AND POLAR BEARS
A BIG FISH EXPEDITIONS TRIP REPORT
There are good trips and then there are great
trips. Our recent expedition to snorkel with belugas in
northern Canada falls firmly in the second category.
Churchill is a very special place. Perched on
the southern shore of Hudson Bay in northern Canada, it is
only reachable by plane or by overnight train across the
permafrost. Its remoteness is immediately obvious when you
step outside the terminal and look across the desolate
landscape at the utilitarian buildings that form the town.
Even in the summer months, there is often a
fresh breeze blowing a blanket of slate grey clouds across
the tundra at this latitude. Fortunately, the day we arrived
the clouds parted and the sun cast its orange warmth over
the frozen north and stayed there more or less until the day
When we got to the hotel the reports were
good: the belugas had arrived in force! So we jumped in the
4x4 trucks that I had arranged to give our small group the
freedom to explore, and we bounced along dirt roads to the
river mouth to see for ourselves. Sure enough, there were
hundreds of alabaster cetaceans moving from the river to the
bay with the outgoing tide.
Even from a distance, visibility looked
challenging but we knew it would be and it was better than
the alternative. There is a spot in Russia's white sea where
you can dive with belugas in far clearer water but in that
location there is a net across the exit to the bay so the
belugas are effectively held captive albeit in a large
natural enclosure. That was not something we wanted to
support so here we were in Churchill, Manitoba determined to
swim with white whales in green tinted water; it was all
part of the allure!
The next morning we donned wetsuits and
drysuits and boarded two small zodiacs to find the whales.
That first day, most of the whales stayed in the river where
the visibility was really bad.
Fortunately, belugas are such curious and
playful animals that as we motored through the silty water a
pod soon started following us. Before long they came right
up to the back of the zodiac to play in the wash from the
propeller. Not one to miss a photo opportunity, I dunked my
camera over the transom and took a series of shots of the
belugas staring at their reflections in my dome port.
Eventually the whales moved out into the bay
where the viz was just good enough for us to slip into the
water with some hope of actually seeing them. They were
timid at first but now and then one or two would swim close
enough to get a better look through the emerald green water.
It was clear to me that they were just as enthralled by the
encounters as we were.
That afternoon we drove along the shore in
search of polar bears. The tundra is mostly composed of
sand, scrub and low lying granite rocks with a few stunted
trees here and there. One would think it would be easy to
spot an enormous, white, relatively common animal against
such a backdrop but no matter how far we drove the bears
eluded us. While wandering down a dirt track we stumbled
upon a plane wreck that the locals nicknamed Miss Piggy
because it was overweight when it crashed.
The next morning we couldn't wait to get back
out to sea. Jumping in near a large pod, we tried mimicing
their sounds and humming tunes through our snorkels; a trick
that we had been told would encourage the whales to come
Both techniques seemed to work quite well.
Some guests hummed songs by The Beatles, some tried to chirp
like the belugas and one diver swore that the American
Anthem was the most effective. I tried all sorts of noises
and tunes and the one that worked the best for me was
Revallie, perhaps because of the staccato high notes that
sound a bit like beluga-speak.
Before long the belugas were all around us
but tantalizingly deep. I tried free diving (no easy task in
a drysuit) but the bulk of the whales were down at 40ft
hunting for capelin. After some coaching from John Dickinson
(one of our guests who happens to own Florida Freedivers) I
finally made it down to the main pods and snapped away
through the murky water.
That afternoon we headed off on a another
exploratory drive across the tundra. Still no bears but we
found a patch of land with scores of sled dogs staked out
along a river. After a little investigation, we learned that
the dogs are pure bred Eskimo dogs that a local breeder is
trying to bring back from the brink of extinction. Eskimo
dogs are one of rarest breeds in the world with only a few
hundred remaining. Apparently, the Canadian government did
their best to eradicate the dogs in order to undermine Inuit
culture at a time when their land was being settled by
The next day we intended to dive with the
belugas again but when we motored out of the bay we found a
polar bear mother and her two year old cub, snoozing
together by the shore. Polar bears only hunt for a few
months each year so the rest of the time they relax to
conserve energy. To our delight, the cub decided to go for a
swim while his mother diligently stood guard nearby. We had
all hoped we would have this kind of encounter but I could
not believe our luck!
