AND POLAR BEAR ENCOUNTERS
Belugas and Polar Bears 2016 in a
This year in Churchill we enjoyed
consistently good snorkeling with large pods of friendly
beluga whales and off the chart encounters with polar bears.
Not only was the visibility exceptionally
good, it seemed as though the belugas were even friendlier
than in previous years. For example, each day that we were
in the water, we had very close passes from beluga mothers
with newborn calves. It is a very special feeling to be
trusted enough by a cetacean to let you get within
touching distance of their precious offspring.
Visibility is always a concern when you're
snorkeling in a river mouth but this year the water was
extremely clear. So clear in fact, we were able to
photograph pods of belugas swimming over the seafloor
Beluga Pod from Andy Murch on Vimeo.
A Feast of Capelin
The belugas congregate at the southern tip of
Hudson Bay for a number of reasons. The protected waters
attract very few large predators so its a relatively safe
location for pregnant belugas to give birth to their
pups. The belugas also travel south to consume enormous
quantities of capelin; a small slender fish that forms
massive schools that blanket the sea floor.
And lastly, the belugas rub themselves on the
shallow seafloor and rocks to slough off a layer of skin.
Once all of these activities have been completed, they make
a hasty retreat back to the open ocean in the north before
the ice sheets form over the bay. Any belugas that don't
make it out of Hudson Bay before the freeze will either
suffocate or be forced to breathe from seal haul out points
and other natural gaps where the ice doesn't form. When
belugas are confined to a breathing hole,
they are easy targets for polar bears. Not surprisingly, by
mid August, most of the belugas are already on their way
An Unexpected Kill
The bears wait for winter to head out onto
the ice to hunt. During the summer (when we are there) its
unusual for the polar bears to eat any food at all.
Overheated and undernourished, they can
often be seen lounging around on the rocky shoreline or
cooling off in the water.
This year we were treated to two
fantastic spectacles that we didn't expect. On our first
week, a beluga carcass washed up on the shore line near
Eskimo Point - a favorite summer haunt of polar bears.
Its not clear why the carcass appeared. The
unfortunate beluga may have been killed by a bear but its
likely that it was shot by an Inuit hunter and the mukluk
(skin and blubber) harvested to feed their dogs. The remains
of the carcass probably floated around in the bay until a
bear smelled it and pulled it out of the water. However it
got there, the resulting 'feast of the polar bears' was a
sight to behold!
For two days there were at least eight fully
grown ice bears munching on beluga meat. We witnessed lots
of challenges during which two bears would growl and snap at
each other until one would back down and let the other take
over the carcass. At one point we had four bears eating
together until they completely ripped the beluga in half and
went to different ends of the beach. It was a very special
occasion that we all felt privileged to have attended.
By the time our second group arrived, the
remaining pieces of the carcass had been completely consumed
or perhaps dragged away to be savored at leisure. The guests
were disappointed to have missed the show but there were
still plenty of bears around and some of them were quite
Sometimes we found bears wandering through
the tall grass along the shore looking for tern nests that
had a good supply of eggs - barely a snack for a hungry bear
but better than nothing.
Then, on our third day of week two, we
stumbled upon another amazing sight; two full grown polar
bears wrestling in the water together. Although they looked
quite ferocious at times as they swatted and lunged at each
other, it was clear that they were play fighting. Battles
for supremacy do not take place in the summer heat and the
bears were obviously enjoying themselves. Regardless,
the resulting images and video were very dramatic!
Exploring the Tundra
Each afternoon, we drove out of Churchill to
explore the rugged beauty of the tundra landscape. From the
reactions of our guests, I think everyone fell under the
spell of the untouched wilderness.
As well as exploring the tundra during the
day, the vehicles
also came in handy for watching auroras during the extremely
short sub-polar nights. Under the cover of darkness, we
waited for solar storms to reach the atmosphere and then
rushed out of town to enjoy the spectacular light show.
Wildlife on the Tundra Buggy
On the last day of each week, we abandoned
the belugas and boarded the tundra buggy - a 12ft/4m high
vehicle that is capable of reaching remote places that we
could not have reached in our trucks. We saw caribou, more
bears and even a snowy owl but the highlight of the day was
an encounter with a family of arctic foxes. Although the
foxes are white in the winter, they grow a thin grey-brown
coat in the summer that helps them blend into the landscape
while they are hunting.
Join us in 2017
All told, it was a phenomenal couple of weeks
in northern Canada. Both the beluga and polar bear
interactions were our best yet. Next year we will be back
again to enjoy more great encounters. Join us there!
and Polar Bears 2017