White whale wandering in Churchill

Lyn Hughes travelled to Hudson Bay in Canada for an encounter with some of nature's strangest creatures, the beluga whale

5 mins

As the captain made his pre-landing announcements I gazed out of the airplane window at the tundra below. The Churchill River came into view and seeing a large number of whitecaps I presumed it was very windy down there.

“There’s the belugas,” said the captain, startling me out of my reverie.

So it wasn’t waves I was looking at, but hundreds of white beluga whales. Around 3,000 of these sociable animals congregate each summer in the bountiful waters where the Churchill River pours into Hudson Bay.

More wildlife was waiting to greet us at Churchill’s little airport. “Have you seen the mosquitoes?” asked an incredulous fellow passenger. “They’re the size of harrier jets.” It wasn’t the mossies that were driving me mad, but the plague of black flies that had me twitching.

Churchill has the feel of a frontier town. It’s a small settlement of just 1,000 people, with wide, dusty roads and low-rise buildings. There is the constant awareness that you are in a tiny pocket of humanity surrounded by hundreds of miles of virgin wilderness. Set on a peninsula between Churchill River and Hudson Bay, no roads lead here, just a railroad and a plane.

A Canadian visitor was amused at the habits of an English companion of mine. “You should have seen him crossing the road,” he laughed. “He looked each way first. Like there’s only a car about every ten minutes here.”

Actually, I had a sneaky suspicion that Nick was right to check the road first. There may only be a few cars in Churchill but their owners like to get full use of them. One guy I met drove his pick-up from bar to bar, never a distance of more than a couple of hundred yards. And then there’s the ATVs – All Terrain Vehicles, like mini tractors, that whizzed along the wide dirt strips that border the road, sometimes with whole families perched on board.

Last but not least, there were the bears to look out for. Polar bears, that is. Churchill’s biggest draw means the town is packed out in October, when the bears gather to cross the ice on Hudson Bay. However, a few adolescents hang around all year.

Everyone had their own bear story...

“There was one in my neighbour’s garden yesterday,” was the typical comment from various locals. Everyone had their bear stories, and gloried in tales of close encounters. I took an early morning walk down to the shore to watch the whales, and made my way slowly back through the town’s few streets, conscious all the time that I could come face to face with a big furry beast. I was reassured that, although they often stroll around town, the last fatality was back in 1983, when a bear was attracted by the takeaway burger in a drunk guy’s pocket – an object lesson in the perils of junk food.

“The young bears are just like typical teenagers,” said local naturalist Bonnie Chartier. “They don’t know what to do with themselves, so they just fall into trouble.”

Bonnie is a renowned birder and runs a local tour company. Although birds are her passion she’ll do everything from airport pick-ups to general introductions of the area and its history. She was born in Churchill, and every other person we met seemed to be related to her somewhere along the line. The recipient of the 1995 Manitoba Business Woman of the Year, she looked formidable at first sight but proved to have a wicked sense of humour.

“There’s green grass over there!” she yelled out on a guided tour of the town, having just pointed out the hospital, the museum and the Catholic Church. Grass? “We don’t have much grass, so you have to look at what we’ve got.”

Once we’d had the city tour, which took all of five minutes, we headed out to Cape Merry National Historic Site, set on a headland a couple of miles from town. We were met and shown around by a Parks Canada Warden, Jackie Lynn, who turned out to be Bonnie’s niece.

An armed bear-monitor, Sheila, went ahead of us, radioing through an all-clear before we were allowed to proceed around the site. Sheila was also carrying a starter pistol and horn to scare off any bears. One had been there the day before, so we kept looking backing over our shoulders as we walked, and jumped at the sudden movement of a hare lolloping across the rocks.

Cape Merry is a beautiful spot. The ground was a patchwork of pink and violet flowers, and Bonnie pointed out the birdlife on that sunny morning. Best of all, we had superb views of hundreds of beluga whales, all around the headland. However, a memorial to the first European to winter here, Jens Munck in 1619, reminded us that the climate is not always so benign – most of his expedition team died of starvation and cold.

Wildlife tourism a salvation

It took almost another 100 years before Europeans settled here, and that was when the Hudson Bay Company set up a trading post. Bonnie’s father was a trapper for the company, but by then the trade was already in serious decline. These days it is wildlife tourism that is bringing jobs to the town and could be its salvation.

Although the arrival of the bears in October is the main tourist event, there are attractions at other times of the year. In winter this is one of the best spots in the world to see aurora borealis, the northern lights. In July people come to see the beluga whales, while in early summer, birdwatchers come from around the world to seek out the 200 or so species that migrate through.

