It wasn’t a dare that made me jump into into the frigid 7 °C water of Hudson Bay, but I did it anyway. And then I stayed (zipped into a 7mm thick wetsuit, mind you) swimming around a Zodiak boat for the next half hour. I’m not the world’s biggest animal lover and I sure hate cold swimming pools, but when you’ve got an opportunity for a belly-to-belly experience with beluga whales you take it, freezing water and all. I’m talking about going on an arctic safari in Churchill, Manitoba, the polar bear capital of the world. Forget Africa! Here you can snorkel and kayak with beluga whales and even view arctic fox and polar bears. Here’s everything you need to know about Churchill polar bear tours (and kayaking with beluga whales) in summer.
What most folks don’t realize is that come summer, the tiny town of Churchill becomes an outpost for beluga encounters, as well as polar bears, who skulk around waiting for the ice to freeze. Each June anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 belugas make their way into the warmer waters of the Churchill River from Hudson Bay to give birth and hang with their newborns until mid-September.
Snorkel with beluga whales in Canada
Slipping into the water isn’t as dramatic as I feared. It’s bracing for a few seconds, but then my wetsuit traps the water and it feels weirdly warm. Kind of like when somebody pees next to you in a pool. It’s been windy and the water is murky, but there’s no mistaking the ghost-like shape headed our way.
As I swim around the Zodiak, more and more of these curious mammals pop by. Now I get why they’re nicknamed sea canaries. We hear their squeals and buzzes underwater. They gracefully move under the boat and even alongside us. It’s a surreal feeling to be swimming with a whale, even more so when their air bubbles rise up from underneath us and tap our wetsuits. We don’t want to get out of the water, but our guide from Sea North Tours insists we come in. There’s been a development.
Churchill polar bear tours
While we were out frolicking in the river, our guide received a call. A female polar bear and her cub have been spotted on the coast, not far from where we are. The engine is revved and we’re off, furiously assembling camera gear in the hopes we’ll get the shot of a lifetime.
Somewhere between Button Bay and Eskimo Point we spot our first polar bear. It isn’t the mama, but a lone male, lumbering along the boulder strewn beach as if he’s on patrol. We spend a few minutes watching him strut over the rocks, before he disappears back into the tundra. We continue cruising along the coastline and it’s not long before we come upon mama bear and her cub.
By now I’m shivering in my wetsuit and my camera is flaking out on me, but that doesn’t matter when you’ve got a Nat Geo moment playing out in front of you. The frisky cub is bored with their hike and wants to play. He runs alongside his mama and scrambles onto rocks, before plop! He cannonballs into the bay. Mama bear ignores this childish behaviour, but decides to take a leisurely swim beside her cub anyway.
My camera fail turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of focusing on its settings and looking through the lens trying to capture the perfect moment, I’m living it. Time stops. We sit in silence watching the cub tackle her mother. They play bite and swat at each other, totally unconcerned there’s a boat of curious tourists watching their every move. Eventually, mama bear decides to do some real swimming and makes her way in our direction. She comes so close we need to retreat, but our arctic safari is far from over.
Kayak with beluga whales
The next day begins bright and early, so we can hit the tide just right to kayak in the river. Again, we’re hoping to come across a few belugas, and it doesn’t take long before spotting their white backs bobbing in the water. Dozens of them appear, so many it’s hard to keep track. They surround us, coming so close you can see the scratches on their back from bumping up against icebergs. I quickly hand off my camera in its waterproof case to our guide, Alex, and just enjoy the ride.
“Whales love to play with the rudder of your kayak. They may even bump you a bit and it’s pretty fun!” Alex tells me during the camera hand off.
There isn’t much current, so when I feel my kayak being propelled it can only mean one thing. Sure enough, a beluga pops up after taking me for a ride. He looks me straight in the eye before diving back down. I can’t lie, I’m more freaked out than exhilarated. I’m wobbly in my kayak to begin with. I don’t need any extra help to upset my balance. Of course, nobody topples over. I’m just paranoid.
“I just got blowholed!” shrieks a fellow kayaker, spray dripping from her face after a beluga gets too friendly. I paddle towards her. “Are you OK?” I ask. “Yeah, it was scary, but amazing at the same time,” she replies. That’s Churchill for you.
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Thank you to Churchill Wild and Travel Manitoba for inviting me to experience a true arctic safari last year. As always, my opinions and crap grammar are my own.
Have you ever had an encounter with arctic wildlife? Would you like to?