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Whale Watching

A Seal River Beluga (and Polar Bear) Experience

The following account was originally published on Ebushpilot.com back in 2006. The original story and pictures, written by John S. Goulet, can be found here.

The Seal River Heritage Lodge Pancake Breakfast

Arial view of beluga whales at Churchill Wild.

Belugas from the air!

Klaus and I have finally made it.

We are greeted to the Lodge by hosts Mike and Jennie Reimer. August is the prime of their season and they are busy guiding the guests to the various sites. The lodge is perfectly placed on a spit of sub-arctic tundra surrounded on three sides by the Arctic waters of the Hudson Bay.

As we sat down in the dining room we could view the ocean waters from any of the three large picture windows. Mike has spotting scopes and binoculars handy to help spot the numerous water and shore birds of the area, and to scout for the whales off shore as they break the surface to spout.

The main attraction is the beluga whales which you can see by the thousands as they swim in and out of the North and South mouths of the fabulous Seal River. They come in with the rising tide and leave with the ebbing tide. Mostly they congregate in the mouth of the river where you can visit them in the clear waters using the rubber rafts and small outboard motors. Like shooting fish in a barrel – except you do the shooting with a camera. Mike arranges the rubber rafts for us to leave on a guided tour early the next morning.

At day break I stand on the watch tower over the lodge scanning the bay for water spouts. The rising sun saturates the backdrop sky a gumdrop orange.

As the whales blow the saltwater, back-lit by the sun, into a sparkling diamond spray we set off across the open water. Within 20 minutes we spot whales. These are large with huge black backs and a fan spray blow as they surface. We try to get near them, but they continue to swim off. They are definitely not beluga whales. My best guess is that they are the huge majestic bow whales. Bow whales were hunted commercially until only about 20 years ago and are still considered a rare sighting in this part of the Hudson Bay. We consider ourselves very lucky to have spotted them. We quit the chase and head to the mouth of the Seal River.

Long before we ever reach the Seal River, however, we can see the blow from a distance. With a sea-spray that reaches up to 90 cm the blow is very visible. We are already in the midst of belugas.

They are heading in the same direction and swimming with a purpose. We are sailing with a purpose. They are after the shallow river protein such as worms, crustaceans, shrimp, clams, snails, crabs, and small fish. Fish such as capelin, char, sand lance, smelt, flounder, herring, and cod, are usually taken in deeper water but can be caught much easier in the restricted river mouth. The total take of 25 kgs per day is not much by whale standards, but still a lot of lunch that eventually adds up to 1500 kg of adult male whale.

The beluga can stay submerged for 15-20 minutes and travel up to 2-3 km under water on one dive. That is one of the reasons the river mouth is such a great place to get close and see the whales. The space is restricted and the whales surface more often to spy hop their way around the smaller areas. In the estuaries they usually only stay submerged for only about 2 minutes, and make 1 or 2 surfacings before the longer 1-2 minutes dive.

Before long we are surrounded by whale pods cruising by. These pods are mostly small family groups, but the larger pods can reach up to 10,000 individuals. We can see them clearly, but somehow they are still cautious and do not come too close. Some of the mothers are followed closely, almost as if they are lashed to their backs, by awkward gray calves. Breeding in May means our calves were 3-4 months old. Occasionally we can hear their squawk-like calls. Like other whales, the beluga use echo-location to find their way around and to find food.

After an exhilarating several hours of watching the whales, we decide to stop for our own lunch. Mike and Quentin, his friend and acting guide, tied the two rubber rafts together so we can all share our meal and our experiences.

As we drifted along in this peaceful inner sea and quietly chatted with our fellow rafters, we noticed that the whales were finally starting to show some interest in us. I felt that when the two rubber rafts rubbed together they produced a squeak that the whale’s natural curiosity could not resist.

As an experiment, I tried to make the rafts squeak more frequently, but it took a special combination that could not be duplicated easily. I tried rubbing my Gortex pants on the rubber raft but that was too soft a squeak. Finally, Mike caught on to what I was doing and rubbed his own rubber rain slicker pants on the rubber of the raft. That was the magic we needed.

