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Posts Tagged ‘snorkeling with beluga whales’

Furry boulders and not-so-feathery seabirds at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Guest Post and Photos by Katlin Miller

Author Katlin Miller

Author Katlin Miller outside Seal River Heritage Lodge

When most people think about polar bears, they probably picture massive white bears roaming a never-ending blanket of snow and ice hunting for ringed seals. Similarly, the word beluga likely triggers reminiscences of the song ‘Baby Beluga’ or the white whales featured in some of SeaWorld’s most popular exhibits. For three Colorado residents however, the lasting memories of polar bears and belugas will, forever more, be much, much different.

Johnnie, Tasha, and Katlin Miller, of Granby, recently joined 15 other adventurers from around the world to embark on a week-long vacation of a lifetime. Flying from Denver to Winnipeg to Churchill and finally to the Seal River Heritage Lodge, the three weren’t exactly sure what they were in for when they signed up for Churchill Wild’s Birds, Bears and Belugas trip.

Most wildlife enthusiasts know that if you want to see polar bears, Churchill, Canada, is the place to go. After all, it is commonly identified as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” and even has its own polar bear jail just outside the town limits.

Tundra buggies are the most common mode of travel for polar bear seekers wishing to see the top carnivore of the Arctic. However, tundra buggies are not the only option for polar bear viewing. If you want the real, on-the-ground, polar bear experience, you’ve got to go with Churchill Wild.

Foggy morning polar bear at Seal River

Foggy morning polar bear at Seal River

Located on Hudson Bay near the Seal River Estuary, Seal River Heritage Lodge is one of several Churchill Wild lodges located in the wilds of Canada. Known for being a secluded getaway, you won’t see another soul in sight, or even another plane, train, or automobile.

The little single-engine “Beaver” that drops you off at the Lodge is the only connection you will have to the outside world until it returns to pick you up five days later. Hopefully you learn to like the members of the group, and the lodge staff, because you are literally stuck with these folks for the duration of your trip.

Admittedly, the lodge staff, made up entirely of immediate and extended family members, with the exception of the two guides/bodyguards, were absolutely stellar and heart-warming. The food was also five-star cuisine!

Our fellow adventurers were also great people with many diverse experiences and backgrounds. In addition to the three of us (ranchers), we were accompanied by a principal, swimming pool builder, retired real estate agent, chemist, accountant, family of four, hilarious doctor from the Bronx, psychiatrist, librarian, and even a famous travel writer.

While tundra buggies provide a safe, high-perched, behind-the glass, kind of experience; it would be deemed BORING when compared to Churchill Wild’s EXHILIRATING walking trips. Furthermore, tundra buggies only provide polar bear viewing opportunities in the fall, whereas Churchill Wild offers summer trips too.

Photographing polar bears at ground level

Photographing polar bears at ground level

These summer trips provide tourists with a different scene for polar bear viewing. You won’t see any snow, ice, or ringed seals this time of year. In fact, the typical white background of most polar bear photos is replaced with the vibrant pinks and greens of lush fireweed, grass, and willows. Ringed seals are also replaced with sik siks (arctic prairie dogs).

Likewise, the ferocious, terrifying, killing beasts of the winter turn into a mellow, sleepy bums in the summer. They often lie around on the rocks during low tide and appear as “polar boulders”. Sometimes it takes a second, third, or even a fourth look to see if that boulder over there seems to have a furry texture or if it’s moving. If the true identity of that boulder is too difficult to discern from the “compound”, than why not just take a hike and see for yourself?

Don’t get me wrong, safety is still of the utmost concern and one is constantly guarded by guys with guns when outside the compound, but the nerves of walking alongside the largest land carnivore on earth seem less than frightening. Even up-close-and-personal encounters provided exciting, yet comfortable, viewing experiences.

Churchill Wild is the ONLY tourist company in the world that allows you to step outside the safe confines of a vehicle, fence, or structure and actually walk with polar bears. You walk out in the open and approach bears to within 50 yards both on land and in the zodiac boats.

When in the compound (the fenced yard surrounding the lodge, made 12’ high with 6” wire mesh), guests can literally get within a few feet of the bears. The guide did mention at one point that the fence would not keep a desperate bear out, but rather just act as a deterrent or small obstacle.

