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 we left.
When we got to the hotel the reports were good: the belugas had arrived in force! So we jumped in the 4×4 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 mimicking their sounds and humming tunes through our snorkels; a trick that we had been told would encourage the whales to come closer.
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 European immigrants.
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 4×4 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.
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 effortlessly.
Jett Britnell, British Columbia, Canada
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, Florida