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Kayaking with the belugas on the Churchill River : an unforgettable experience

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Hello everyone!

I’m having a wonderful time in Churchill, Manitoba. For ten days now, I’ve been participating in various hikes and other types of outings to discover the nature and history of the area. So far, each day has offered multiple occasions to be amazed at what laid before our eyes or to be fascinated by the stories being told. But, without any hesitation I must admit that kayaking on the Churchill River among the beluga whales ranks as the #1 experience I’ve had so far in Churchill. Admiring the northern lights comes in close second. So does hiking along the Hudson Bay shores with a polar bear laying down on the rocks only 50 meters away!!

Polar Bear resting on the shores of the Hudson Bay near Halfway Point in Churchill

But, for now, let’s get back to our beluga watching outings.

As part of the Hudson Bay Beluga program (offered by Ursus International) we had the opportunity to observe the whales at three distinct occasions : once on a 32 passenger tour boat, once by zodiac and once by kayak. Then, as part of the Churchill Northern Science Center‘s Wild Planet program we were lucky to participate in two additional whale observation excursions : once by zodiac and once by kayak. All outings were conducted by Sea North Tours. Every time, the whales came swimming within a few feet of us. The highlight of the tour boat excursion was the ability to hear the various sounds made by the whales through a hydrophone. The belugas definitely have a large and most varied repertoire. A curious whale even came and played with the instrument that was hanging off the side of the boat.

Passengers of the tour boat observing a group of belugas swimming near the water surface

An advantage of observing the belugas from the boat was the fact that we could photograph them from a higher point of view. Here’s my favourite shot of a mother and calf coming to investigate the boat.

Mother and calf belugas swimming near the water surface.

As we all discovered, photographing beluga whales is quite a challenge. Of the hundreds of photographs taken by myself and my travelling companions, we could count on the fingers of one hand the shots where the eye of the whale was visible. All of us ended up with tons of photos of whale backs! Even tails are most difficult to get. After six outings (equivalent to close to 12 hours on the water) I’ve seen the tail of only three whales and I was not able to capture any on film. When going through my photographs, I was thrilled to notice one where the head of a young calf is above water. WOO HOO!! Here is that photo:

Young beluga whale coming out of the water for a few seconds. It's mother is right below.

As for the zodiac cruises, they allowed us to take shots much closer to the water level. On our first zodiac excursion, our driver, Bill, took us to Mosquito Point, some 8 km down the Churchill River, where the whales are known to congregate at high tide. Indeed, hundreds of them were in the area during our tour. At several occasions, the whales were following the zodiac so close to the motor that we were nervous about them getting hurt by the propeller. Bill wasn’t concerned. He knew the whales would keep a safe distance.

Each year, of the 20,000 beluga whales that spend the summer in the Hudson Bay 3,000 head for the estuary of the Churchill river. The Churchill belugas are recognized as being the world’s largest readily accessible population. After a quick survey of the individuals who participated in the two programs mentioned above, all identified the kayak as their preferred way to observe the whales. But, that’s not all! Everybody put the kayak excursion at the very top of their trip’s most memorable outing. You might be asking yourself why all of us enjoyed the experience so much?

Approaching beluga whales.

Well! I guess what makes this experience so unique is that it allowed us to have a one-on-one encounter with the whales. It was such a thrill to watch a whale or even better, a pod of whales or a mother and calf, approach us, separated only a thin layer of fiberglass. Even though the belugas are one of the smallest whales (from 3-5 meters in length), they seem huge and we felt so small as we watched them dive right under our kayaks. Quite often the whales came to check us out in groups. We didn’t have enough of one pair of eyes to see all of the whales we knew were by our side or behind us. If we couldn’t see them we could definitely hear them breathing and at several occasions we also distinguished the signals/sounds they were sending to each other. At first, the sounds appeared to be very bird-like and I was checking to see if there were birds flying over. But as none were in the neighbourhood, I quickly concluded that the canary-like sounds had to come from the belugas. Some people even reported hearing other types of sounds that reminded them of horses. So neat!

More than once I was startled by huge bubbles suddenly exploding right beside my kayak when I hadn’t even realized a beluga was so near. Some of the other kayakers reported whales lightly touching their kayak. The whales are so curious and playful.

One of the most memorable moment I lived was when a whale swam parallel to my kayak just a few centimeters away, switched to its side and turned its head to look at me right in the eyes for a few seconds!! Simply magical!

Belugas are the only whales that can swim backwards. We had been told that they would be intrigued and would come check us out if we paddled backwards. I experimented this method at a few occasions and indeed, shortly after I started to paddle backwards, it seemed that whales would come running!! Cool!

Kayaking on the Churchill river among the beluga whales.

Both times we went kayaking, none of us felt like heading back to shore. We could have kept going all day but the surveillance zodiac would politely remind us that the fun was over and that we had to slowly make our way back. That return trip turned into a magical moment when a group of six belugas escorted me for at least two minutes as I was paddling back to the port of Churchill. It seemed that they had adjusted their speed to mine so that they could stay by my side.

Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos to show of the kayak excursion as I opted to bring my video camera instead. Hopefully, I’ll be able to draw of short video of the best moments from the footage I am bringing back. I’ll definitely share it on this website as soon as I have time to prepare it.

See you next time!
France Rivet

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