For the next two hours we watched in
wonderment as the cub played in the cool water. Every now
and then it would clamber out onto a rock and give itself a
shake. Then it would slip back into the water and pick up
bits of kelp to nibble on. It was an absolutely perfect
photo opportunity with great light and posing bears. Of
course, some of us wanted to enter the water with our
cameras but our captain wouldn't hear of it :)
After our encounter with the polar bears we
still had time to visit the belugas. It seemed as though
they grew bolder each day or perhaps we just got better at
getting closer to them.
Later in the afternoon we hiked out on the
tidal flats to the wreck of the Ithaca; a 260ft ship that
ran aground in 1960. Upon returning to Churchill, we found
out that the wreck is sometimes a haunt for polar bears on
warm summer days :)
That night we drove to the edge of town to
shoot the northern lights. Although they were not quite as
strong as they sometimes get, we could see the tell tale
green glow of solar activity flickering across the heavens.
On our fourth and final day in the water, the
belugas were the most playful we had seen them. They
responded to our clumsy attempts to communicate and even
copied our own movements. For example, if we nodded at them
or wriggled in the water, some would mimic what we did. It
really seemed as though the belugas were as fascinated with
us as we were with them.
While our dive gear dried out for the journey
home, we boarded the tundra buggy and went in search of
bears and other terrestrial wildlife.
The tundra buggy can reach coastal areas that even the most
robust 4x4 would struggle in. its high sides offer
unparalleled views of the tundra while providing a safe
platform for traveling through bear country.
For 6 hours we combed the tundra and
unearthed sprawling polar bears, prancing caribou and a
variety of tundra bird life. It was a great way to finish
off an extremely well rounded expedition.
Here is a great video shot during the expedition
by John Dickenson:
Next year Big Fish Expeditions will be back
in Churchill for another Beluga Whale Expedition. Join us
2015 Beluga Whale
COMMENTS FROM OUR GUESTS FOR THIS
YEAR'S BELUGA WHALE EXPEDITION:
This was my second trip with Andy and it
keeps getting better and better!..
The unique types of trips he runs offer
even the most seasoned traveler a great adventure and out of
the box experience. The belugas were up close and personal
and the additional sightings of polar bears, northern lights
and the eskimo dogs were icing on an already tasty cake. I
look forward to future "see whats out there kinda trips".
Paul Holbrook, Massachusetts, USA.
We journeyed to Churchill,
Manitoba, to snorkel with beluga whales and as a sideline
attraction, see polar bears in the wild.
In between these
excursions, Andy arranged impromptu day trips wherein we
were able to drive as far as the local roads would take us
to discover the hidden parts of Churchill. Or we would all
stay up until 2AM several nights in a row to try and
photograph the northern lights.
For some, this trip was a
life changing experience, for others one that stirred their
soul. Many proclaimed, it was the best trip ever! Indeed,
many new friendships were formed with not only fellow trip
participants, but also some of the residents in Churchill.
As an experienced diving
photojournalist who has enjoyed many off the beaten path
adventures, this is one I would highly recommend and would
return to again in a heartbeat. Thank you! Andy Murch and
Big Fish Expeditions for making it all unfold so
Jett Britnell, British
I think it really hit me
about the third day in. I was in no ordinary place. No roads
lead here, you can only arrive by plane or train. There are
no stop lights, barely any traffic. You can walk everywhere.
But Churchill is indeed a magical place. Where else on earth
can you go snorkeling with belugas, witness polar bears and
then see the Northern Lights all in the same day? And then
wake up and do it all over again? You knocked this one out
of the park Andy Murch!!
Bobbi Dickinson, Jupiter,