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Churchill wildlife: polar bears and beyond

I try not to get too hyped up before visiting a new destination, keeping research slim and daydreaming to a minimum. That way, I persist in being present, taking surprises in stride and soaking in moments of adventure I couldn’t have perhaps foreseen. That is not however, how things went down prior to visiting Churchill, Manitoba.

This was instead, a lifetime dream in the making. I was the kid who opted for polar bear posters on my wall over the boy bands of my time. I simply loved bears more than Backstreet Boys.

Though my visit would be in mid-August, off-season for Churchill bears, I just knew it would be magical. After all, how could the proclaimed ‘polar bear capital of the world’ disappoint?

Fresh from a 2 ½ hour flight from Winnipeg, the adventure began immediately. Alongside six other journalists, we bounced along a bumpy, desolate tundra road toward Churchill in an up-cycled, antiquated school bus.

Five minutes in came our first and what would turn out to be, closest interaction with a bear. Shaking and unsuccessful at containing high-pitched squeals (I wasn’t the only one!), I rushed to put together my camera gear. In my haste, my lens fell off while lining up my shot and I ended up with an image of the massive white bear retreating. Fail.

We would go on and see 14 more bears and have multiple opportunities to view and photograph them, albeit from afar; ending with a stellar moment at Hubbard’s Point. The remote Point, 90 kilometers south of the Nunavut/Manitoba border is a prominent point of land jutting two miles into the Hudson Bay.

Decked out in an oversized Helly Hansen suit that would surely prevent me from escaping the clutches of a polar bear if it decided to give chase, but designed to me warm and afloat, we traveled there via a 14 tonne vessel named after Sam Hearne. Hearne, a British voyager born in 1745, was the first European explorer of the Arctic’s barren tundra.

On the beach as we approached, a mom and cub sat only 75 meters away. There they stayed keeping tabs on us, but remained uninterested, only lifting their heads. Known for being a bear hotspot, we stayed together in a tight group and spotted another six bears in the distance – all apathetic. Bears at this time of year are in a lethargic state, or ‘walking hibernation’, storing energy for winter months ahead.

Optimal bear viewing is throughout October and November. This is when Churchill’s small community of 800 or so, bustles with scores of tourists who come to see the white wonders up close.

The adaptability of animal species in Churchill, especially in the winter is exceptional. It’s not only animals that successfully acclimate – Churchill is home to an abundance of flora, including over 500 varieties of vascular plants.

But there’s so much more to Churchill than bears and vegetation. And while the bears weren’t interested in us while visiting the Point, we got acquainted with the charming antics of the arctic siksik, a species akin to prairie dogs. In Churchill, the playful species are only found at the Point.

Bird theatrics however, would top off my time at the Point. Churchill has an incredible birding scene, one of North America’s best.

I watched amazed as two parasitic jaegers put on one of the most acrobatic and grandiose displays I had ever seen. They displayed kleptoparasitism, a feeding method where one individual steals food from another. The poor recipient of the in-flight harassment and an arctic tern that had recently managed to secure a well-earned meal, only to be forced to drop it to escape the wrath of the jaegers. With ease, a jaeger swooped mid-air to snatch the tern’s fallen food.

But like a good novel, the greatest surprise of all in Churchill was one I least expected … the beluga whales. These ‘canaries of the sea’ truly stole my heart.

Each encounter as the days went on proved to be more exciting. First from afar, “Look there – see those whitecaps going the wrong way? Those are beluga whales,” said our guide. One would surface, and then another, until I could see was backward white waves. The whales constantly breached, frolicking above the water’s edge.

July and August is beluga whale season in Churchill, when thousands of whales arrive to birth their calves in the chilly waters of Hudson Bay’s Churchill River.

Kayaking beside them proved to be an unparalleled and truly intimate experience. Knowing belugas are sensitive to sound, we squeaked, hummed and sang, encouraging them to appear boat side. And to our great surprise, it worked.

A particularly inquisitive whale stopped beside the kayak for a few moments. With eyes locked and breaths withheld, it slowly turned its head, peered up and studied us. Time stood still during this unbelievable moment of reciprocal curiosity.

A cold and windy morning greeted us the next day as we geared up in dry suits. This time, we headed back to the water to try our hand at snorkeling, even though our guide warned, was rough and murky. The thought of an even closer look at this amazing species was enough to convince us to give it a go.

Twenty minutes in and holding on for dear life with one hand while maneuvering my underwater camera with the other, I sang my heart out. Then it happened – they sang back. Three belugas then swam directly underneath me as I videotaped them – my camera promptly died as they swam off. It was time to go in.

Just when I thought life couldn’t get better, 30 or so belugas put on their most impressive display yet. It was meant to be this way. I was meant to watch and be present during a moment where I was truly overcome by nature. I never saw this coming and barely being able to see through my tears, I took in every precious second of this friendship display, forever moved by these amazingly social creatures.

**This story originally appeared in My Spotlight Kanada.

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4 thoughts on “Churchill wildlife: polar bears and beyond
  1. Sharon Harriage on said:

    What a wonderful story Jenn. You had me grinning like an idiot and tearing up all at the same time at the thought of your close encounter with the Belugas. David and I hope to visit Churchill one day to see the polar bears, but now I think we will have to include the beluga experience as well.

    • Jenn Smith Nelson on said:

      Many thanks Sharon! You and David would surely love it. Best season for the bears is October and November, though as the story says you can see them too, in July and August. They are just not super active.

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