted summer locked down at home, around 60,000 beluga whales embarked on an epic journey. As they do each year, the whales traveled south from the high Arctic and descended upon the western side of Hudson Bay to feed, mate, and birth in the relatively warmer and sheltered waters of sub-Arctic Canada.
This spectacular summer gathering is said to be the largest concentration of belugas in the world. The Churchill River basin alone hosts up to 5,000 whales from June through September, making the tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba, on the southwestern shore of the bay, the ideal place to see them.
Known as the “polar bear capital of the world,” Churchill is famed for the white bears that take up residence from late summer through November as they wait for the ice—their hunting platforms—to form on the bay. A walk through the compact town of fewer than 1,000 residents leaves no doubt that the bears rule Churchill. Arrivals from Winnipeg at the one-room airport and train station—no roads lead to Churchill—are greeted with signs announcing that they are in “polar bear country.” Road signs warn walkers not to stray into bear territory and posted notices advise visitors on how to handle an unexpected bear encounter, including such daunting tips as “fight back.” But while they have long taken a back seat to the bears, the belugas of Churchill are starting to become a star attraction in their own right; and there are now more opportunities than ever to view them, from every vantage point.
Lazy Bear Expeditions has been running beluga whale tours for 25 years. Wally Daudrich, the company’s president, told me that, while he has seen recent increased interest, whale-watching here still feels like a private experience. “We often find ourselves out in the Churchill River with only one or two other vessels or groups in the distance,” he said.
Last August I embarked on Lazy Bear’s six-night Ultimate Arctic Summer Adventure expedition, which, along with accommodation in the log cabin-style Lazy Bear Lodge and tours of the town and over the tundra, included multiple ways to experience the belugas. I saw their smooth white backs break the surface of the water while standing on shore, watched them trailing behind me as I paddled across the river in a kayak, and peered down at them onboard a passenger boat from where I also spotted a polar bear nursing her cub on the rocky shore. But perhaps most memorable was the unique experience that Lazy Bear calls aquagliding.
Snug in a drysuit out in the chilly bay, I laid face-down on an aquaglider, a thick floating mat tethered to a bobbing Zodiac boat, and fiddled with a full-face snorkel mask as I waited. It didn’t take long. Within moments the belugas appeared. First they were distant crests on the water but then, apparently curious to get a better look at my small group of humans, a pod approached the mat; snow-white ghostly apparitions shimmering below the surface. Canada requires whale-watching boats to stay 100 meters away from whales but makes an exception for the Churchill River where a 50-meter minimum approach rule is in effect. Nevertheless, the curious nature of the belugas means that the rule is difficult to enforce in reverse. They “choose when to come to our vessels,” said Daudrich, adding that the regulations are there “to prevent humans from approaching whales, not the other way around.”
I plunged my head under the surface of the water to meet the whales close to eye level. I was taken aback first by the noise, the trilling, chirping, and singing that gives the belugas the nickname “canaries of the sea.” Then, a beluga swimming below quickly pivoted to turn its face toward me for a better look. I gasped as it looked directly into my eyes. It felt so strangely intimate that I instinctively lifted my head out of the water. Catching my breath, I dipped it back in to see a pod of whales just below me, with a slate-gray-colored calf sandwiched between them. Each of their bulbous melon heads turned to look at me, moving from side to side so that each wide eye could take me in. The vertebrae in a beluga’s neck is not fused together, which gives it the unusual ability to turn its head—and they did so time and again, apparently fascinated by the stranger in their midst, watching me watch them.
The encounter felt transcendent but the belugas were simply behaving as they always do. “Beluga whales are curious by nature,” said Daudrich. “After years of returning to the Churchill River, they get that we present no threat so they check out their surroundings; engage, and play with crafts on the water.”
Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Lazy Bear can only welcome visitors from western Canada and parts of Ontario this summer. But the whales will be back again next year and Daudrich is expecting pent-up demand from currently-grounded adventurers to inspire early bookings. Summer 2021 will also see the launch of yet another beluga-viewing option: a glass-bottomed catamaran with viewing pods to see below the surface of the Hudson Bay. After the difficulties of this year, the promise of communing with belugas in the far north may be the balm for the soul we all need.