This was our first year with the belugas since Canada banned swimming with cetaceans. We are in favour of the new rules because they protect the fragile populations of whales in other parts of the country, but it is unfortunate that the rules include encounters with the belugas in Hudson Bay, because there are around 60,000 beluga whales in the bay, and they love to play with snorkelers!
So, instead of swimming, this year we started beluga boarding, where we tow two snorkelers on a foam board, behind a zodiac. I am very happy to announce, the belugas seem to think this is great fun, so they repeatedly buzz the snorkelers, sometimes swimming for minutes at a time right in front of thier cameras.
We only take four guests on each zodiac, so there isn’t much waiting time for the board, and even from the boat there is plenty to see because there are pods of whales all over the bay and they often swim right up to our boats.
Although there are far more polar bears around Churchill in the fall, we generally see quite a few bears during beluga season too.
Bears returning from the Winter Hunt
Normally in the summer, we see bears foraging on the beaches; solitary adults and moms and cubs. This year was no exception but we also saw three polar bears swimming towards shore. They were on their way to land after leaving the winter ice flow. The remaining ice was around 30 miles to the north, so these bears had endured a very long swim. One of the bears was accompanied by its young cub, which sometimes swam and sometimes rested its front paws on mom’s back. Such a special sight to see!
Belugas travel in pods. Large family units with about a dozen or so animals. Sometimes just the bravest ones would approach us, at other times the entire family would come in for a look at the strange animals with the big shiny eyeballs (our cameras).
Each afternoon we toured the tundra in a 4WD van. This gave us the chance to photograph terrestrial wildlife and generally enjoy the beautiful tundra landscapes. Bears and foxes were the highlights, including this gorgeous cross fox; a colour morph of a red fox that this common in the sub-arctic.
When the sky was clear and the solar index was looking good, we went out at night to shoot the aurora. The first week it was a bit faint but the second week the sky was filled with green fire!
I am always impressed by the level of trust that the Hudson Bay belugas have in humans. Repeatedly, mothers swam by with their new born calves. With an abundant supply of capelin (their favourite food) giving them lots of spare time, they have plenty of time for entertainment, and we must be quite a novelty for the young whales.
The rusting hulk of the Ithaca is a dominant landmark east of Churchill. At high tide it is almost a km from shore. At low tide it is possible to reach the wreck without getting wet. It is important to go with an armed guide, because the wreck is a favourite haunt of polar bears looking for some respite for the summer sun. We did see a bear this year but it was way off on the next point so we had plenty of time to explore the wreck before it got too close.
Belugas at Sunset
Our beluga tours are also tide dependent. At low tide, the visibility deteriorates and the boats run aground at the dock anyway. Sometimes high tide occurs quite late. On one day, we were out close to sunset, which allowed us to take some beautiful images of the belugas porpoising under the pastel skyline.
To give you an idea of how friendly the belugas can be, check out this short clip from Shannon McLaughlin; shot during this year’s beluga boarding trip.
We ran two trips this year and they both went very well, so we are looking forward to returning next summer. If you want to encounter the friendliest whales in the world, this is your chance. Join us in July and August 2023: Big Fish Expeditions Beluga Boarding Expedition