The squeak he produced drove the whales crazy with curiosity and within minutes we were surrounded by over 50 whales in different pods jostling us for a closer look at what was making that peculiar noise. We pulled out our cameras and were snapping incessantly as they spy hopped closer and closer. Mike put his hand under water and the friendly beluga were swimming so close he could feel the flow of their wake.

beluga whales

The belugas come right up to the boat.

One particular mother and calf would not leave us alone. She came by time and time again with the little one close on her back. The little gray beluga seemed to love these frequent visits as he hopped up higher each time to look see. When we finally left hours later we had several pods follow us almost all the way home. They could not leave us alone. Nor did we want to leave them, but the day was coming to a close and we had to return to base.

Spending the day with these fellow creatures of curiosity was one the most incredible one on one, or animal family to human family, experiences I have ever had in the wild.

And at Seal River there is so much more nature to go one on one with.

From the Lodge you can take guided interpretive nature and culture walks where you can see caribou, bald eagles, Canada and Snow geese, ptarmigan, sik siks, and polar bears.

Along the interpretive walks you get to visit ancient Dene and Inuit camping sites, outlined by either the weathered tent poles the Dene used, or the tent circle of stones that the Inuit used to anchor their skin tents. The sites have been investigated by archeologist Virginia Petch and the walks have been mapped by GPS to make sure you can see the most with the least trouble. The walks are tough but worth it.

That evening Jeanne, Mike’s partner and wife, prepares us an incredible dinner of arctic char, garden peas, and homemade red river cereal bread. Dessert is a (locally picked) cranberry crumble and coffee.

After dinner the sun sets in a glorious blaze of orange to end a perfect day. I am to take an evening stroll on the runway’s high point of ground where the evening breeze will keep the bugs swept away. The night is perfectly clear and I can see the planets of Jupiter followed by Venus and a host of northern stars. The night air is cool and I fall asleep deep into the dead of the night.

The next morning the sky is blue blazon with the gold of sunrise and Jeanne serves us the most fantastic sight we have seen since leaving Nigeria 3 weeks ago. Canadian pancakes topped with butter, maple syrup, and as a special treat, blueberry compote made with fresh picked local blueberries. The ending to our trip could not have been any more special. We have flown over 10,000 miles to have breakfast in Canada. Perhaps next time you can join us.

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To experience what John wrote about above check out our Birds, Bears & Belugas Adventure Safari. This one of a kind summer experience takes place at the Seal River Heritage Lodge during July and August.

Polar Bears in the News: The Polar Bear Club

So often news stories involving polar bears consist of experts predicting the end of our beloved polar bear. Doom & gloom is effective in an awareness campaign but never fun to hear about.

So how about some positive news from waaaay up north? Well… positive for polar bears and possibly ice caps (not to be confused with the popular Canadian “Iced Capp”).

Tim Horton’s Iced Capp – a Canadian tradition in the making.

It seems Alaska is getting a lot of the white stuff this year. According to meteorologist Shaun Baines, Sarah Palin’s home state is on track for snowiest winter on record:

About 150 miles to the southeast (of Anchorage), the Prince William Sound community of Cordova, which has already been buried under 172 inches of snow since November, could get another 7 inches today

… It has been difficult to keep up with the shovelling – and 8ft walls of snow line either side of her driveway. After snow fell off her roof she cannot see out either the front or back of her house.

… If it keeps up, Anchorage is on track to have the snowiest winter ever, surpassing the previous record of 132.8 inches in 1954-55, meteorologist Shaun Baines said.

172 inches of snow

Snowboarding anyone? All we can say is “Wow”…

Hopefully the Hudson Bay polar bears that hang out at Seal River Heritage Lodge don’t decide to relocate to Alaska. We’ll have to make sure we don’t mention this to them.

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Elsewhere there have been numerous news stories and YouTube videos of polar bear cubs popping up. We’ve posted a few to our Facebook page but this one was an absolute cuddly little doll! The latest comes out of the Scandinavian Wildlife Park and appeared in the Washington Post’s “Kids Post” section.

Hello Siku!