Nevertheless, we all flocked to the fence when the opportunity arose to stare into the eyes of passing polar bear. The bear in the photo album below was totally calm and seemed to care less that there were a bunch of ecstatic tourists just on the other side of this seemingly wimpy fence. He stuck around for an hour or more, posed several times for the camera, fiddled with a bird feather on the edge of the deck, swatted some nagging mosquitos, and even took a snooze before our eyes!

Another time, we got very close to three different polar bears swimming in the water. We were in our zodiacs, but still…they were so close and are excellent swimmers.

Though polar bears often steal the show in Churchill, an equally impressive distant relative, the beluga whale, deserves just as much credit. Thousands of belugas migrate into the Hudson Bay during the summer to raise their young, shred dead skin, and enjoy the summer season. Their spirited chirps, whistles, and chatter, ring underwater and righteously honor their reputation as “Sea Canaries” (aka not-so-feathery seabirds).

Beluga whale couple at Seal River

Beluga whale couple at Seal River

Seeing beluga whales from above the water is majestic in itself, but the real action comes when you take the plunge into the water with them. Even though they are carnivores in the sense that they eat fish and other sea creatures, belugas are very gentle and friendly when it comes to people. Just hook up your snorkel and face mask and start humming your favorite song.

The belugas don’t care if you’re a rock star or a beginner singing nursery rhymes; to them, it’s all new and different. Before long, their curiosity becomes irresistible and belugas start showing up everywhere. Swimming within inches of you, the whales sometimes even give little nudges, nibbles, or even a kiss. It is truly a life-changing experience to be touched by a beluga!

All in all, Churchill Wild’s catalog of world-class trips is a MUST-DO for any avid traveler or wildlife aficionado. From furry boulders to feathery and not-so-feathery seabirds, you’ll see it all at Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Trips are suited for all sorts of people. Kids, parents, grandparents, singles, families, and couples are all welcome, and everyone will thoroughly enjoy it. In addition to the Birds, Bears, and Belugas trip that the Millers took, Churchill Wild also offers several other polar bear and wildlife-viewing trips.

Churchill Wild does not disappoint!

Note: A selection of Katlin’s photos from Seal River Heritage Lodge are included below. You can view her full photo album from the Birds, Bears and Belugas Adventure here.

 

Moms, Cubs, Blooms and Belugas all in fine form at Seal River!

 by Terry Elliot, Churchill Wild Polar Bear Guide

Mom & Cubs at Seal River

Mom & Cubs at Seal River

Just about at the halfway point of our summer season and I thought I would let everyone know how things have been going.

There have been so many mothers and cubs this year that I have lost count! This morning we saw a Mom with two cubs nursing on the tidal flats with another Mom and her cub in the distance. The last group saw two separate nursing sessions with one of the cubs vocalizing his displeasure at having to move on too soon.

Great groups of people and everyone leaving just blown away by the things they have seen. The belugas have been amazing with many of the guests getting kissed and nuzzled by them.

Getting friendly with the Belugas!

Getting friendly with the Belugas!

The flower bloom has been spectacular (as usual) and thanks to a warm dry spring the bugs have been almost nonexistent. Looking forward to the rest of the season, and to the Arctic Safari, my favourite trip!

Bye! Have fun with the Belugas!

Bye! Have fun with the Belugas!

Birds, Bears & Beluga Whale Snorkeling! A Great Summer at Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Our Birds, Bears & Belugas Adventure is winding down now, but the summer of 2012 was certainly one of our best ever for walking with polar bears and swimming with beluga whales! A big thank you goes out to our fabulous guests!

This year the bears were aided by a late thaw, which resulted in them being fat and healthy when they ventured off the ice and into our polar bear viewing domain. Spots for the 2013 Birds, Bears & Belugas Adventure are already filling up. Watch for Seal River Heritage Lodge to be featured in future IMAX, National Geographic and Discovery Channel productions. Churchill Wild is truly becoming the home of the world’s next great safari!

Many people are intrigued by the beluga whale swims. Below is a short video to give you an idea of what you’re missing. It is an incredible experience!

YouTube Preview Image

One of the aspects not readily apparent in the video above is the fact that the whales are singing.  Beluga whales are known as the “Canaries of the Sea” because of their chirping. When your head is in the water you can hear them. If you sing or hum through your snorkel, the whales respond in kind. Whether it be a Broadway show tune, your alma mater song or the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” — they all worked for guests this summer!

Below are a few photos from one of our beluga whale swims this summer. Click the image to scroll through the photos or click Show picture list to view the photo gallery.

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.

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?