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Posts Tagged ‘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.

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?

Polar bears, sandhill cranes, moose, wolves and whales make first week of Birds, Bears and Belugas a hit

Polar bear swimming in front of zodiak boat on Hudson Bay

Polar bear leads the way on Hudson Bay

In our first week of Birds, Bears and Belugas we spotted not just polar bears but also sandhill cranes, lots of wolves (with cubs!) two moose and a large numbers of beluga whales.

Our first meal interruption occurred last week when a polar bear showed up just as everyone was coming into the dining room for breakfast. We’ve been getting the boats in the water on a regular basis morning and night, weather and tides permitting.

Guests had a fabulous trip by boat to Hubbard Point, 77 kilometres Northwest of Churchill on the Hudson Bay Coast. It was almost too foggy to see but we still saw seven polar bears at close range and had one of our best beluga whale swims ever!

Handed out the first certificates of the season on July 27 and everyone is leaving happy!

Swim with beluga whales. Conquer your fears.

Got fear? Try swimming with Beluga Whales in Hudson Bay.

Got fear? Try swimming with Beluga Whales in Hudson Bay.

by George Williams

Got any fears you need to overcome? I have a cure for you. Jump into the icy, murky waters of Hudson Bay and swim with beluga whales.

And that’s after flying five miles over four-foot waves in an inflatable Zodiac boat powered by a 60-horsepower Mercury outboard. If you sit near the front of the boat, it’s like riding a bucking bronco. You have ropes to hold on to – and you need them.

Eventually you figure out how to ride the waves like a pro, but you’d never want to let your guard down. I’d almost gotten to that stage when we ran smack into a school of beluga whales at the mouth of Manitoba’s last great wild waterway, the Seal River, 25 miles north of Churchill on the Northwest coast of Hudson Bay. Twenty or more cows and calves and a few big males spraying and sunning themselves in the choppy waves.

There were two Zodiaks, one with six people and one with seven. The first person brave enough to take the plunge was Margo Pfeiff, a freelance journalist working on a story for the LA Times. How game was Margo? She was suiting up before we even reached the belugas. Our boat was a little less enthusiastic. When our guide Andy MacPherson asked who wanted to be first to swim with the belugas, there was frozen silence.  Nobody volunteered.

“I’ll go in,” I said. “There’s no way I came all the way up here NOT to go in.”

Of course I was only pretending to be brave. I was actually scared. Terrified might have been a better word.  I’d never snorkeled before, and I certainly didn’t think jumping into Hudson Bay a kilometer off shore was the best place to start learning. Especially with the world’s largest land carnivore, the great white polar bear, abandoning the weakening ice pack and looking for something warm and chewy for lunch after a long swim.

Animals can smell fear, right?

But I’d seen photos of others doing it, so it had to be safe. Besides, if Margo could do it, I could do it. And she was already in the water singing Frosty the Snowman to a slippery pod of her own.  I was definitely going in.

So they squished me into a dry suit that makes you look like a floating Michelin Man. There’s no way a polar bear would eat that, right? (I later found out that polar bears love to chew on rubber, and that they had on occasion used Zodiak boats as chew toys.)  I slid over the side of the boat and into the water, already hyperventilating through the snorkeling gear. I then swung my legs up to the boat so they could tie the safety rope around my feet.

“Ok, off you go.”  And I drifted into the sea.

“Put your face down into the water! Stick your toes out! Start singing!”

I could barely hear their voices. Little did they know I was still panicking inside while staring straight down into a dark, wet, unfamiliar world. “Breathe slowly…breathe slowly…,” I thought to myself. And it worked!

I started to calm down. I could breathe fine. The water was cold, but not unmanageable for a tough Winnipegger. It actually felt invigorating. But I couldn’t really see anything. I could hear the whales chirping and squealing and talking to each other, but I couldn’t see them.  I started to sing, “Sweet Home Alabama, Where skies are so blue…” Then it happened.

A huge ghostly white figure appeared and disappeared quickly below me. Then a yellow one. Then another.  The next thing I knew I was face to face with a beluga! And I was comfortable! This was no longer frightening. It was fun!

“Hi there,” I said with a smile. The beluga nodded back, waited a few seconds and vanished.  Just as quickly another appeared, then another. All face to face. I reached out to pat them, but they were always just a smidgeon out of reach. No matter, I was actually talking up close and personal to beluga whales, in THEIR house, and having a ball doing it!

I didn’t stay in the water much longer.  Somehow my conversation (or singing) wasn’t quite holding the belugas’ attention. Actually, it was one of those rare occasions when I was at a loss for words. I really need to brush up on my undersea conversation skills. Like Susan Knight, a Consultant Rheumatologist from the UK who was the next to make the voyage into the water.