Meet Siku! Internet sensation!

This baby polar bear was born November 22 at the Scandinavian Wildlife Park in Kolind, Denmark. But because his mother couldn’t produce milk to feed the cub…

Keepers named the cub Siku, which means “sea ice.”

Well, I guess there is little extra “sea ice” this year after all. Always good news.

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The valiant Prince William came to Canada recently to show off his new bride Kate. There was a huge media blitz and Canadians were genuinely excited and gracious hosts.

Churchill Wild sent out the invitation but we did not make the itinerary. Maybe next time. We’re sure there are many Seal River alumni (see our Trip Advisor reviews) that would vouch for the suitability of our lodge.

During their whirlwind tour of our homeland the Premier of Northwest Territories gifted the royal couple some fabulous polar bear bling.

Some people are making a fuss about it. We think it was a nice gesture:

An good idea for Christmas 2012?

We wonder if the Churchill Wild logo would look good encrusted with diamonds. The polar bear brooch is worth around $30,000 dollars (19,000 British pounds). A Churchill Wild limited edition logo brooch? We may never know…

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Finally, no scan of the news for “polar bears” is ever complete without one of these:

The Polar Bear Club

Yes – every year around this time people strip down and brave the frigid waters for their local “polar bear club”. It is hilarious to watch from the warm comfort of your recliner in front of the television.

While we have to commend those brave souls who peel and dive into the cold water we find ourselves contemplating the addition of our own “polar bear challenge” during the Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake EcoLodge.

The Polar Bear Club - Churchill Wild style.

Nahhh… wouldn’t be a big seller. That’s what Dymond Lake looks like when it starts freezing up in October/November (sans swimmer and umbrella). Floating balls of ice. Wanna jump in?

Actually, when Churchill Wild’s guests get into the water in the summer for a beluga swim the Hudson Bay waters are just as cold (or colder) than what most “polar bear clubs” would experience. Wanna try it? That’s our extremely popular Birds, Bears & Belugas Adventure which takes place during July and August at the Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Beluga whale swims at Seal River

Our guests wear heavily insulated dry suits to keep them from freezing up. This photo is courtesy of Mark Seth Lender who was up last summer for our Birds, Bears & Belugas Adventure. Mark has a series of blog posts on his site about his time at the lodge. They are accompanied by some incredible pictures. Check them out.

Mark has a syndicated column and is a frequent contributor to Living on Earth (PRI) a nationally syndicated radio program on NPR. He’s putting the final touches on his Churchill Wild segments and they will be airing in the coming months. Stay in touch with us through our newsletter, blog, Facebook and Twitter for air dates.

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That’s all for this time. Thanks for reading.

Award-winning journalist plunges into Hudson Bay with beluga whales, hikes the tundra with polar bears, eats like a king

Swimming with beluga whales in Hudson Bay

Face down in Hudson Bay singing to beluga whales

Some of Manitoba’s wildlife comes with claws attached – but there are gentler creatures here too, as Mike Unwin discovers on an encounter with beluga whales. — The Independent on Sunday

Mike Unwin, a UK-based, award-winning freelance writer and editor specializing in travel and wildlife, was a guest of Churchill Wild and Travel Manitoba this past summer on our Birds, Bears and Belugas Adventure.

Unwin experienced the thrill of plunging into Hudson Bay with beluga whales, walked the ancient tundra with polar bears and ate like a king. Below are a few excerpts from the recent story he wrote for the The Independent on Sunday.

On snorkeling with beluga whales in Hudson Bay:

The idea is to get closer to belugas, the small white whales that gather here in their thousands every summer. I have already seen them from the air: scattered like rice over the wrinkled tablecloth of the bay, you could hardly miss them. But now, face down in the dark, choppy waters, meeting one is a more daunting prospect.

On hiking the tundra with polar bears:

The retreating tide has exposed a moonscape of glacial boulders across the mudflats, and it is behind one of these that we meet our first bear – having a kip. The long neck swings up, roman nose testing the breeze, before the head settles on massive forepaws, black eyes fixed on our approach.

