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Beluga Whales and Polar Bears in Churchill, Canada

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Well-Known Member
Sep 18, 2003
Although not exactly a story about freediving, (I wish it was!) I think it's a story you'll all enjoy. We all feel an affinity with the mammals that live in the aquatic portion of our planet, as well as at least an interest, if not a facination, with the predators that roam the land.

Here's a quick message I fired off to our Freedive Toronto list last Saturday. It starts the story off nicely:

Sat. Aug 8'04
1005 Central (GMT-5)

Hey gang,

I'm up in Churchill MB at the moment. When I found out that I was on my way up here, I started looking for interesting things about the locale. Of course it's the Polar Bear capital of the world, and there are bears present at the moment While I haven't seen any yet, some people in the resturant this morning got chased back to their car while they were down at the water!

The other thing that I didn't know about Churchill is that it is one
of the best locations for Beluga whales to give birth to their calves in July and August due to the warmth of the Churchill river. There are literally thousands of them here! I went down to the water yesterday and there were constantly 10-20 of them in sight at any one time. I saw hundreds in the 30 min that I was at the water. I packed a wetsuit, mask and fins and have been trying to get a zodiac to take me out to dive with them, but there's a stiff wind out of the NE today making the conditions unfavorable. Shore dives are out of the question due to the tide fighting the huge river. Unknown (to me anyway) currents and the possibility of being swept out onto Hudson Bay or upriver (almost as bad with the bears) make having a boat and guide a must. They assure me that if the conditions were favourable I'd be diving with the whales right now, but they're not :( I will however go out on a bigger boat to see the whales a little closer up in about an hour, but they won't allow a swim off that boat... I think I've run out of options as I've gotta leave this evening for Toronto.

I'll post pictures and more details as soon as I can!

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Here's the rest of the story.

We arrived on Friday (Aug. 7) around noon, and I immediately set to work trying to arrange a trip to freedive with the whales. On Friday night I found a guide who runs zodiacs out into the bay for private trips to see the whales, or for people wishing to snorkel with them. On Friday night however they were pessimistic about the weather forecast which called for 40-50kph winds out of the NE. This was bad news indeed because that would have the waves rolling directly into the unprotected outer bay, definitely not zodiac weather. They suggested I take a ride on another boat that was going out to see the whales. This operator wouldn't even discuss the possibility of letting me jump in. I decided to book a trip out to see the whales and remained hopeful that conditions would permit a dive as well.

Through the night there were multiple gunshots that rang out across the town. It seems a polar bear had wandered into town, and the locals don't take kindly to the bears within the town limits. They were shooting small explosive noisemakers over the bear to scare him away. Fortunately for the bear they were successful. In Churchill they have a jail for the bears that won't stay away from town. The idea in jailing a bear is to make the town seem unattractive by depriving it of it's freedom. Since the bears move around alot, this is a big deal for them. A bear that needs to be detained is kept for several days, then marked and airlifted across the river and about 80k up the coast. If they return, they are jailed again, marked a second time and once more flown away. By this point the intelligent predators usually learn their lesson. Bears that return a third time are deemed dangerous and shot. Seems kinda harsh, but they don't have to shoot too many bears it seems, and it also means that you can walk to the restaurant for breakfast without fear of becoming breakfast! Out of town however it's a different story. You're on your own. It's a bit strange not being able to go for a walk out of town because the worlds largest land predators are about, and they'll stalk you!

The morning came much earlier than I'm used to due to our lattitude. The sun rose only to illuminate a steely grey sky. A soggy overcast that was sliding by quickly enough to vindicate the forecasts from the night before. Looking out my window however it was tough to determine how windy it was. Everything was still. There are almost no trees that far north, and none visible from my window. In fact there was nothing that would move in the wind. I put a sweater on and stepped outside to see what it was like. Opening the door I was greeted with a blast of salty, damp and cold sea air coming straight off Hudson Bay. Tiny drops of water borne by the air stung my eyes as I looked out over the bay. Surprisingly the inner bay was still quite calm, but I could see the spray shooting into the air from the breakers pounding the rocky shoreline in the distance.

At breakfast a family that we had talked to the night before came rushing in talking excitedly. All were flushed and the mother looked tired. Apparently they had gone down to the entrance to the harbour to see a ship on it's way out just after first light. They turned to return to their truck and spotted a polar bear headed towards them only a couple hundred meters away. The father scooped up his son and quietly told his wife to run for the truck as fast as she could. The bear continued toward them as they made their way over the rocks to the truck. Safely inside the truck they watched the bear looking at them curiously as they gunned the engine in a speedy retreat to town.

After breakfast we headed towards the house where the whale tour was supposed to leave from fully expecting them to have cancelled the trip. The trip was supposed to take us across the bay to the old stone fort built in the early eighteenth century. Although the boat was a nice new 40 foot (12m) with twin diesel engines, it was no match for the waves now rolling unchecked into the outer bay, part of which we'd have to cross to get to the fort. Upon arrival we found that they had cancelled the fort tour, but would still take us into the harbour to see the whales there. I made one last attempt to get a zodiac to take me just into the sheltered part of the harbour, but to no avail.