Unlike Margo, who had some measure of success attracting the belugas with her gurgling version of House of the Rising Sun, Susan was singing what sounded like a Christmas carol.  Whatever it was, it worked. The belugas loved it! It seemed only fitting that the “Canaries of the Sea” would love a Christmas carol and Susan soon had a choir of happy belugas following her intently. In fact, they were turning around and making a beeline for her from all directions. The Beluga Queen, they all wanted a word with her.

YouTube Preview Image

In the other boat guided by Terry Elliot, Colin Earl, an Australian living in Canada and working in a mine in Russia, also had the language of the whales aced. It seems his experience with wildlife in numerous countries transferred to the water. He made the video above, and had a great chat with his sleek new friends. One of them even gave him a love bite. He said it never happened. (His wife Vicki was in the boat above keeping a close eye on him.)

Regardless, I got none of that action.  But I did conquer my fear of the unknown!  And it was, after all, my first date… with a beluga whale.


Read more about swimming and snorkeling with the beluga whales, walking with polar bears and trekking the tundra with Churchill Wild, in Margo Pfeiff’s article, The Arctic warmth of Hudson Bay’s belugas, that appeared in the L.A. Times Travel section.


Learn more about swimming with beluga whales on the Birds, Bears and Belugas Adventure page at Churchill Wild.

Disclaimer: George Williams does contract Internet work for Churchill Wild.

Please (polar) bear with me…

Polar bear looking fior lunch! Rebecca Reimer Photo

Polar bear looking for lunch! - Rebecca Reimer Photo

by Doreen Booth

It was an early start on my first day of the tour and I would come to learn that there were many more sunrise beginnings during my northern adventure! As I am new to the company (not new to the family) I was going to the lodge to see what we are all about. No matter how many stories I heard, nothing prepared me for the experience I was going to have!

The day of my departure to the lodge was extremely windy, and not that I like to admit this, but I am not the best “flier”. Our friendly pilot, Nelson, knows this all too well and let me have the co-pilot’s seat on the way out to the lodge. When we landed, the departing guests advised us to watch out for the bear on the trail. WOW, our first bear already? We were able to snap a few photos of him napping on the trail before he awoke to his audience and went to look for a private room.

After a delicious lunch and our visitor’s briefing, we headed out on our fist hike braving those still strong winds and walking at a slight angle in order to stay standing up! We saw four more bears and hadn’t even gone very far. We made sure to get back to the lodge in time for appetizers and drinks. What a great way to wind down in the lounge with a fire going in the woodstove, large picture windows facing the bay, and a glass of wine! I like it here already.

The following days were a blur! We were up at 7 a.m. for coffee and enjoyed the view out the large lounge windows.  All you saw was water, rocks and oh yes POLAR BEARS! There was a spotting scope for everyone to use and we were always on the lookout. We could see the bears coming from miles away and it was truly amazing to watch them swim to shore as they can move extremely quickly through the water.

After breakfast we would get ready for our first hike of the day! There were some (me for example) that didn’t go out for a hike and would stay at the lodge to enjoy some peace and quiet. Little did we know that there wouldn’t be much peace. There were bears sauntering around the lodge, sik-siks (ground squirrels) posing for you, bears galore to watch and we even got to go Cloudberry picking! Jeanne had an itch to make fresh cloudberry jam so off we went to pick.

The bears sure had us busy at the lodge during our stay. We had a bear playing with Mike’s boat in the middle of the night (we heard the bear bangers go off), we even had a bear peaking through someone’s window and I am not sure who was more scared the bear or Ida! A few of us were whale watching. We all made our way down to the boats and we were all very excited in anticipation of the Belugas we were going to see.

It was a quick trip to the river and once we arrived you could see these magnificent whales swimming all around. They very quickly came up to the boat to see what we were all about. They would turn over onto their backs and look up at you through the water. It was just amazing!! The next step was to get our first “swimmer” into the water.

Robert was in a dry suit with a snorkel and mask. He was so ecstatic that I think he would have just jumped straight in to see the whales. He was given directions to put his feet into the loop and we would start up the boat. The rest of us were amazed that he was willing to get into the water with these large animals. Turns out I am a big chicken – I just couldn’t get in. We started the boat and started to pull Robert behind us slowly. Our guide Andy told us to just watch – well wouldn’t you know it but whales were coming from all over to check out Robert in the water. They were only a few feet in front, beside and under him!

It is difficult to express what an amazing experience we had. I can give you as much information as you need prior to coming to the lodge but nothing really prepares you for what you are about to experience and enjoy!