Attitudes have changed over the 20 or so years that Bonnie has been taking visitors out birdwatching. Back then she used to hide her binoculars as the other locals couldn’t understood her interest in birds. She recalled the visit by Queen Elizabeth back in 1970. Worried that Her Majesty would not appreciate the summer plague of flies, the area was sprayed with DDT. As a result, the bird population plummeted.

Bonnie took a small group of us out for a morning’s birdwatching. As we had to ask for the zillionth time which gull was which, Bonnie exclaimed, “You guys are such amateurs!”

We must have been a huge disappointment to her, but she bore it well and was endlessly patient. She persevered in teaching us how to make a hissing noise through our teeth – ‘pishing’ to attract the birds. It certainly worked for a couple of our group and she consoled my pathetic efforts by saying, “Men pish up birds better than women. They have a deeper voice”. That didn’t explain why she was so good at it. Still, thanks to Bonnie’s efforts we had seen 24 different birds within an hour or two, and proudly compared our ticklists.

The birdwatching was great but whenever we faced the river or sea it was the glimpses of the belugas out on the water that were most tantalising. I was itching to get out on the water and get a close-up view. In the afternoon I set out on the Sea North 11, a converted fishing boat that carries a couple of dozen passengers.

Mike Macri has been running boat trips here for 24 years. He became intrigued by the belugas a few years before that, and used to go out in a boat, just him and his dog, to sit and watch them. Visitors started asking if they could join him, and gradually a business started. Mike is now a renowned photographer with his photos of the wildlife regularly appearing in magazines and books, and proudly displayed around town.


The canaries of the sea

We headed out into open waters, and once Mike had found a suitable place to stop he turned the engines off. At first we could see little, but then one ghostly white shape after another passed under and around the boat. Mike lowered a hydrophone into the water and we began to appreciate why belugas have been dubbed the canaries of the sea. The whale chatter was a series of clicks, squeaks and trills, some of which was echolocation, used by the whales to hunt fish.

The beluga whales come down each year from the Arctic to feed and breed in the warm summer waters. Only three to five metres long, they are one of the smaller whales, and they don’t indulge in any acrobatics. However, their distinctive colouring and sheer number make for a memorable sight.

Compared to some species of whale, relatively little is known of their social structure. Mike filled us in on what he could, but we spent most of the time just gazing in wonder. They, in turn seemed curious, with many coming up to the boat. One particularly nosy whale popped its head out of the water for a better look – its flexible neck, a characteristic of belugas, made it seem almost human-like.

The sun was shining, and many of us were in T-shirts or short-sleeves. Suddenly and without warning, the wind changed and the temperature dropped dramatically. The water grew choppy and it was diffucult to see the whales. Huge, dark rainclouds blew in and we were soon drenched. Waterproofs were pulled out of a locker and distributed, and we huddled together for warmth as Mike opened the throttle and raced back to shore. It was a good lesson in how changeable and extreme Churchill’s weather can be.

After a hot shower and a change into my glad rags it was time to hit the town. After splashing out at the best restaurant in town, the Trader’s Table, I headed for the bar at the Northern Nights Lodge. I’d popped in a couple of nights earlier and it had been like a Wild West saloon – rowdy to say the least. Tonight, all was calm, and the locals seemed friendly.

I asked an attractive girl who was a seasonal worker what she normally did in the evenings. “There’s only two things to do in this town – sex and drink,” she said giggling. So why did she return year after year to this remote spot? “There’s something about this place. It gets under your skin.” She wasn’t the first person to say this to me.

A morning stroll with a local polar bear

Heading to the bakery for breakfast on my last morning, I ran into another visitor. “Did you see what was happening down on the beach?” she asked. She’d seen flares going off and heard gunshots. Bonnie came into the bakery and confirmed that a polar bear had strolled too close to the edge of town and had been scared off. It had been hanging around the shore where I had walked at the same time the day before. It was with a mixture of relief and disappointment that I ate my breakfast.

A couple of hours later as my plane took off I peered back down at the Churchill estuary. A yellowish-white shape moving along the shore caught my eye. A polar bear! And behind it, in the water, was the magical sight of hundreds of belugas.

When to go: July and August are the only snow-free months. The season for whales is mid-June to mid/end August. Birdwatching is best from the end of May to early July.

Polar bears can usually be seen in July to mid-November, with the best chance of spotting in October and early November. Churchill is one of the best places to see aurora borealis, the northern lights, from September to April, with January to March being the main season.

What to take: Take some warm and waterproof clothing, even in summer, when you’ll also need a strong bug repellent, such as 50% DEET. I used Bug Proof on my clothes which was very effective. A pair of binoculars will greatly enhance wildlife viewing.

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