Destinations

Travel Experience: Whale Watching and Polar Bear-spotting in Canada’s Churchill, Manitoba

Travel Experience: Whale Watching and Polar Bear-spotting in Canada’s Churchill, Manitoba

Summer is a magical time to explore the edges of the Canadian Arctic, finds Meera Dattani on a trip to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

In the summer, while temperatures in the Middle East soar, something incredible happens in the sub-Arctic Canadian town of Churchill: beluga whales flock to Hudson Bay to feed, mate and birth in its waters.

Kitted out in drysuits and full-face snorkels, three of us lie, top and tail, across a lilo, secured by a slow-moving Zodiac inflatable boat, our faces immersed in the water as we get our first taste of aqua-gliding. Beluga whales swim around us, their smooth bodies emerging occasionally above the water, dipping down gently, often with a baby to one side.

Beluga whales swim around us, their smooth bodies emerging occasionally above the water

Below the water’s surface, we’re transported to another world, one where ghostly, white beluga whales swim around us, some playful, some curious, coming up close to see what this oddity is.

Churchill, in the far north of Canada’s Manitoba province, is better known for northern lights sightings and polar bears – mainly seen in September and October, when the Arctic pack ice forms, but summertime has its own appeal in this faraway town: Beluga whales in abundance – about 3,000 in the Churchill river basin itself. Arctic tern birds perch on every rock, and there’s even the potential to spot polar bears as they edge towards the bay, in anticipation of the soon-to-form ice.

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Back on the Zodiac, the belugas’ friendly nature is audible. These seriously sociable ‘sea canaries’ are chatting away, clicking, whistling and clanging non-stop, while their five-inch-thick blubber keeps them warm.

They swim around us, their smooth bodies emerging occasionally above the water, dipping down gently, often with a baby to one side. “Listen to them sing,” says our guide, Jason Ransom from Lazy Bear Expeditions. We sit quietly, mesmerised by their display.

They swim around us, their smooth bodies emerging occasionally above the water

Later that week, we take kayaks on to Hudson Bay. Almost level with the water, we’re practically beside the belugas as they swim up to the boat, the odd one nudging the rudder. For those who prefer a little more distance,  excursions on larger vessels provide almost as thrilling sightings.

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Wildlife is only half the story in the ‘polar bear capital of the world’. Thanks to its location on the Churchill River, which feeds into the Hudson Bay, Churchill was once at the heart of the fur trade, and in the 17th century, was the lucrative Hudson Bay Company’s first trading post. It was also a research station, rocket launch site, supply centre and military base during the Second World War and Cold War.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Churchill was once home to more than 4,000 people – it even had a Ford car dealership. Now it has a population of just 900 and one supermarket (Northern Store)  where everybody knows your name. In its compact streets with their low-rise buildings and smattering of hotels and lodges, including the family-run Lazy Bear Lodge (also home to the town’s best restaurant), there’s a surprising amount to see.

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In recent years, Canadian authorities have made greater efforts to bring in indigenous First Nations, Métis and Inuit perspectives and history, as exemplified by Churchill’s Parks Canada Interpretation Centre, inside the railway station. Land grabbing and children forced into residential schools in an attempt to strip away indigenous culture are among the stories told, often by local Inuit or Cree people. Our guide, Florence Hamilton, is descended from the Sayisi Dene people that settled in this area. “All my stories are here in Churchill,” she tells us. The centre also addresses climate change, and photos and videos depict Churchill in its heyday.

Churchill’s top pick is the Itsanitaq Museum (previously the Eskimo Museum), which is the place to learn about Inuit culture. Carvings of Inuit life, polar bear masks and whale horns keep me hooked for hours. It has an excellent gift shop too, although the best place in town for northern crafts is Arctic Trading Company, on Churchill’s ‘high street’.

Walking through Churchill is a treat. While the town may appear to be asleep, there’s plenty to see. Don’t miss the inuksuit, stone landmarks used by the Inuit to communicate messages dotted around town; the bright murals that address issues of sub-Arctic life, and the new Polar Bears International House visitor centre. Even the post office is an attraction if you want a polar bear stamp in your passport. In peak polar bear season, visitors are wise to heed safety signs and not go walking where bears may wander.

In peak polar bear season, visitors are wise to heed safety signs and not go walking where bears may wander

“It might sound weird, but the community centre is a good way to find out what living in Churchill means,” Jason tells us. He’s right. The centre is a social hub, library, hospital, theatre, gym, hockey arena, curling rink, pool, school and polar bear safety centre, all in one.

The polar bear ‘jail’ (officially the Polar Bear Holding Facility) is another example of how life here differs; polar bear patrols safely capture and release any bears found in town. In peak polar bear season, visitors are wise to heed safety signs and not go walking where bears may wander.

In the area around Churchill, clients can also go husky-sledding in summer, and explore the tundra on specially designed vehicles. Each company or lodge has its own trademarked brand; we’re on Lazy Bear’s Arctic Crawlers, giant caravan-like vehicles with monster tyres, perfect for combing the greenery and appreciating the remoteness and vastness of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.

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While everyone’s scanning the horizon for polar bears, it’s worth looking among the wildflowers for likely summer sightings such as Arctic hares and foxes.

Churchill’s whimsical nature is nicely exemplified by the wreckage of ‘Miss Piggy’. When this freight plane crashed over town in 1979, it would have cost a lot to remove it, so it remained. Since then, the wreck, known as Miss Piggy because its cargo was made up of pigs, has become a famous sight.

Also worth a visit is Fort Churchill at Cape Merry, for the spectacular bay views. The Prince of Wales Fort, built by the Hudson Bay Company in the 1700s, when the English and French were battling for the lucrative fur trade, is accessible via boat trips.

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One evening, we sail into the bay on the lodge’s vessel, named after 18th-century explorer Sam Hearne. Beluga whales splash about below us while Arctic terns fly above – it’s idyllic.

Then there’s a hushed, excited gasp. On the rocks is a mother polar bear with a cub. They seem unbothered or unaware of us, padding about the cliffs. For most of us, it’s our first polar bear sighting. We photograph and watch the pair for a long while before they head out of sight.

Later, over a drink at the Tundra Inn, the town’s only standalone pub, we can’t stop talking about it. We saw the holy trinity of bears, belugas and birds – the reward for a summertime visit to Churchill.

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Getting There
Multiple airlines fly from the GCC to Toronto, from there take a domestic flight to Winnipeg. Most package deals start and end with a night in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, worth a visit for its emerging art, food and culture scene. From here, it’s a two-hour flight to Churchill. Due to unpredictable weather, it’s wise to allow buffer time for onward travel. For adventurous clients, consider the two-night Via Rail train journey from Winnipeg to Churchill.

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