A whale of an ad­ven­ture in north­ern Man­i­toba

Up close and per­sonal with Churchill’s whim­si­cal bel­u­gas


CHURCHILL, Man. — All it takes is a quick pad­dle from the west­ern shore of Hud­son Bay and the smil­ing, cu­ri­ous face of a bel­uga whale peeks out of the wa­ter to greet kayak­ers float­ing by.

The north­ern Man­i­toba com­mu­nity of Churchill is known as the po­lar bear cap­i­tal of the world, but the largest pop­u­la­tion of bel­uga whales also calls its Hud­son Bay coast­line home.

Dressed in a wet­suit, with the cool air of the bay at your back, you can kayak just past the com­mu­nity’s port and meet the in­quis­i­tive stares of dozens of the grey­ish-white whale. It’s an up-close and per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence that you can’t get many other places in the world when a bel­uga whale swims around your kayak, giv­ing it a play­ful nudge.

As the ice melts in the spring, more than 57,000 whales — onethird of the world’s pop­u­la­tion — head into the warm wa­ters of the estuaries formed by the Seal, Nel­son and Churchill rivers to breed, feed and moult.

The play­ful mam­mals swim in pods, div­ing deep into the wa­ter be­fore com­ing up to the sur­face and shoot­ing air out of their blow­holes, to the de­light of peo­ple nearby. The whales can be watched from the shore, but a hand­ful of tourism com­pa­nies run pro­fes­sion­ally guided ad­ven­tures into the wa­ter by boat, kayak or pad­dle­board.

Wally Dau­drich, owner of Lazy Bear Ex­pe­di­tions and pres­i­dent of the Churchill Bel­uga Whale Tour Op­er­a­tor As­so­ci­a­tion, said there is a cer­tain whimsy when you are in the pres­ence of bel­uga whales.

“They have this per­ma­nent smile on their face that you just can’t wipe off, and just the an­tic that they play when they are un­der wa­ter look­ing up at the boat you see them spin­ning around,” he said.

Bel­u­gas are unique phys­i­o­log­i­cally be­cause, un­like most other whales, their neck ver­te­brae are not fused. That is why they look like they are ar­tic­u­lat­ing with their necks, Dau­drich ex­plained.

“They look like they are us­ing a chin and agree­ing with you by mov­ing their heads up and down,” he said.

For the tourists will­ing to slip into a wet­suit, the whales come right up to their kayak or pad­dle­board, ap­pear­ing to nod their ap­proval that you’ve joined them for a chilly swim. You’ll be sur­rounded by a hand­ful of whales al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter en­ter­ing the wa­ter.

“It’s the in­ter­ac­tion that peo­ple are re­ally thrilled with ... an­other in­tel­li­gent an­i­mal that is look­ing at me and is cog­nizant of my pres­ence as I am of their pres­ence,” Dau­drich said.

The cool weather may keep most of the tourists in­side their in­flat­able boat, which al­lows for prox­im­ity but keeps peo­ple dry.

Dau­drich said guides never pur­sue the whales and keep a dis­tance from pods. But when the boat mo­tor is turned off the whales sur­round them.

Guides drop a spe­cial mi­cro­phone called a hy­drophone into the wa­ter and sud­denly its clear why the bel­u­gas are nick­named sea ca­naries. A high-pitched whistling, click­ing and chirp­ing rings out of a Blue­tooth speaker on the boat.

The whales’ song makes the per­fect at­mos­phere for watch­ing them dive and dance around the boats, but it also has an im­por­tant pur­pose for their sur­vival. The click­ing bounces off fish and other things in the wa­ter so bel­u­gas can nav­i­gate and hunt.

The bel­uga whale al­ways played an im­por­tant role for the Inuit com­mu­ni­ties along the bay — whale fat is made into oil and the skin and blub­ber is made into muk­tuk, which pro­vides es­sen­tial nu­tri­ents like vi­ta­min C and vi­ta­min D. Cree and Dene hunted bel­u­gas, too.

As the Churchill area be­came a hub for trade in the 1700s, whale con­tin­ued to be a source of food but it never be­came a main re­source.

Over the years there were some at­tempts at a com­mer­cial whal­ing op­er­a­tion — one fac­tory made whales into dog food — but most were un­suc­cess­ful and ceased op­er­a­tion half a cen­tury ago.

Now bel­uga whales are an im­por­tant part of the com­mu­nity’s eco­tourism. In 2016, bel­uga-re­lated tourism was es­ti­mated at $5.6 mil­lion an­nu­ally be­tween June 15 and Aug. 30, with ex­pec­ta­tions it would con­tinue to grow.

But Dau­drich said there are se­ri­ous con­cerns about new rules im­posed by Fish­eries and Oceans Canada, which says there needs to be a 50-me­tre clear­ance for boats to ap­proach bel­uga whales. He said be­cause there are so many whales in the bay, just putting a boat in the wa­ter could con­sti­tute break­ing the rules.

How­ever, he is hope­ful there will be a way to keep the ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence with the whales ac­ces­si­ble.

“We are treat­ing them re­spect­fully,” he said. “I al­ways jok­ingly tell my clients we are part­ners in whale watch­ing be­cause (the whales) par­tic­i­pate so well with us. Why would we mis­treat the an­i­mals that are the core of our busi­ness?”


A bel­uga whale sur­faces for air as whale watch­ers head out in kayaks on the Churchill River in Churchill, Man., Wed­nes­day, July 4, 2018. All it takes is a quick pad­dle from the west­ern shore of the Hud­son Bay and the smil­ing, cu­ri­ous face of a bel­uga whale peeks out of the wa­ter to greet kayak­ers float­ing by.

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