On the boat we received a safety briefing from the Captain, then headed out into the bay where we could already see the whales arching their white bodies as they breached the surface to breathe. The whales are in the mouth of the river to give birth, so we were watching not only for the white adults, but also for the dark grey calves. The boat headed out, and immediately we were surrounded on all sides by the whales who were coming by to check out the boat. We would see them moving along the surface breathing every few seconds getting ready for their dive, then we would hear a strong exhale as they rid themselves of bouyancy for their dive. Sometimes we'd see a whale several feet beneath the surface suddenly decide to head deeper and there would be a huge burst of air released as he dove. The crew put a hydrophone overboard while we were drifting, and you could hear the chatter of the whales from beneath the surface! It seems that belugas are among the most vocal of whales, and with tens of them at any one time under and around the boat there were non-stop whale songs to listen to.

I was shooting pictures with the only camera I had... my underwater camera, which of course has no zoom capabilities. The pictures are unfortunately disappointing with a couple exceptions. I got one picture of a small grey calf breaching high out of the water sillouetted against the white of the mother's back. I'll attempt to get the pictures scanned and get some posted although most of the pictures are white backs of the whales against the grey-green of the water.

All the while in spite of the cold and the rain that was being whipped across the bay, I wished I was in the water with these friendly freedivers! :) The waves were small, and I couldn't help but think that a zodiac would have no problems in these conditions, but by the time we had reached shore the tide was turning, carrying the water from the river out into the bay turning the clear water into silty darkness. This, coupled with powerful currents, made even boating, let alone diving, borderline dangerous.

Climbing off the boat we encountered the family who had been chased by the bear earlier and the mother was complaining of sore legs from her flight. I guess she must've had quite the run!

Later that day we headed out to the old rocket range where many atmospheric and rocketry studies were done in the '60's and 70's. Over 3,000 rockets were launched either out over the bay to the north or the tundra to the south. This entire complex now is called the "Northern Studies Centre" and houses many students from all over the world who are working on different studies of plants, insects or wildlife from both land and sea. The complex is now very dilapitated. There is old machinery from long ago that was left behind when the complex was abandoned. All over there are signs warning of the bears. The rocket range is about 15k or more from town, and the bears have free range there, and other than the walls of the buildings, there is no attempt to protect the students from the bears. As we drove through, the entire place seemed like a ghost town, not a single face was seen, although apparently there are plenty of students there at the moment.

On the way back from the range, while passing the dump (of course!) we saw our first bears. There was one sleeping on top of a sand dune, and another who had dug himself into the side of another dune. As we drove alongside them they raised their heads, but showed no fear. We came as close as we dared, but getting a good picture wasn't possible due to the lack of zoom on my camera. While we were sitting there the one at the base of the dune jumped suddenly to the top of the dune in one swift movement, making us all jump in spite of the security of the truck. He stood at the crest staring at us almost as if trying to tell us that he didn't appreciate the intrusion into his naptime. We took the hint and headed for town.

All too soon it was time to leave this strange place of extremes. The temperature can reach +40C in the summer, and -60C in winter. There are more polar bears that travel through there than possibly any other town in the world, and as far as I know more beluga whales too, making them the self-proclaimed "polar bear and beluga capital of the world."

As we lifted off for the long flight back to Toronto I couldn't help but wish I was staying for the rest of their short summer. Soon the whales will leave to winter in the Hudson Strait to avoid the all encompassing ice that will turn the sea into solid terrain. The bears will soon awake from their summer nap to return to their hunting grounds far out on the ice of the Bay where the winter feast will begin around the breathing holes of the seals... If they're successful they'll build up enough fat to survive not only the severe weather, but also next summer's fast.

Maybe I should start planning a freediving trip for August of next year... Who's in?? ;)

Cheers all,
Last edited:
Hey Aaron:
very nice story...to bad that you didn't have the chance to dive with the belugas, that would have been amazing.

And just to quote, I think that we feel in affinity with the aquatic mamals, cause WE live in the land portion of THEIR aquatic planet.


Nice Roberto!! I couldn't agree more! Maybe I'll get to dive with them next time :)

Thanks for the story. Brought back a flood of memories. I only got to Churchill once, but three years in a row I spent Christmas Day at Winisk or Great Whale, the two bases where Hudson's Bay and James Bay come together. It was a long trip up from Winnipeg in a Gooney Bird. We carried fifty gallons (200+ litres) of whole milk, fifty of egg-nog and the Padre.
Sounds like a great :confused: time Bill!! ;)

A good friend of mine used to fly in northern Quebec, but so far I've had very little flying in the north. And I've never spent Christmas that far north! Although it must've been a great experience.

If their are bears around you might reconsider getting in the water... what if they think you are a seal or a weird looking fish? They can swim pretty fast when motivated by dinner :)
Some pictures finally...

Here's a good one of a whale surfacing near the boat:


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And the calf breaching beside his mother:


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Thanks for sharing Aaron,
I remember seeing a documentary on Churchill and the bears and I was pretty impressed! I'm glad you got to be there to enjoy, especially the whales.

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