On hanging out at Seal River Heritage Lodge:

…the lodge makes a delightful zoo. Inside, safe from inquisitive bears, wild weather and ravenous mosquitoes, we enjoy fabulous food – caribou wellington, blueberry muffins, snow goose casserole with wild rice – all prepared from treasured family recipes using tundra ingredients. And after stuffing our faces…

Read Mike Unwin’s full story: Canada: Manitoba’s bear necessities, which appeared in The Independent on Sunday Travel Americas section.

On the ground Churchill polar bear viewing, far from the madding crowd, in the bear’s natural environment? Beluga whale watching while face down swimming in Hudson Bay? What’s on your bucket list?

Underwater with Beluga Whales in Hudson Bay

World explorers visiting our remote polar bear ecolodge on the coast of Hudson Bay this year saw beluga whales in record-breaking numbers while enjoying one of the best summers in years. The remote location of Seal River Heritage Lodge ensures countless unique wildlife encounters both by land and sea but this season our beluga swim encounters were nothing short of spectacular.

The stunning footage in the video below was shot this summer less than a kilometer from the Lodge by one of our intrepid snorkelers after he was “adopted” by a pod of over 80 beluga whales. We typically have 3,000 to 4,000 beluga whales summering off the shore here at the Lodge, but the numbers this season might have been close to double that. Truly a wildlife extravaganza!

YouTube Preview Image

Polar Bear Adventure in Churchill Canada – Part 2

GeorgieJet, from the popular travel website “JohnnyJet.com“, came up to the Seal River Heritage Lodge this summer to experience Churchill Wild’s “Birds, Bears & Belugas“, a one-of-a-kind Arctic summer adventure.

beluga swim

Swimming with Beluga Whales @ Seal River Heritage Lodge

Her first account of the adventure can be found here. Now on to part two!

BBB, as we like to call it, has the best of the best in an Arctic summer experience for wildlife lovers, it is a step beyond the traditional Churchill polar bear tour - beluga whale swims, incredible scenery, incredible Arctic cuisine, approximately 250 species of birds and Churchill Wild’s trademark polar bear hikes. It’s all on the ground, up close and personal with the world’s largest carnivore and environmental poster child.

Here’s part of what she had to say about the food at Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge:

Most of the recipes come from the array of cookbooks written by Jeanne’s mother, but the creative chefs come up with their own as well. Breakfast included homemade granola, a hot cereal call Red River, yogurts, and fresh fruit. There were also homemade muffins, breads, egg dishes – like frittatas or egg blossoms, and bacon. The coffee is strong and delicious. The chefs (usually related to the Webbers/Reimers in some way, or friends of the family) cook in the open and the dining room completely surrounded by windows. The panoramic views really make you feel you are on top of the world and make wildlife spotting easy and there is a telescope and a deck accessible here.

Here’s part of what she had to say about swimming in the Hudson Bay with beluga whales:

Kayaking was a cool experience, because there were no bugs and the Belugas came quite close to us. At one moment, I felt like I was accompanied by many of them. Listening to their constant and highly physical breathing above the water was calming, like a meditation.

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…the dry suit was cumbersome to put on and take off because I was sharing it, so I was a bit grumpy… until it was my turn to get into the water! The water was not at all cold (dry suit) and I opted not to wear the wetsuit hood. I had a snorkel and mask and was being “trolled” by my feet, face down on a 15 foot tether. An awkward position, but perfect for attracting the whales.

I did not get close enough to see the Belugas, as others did, but I heard them! It was absolutely magical! Their sounds are really incredible and I felt like I was on another planet surrounded by hundreds of welcoming, sentient beings talking to me in another language. I did not understand what they were saying, but I could FEEL their curiosity and their acceptance and love! I think the human group was disappointed that I did not see the Belugas underwater or get a picture of them, but I was completely satisfied. I would do it again in a minute, if I had the chance. It was undeniably another life changing moment within my 6 days at Seal River Lodge! As a travel writer, I have had hundreds of amazing experiences, but this is rated amongst my top five!

Make sure you go past the JohnnyJet website and read the whole thing. Georgette – thanks for coming up and sharing your experience!