We were zipping along in Hudson Bay, a salty breeze whipping our hair, as belugas crested around us. It was the perfect, sunny day and I was about to plunge into the cold waters of Churchill, Man., to swim with these gentle giants.
Forget about tiny colourful fish, coral reefs and tropical waters. Instead, you can experience a truly Canadian version of snorkelling with ghostly white beluga whales in the subarctic.
As our inflatable boat came to a stop, our Sea North Tours guide Lindsay told us to jump. The water was a clear blue-green and, all around us, whales were knocking against the boat. “Jump?” I asked hesitantly. “But the whales are right underneath.”
Lindsay said: “Yeah – perfect snorkelling.”
I was covered from head to toe in a wetsuit, and felt like the Michelin Man, barely able to flap my arms. Although the air was only 17 C, I was sweating in the suit, so I decided to trust my guide and take the plunge. It felt pleasantly cool, even though the water temperature was about 5 C.
Suddenly, I saw a white fin whip close to my face. I shrieked with excitement, and salt water rushed into my snorkel mask, but I didn’t care. I was less than two metres from a beluga, which swam closer to me.
This time, the beluga twisted and had a look at me upside down, and I swear it smiled at me. And then I heard the others – a pod of whales singing and chattering underwater. It was pure magic.
Thousands of belugas – also known as sea canaries for their high-pitched underwater vocalizations – migrate every summer to the warmer waters of the Churchill River estuary after the winter ice breaks up. They come here to feed and give birth to their grey calves, which can be seen riding on their mothers’ backs.
Churchill is better known as the polar bear capital of the world and tourists flock here in October and November. But what many people don’t realize is Manitoba has an extensive coastline and, in the cheaper off-season, pods of belugas come tantalizingly close to shore. And the polar bears and their cubs are still around, although not in as large numbers as the fall. On a single day in Churchill, I saw three bears – a burly looking male as well as a year-old cub and its mother – frolicking near the water.
No worries about taking a dip with the polar bears, however; that’s what Lindsay and the other guides are for. They keep an eye out for the bears, and also help you find the pods of playful whales. One mischievous whale breached right beneath me, enveloping me in an underwater cloud of bubbles.
The whales are remarkably curious and come so close that you can almost reach out and touch them. And while they are playful, they can also be other worldly, silent and ghostly as they glide through the waters.
If you’re not ready to swim with the whales, kayaking is a great alternative. You can get up close and personal with them without getting your feet wet. And there’s nothing like being in the middle of a feeding frenzy as whales breach and swim all around your kayak.
IF YOU GO
Snorkelling and kayaking tours are offered by Sea North Tours and Lazy Bear Lodge in Churchill. Bear in mind, however, that tours are at the mercy of the weather. (The first time I went to Churchill, I waited five days in a hotel room for winds to settle down, but they didn’t.)
For snorkelling tours, Sea North charges $195 a person for two hours of Zodiac time; four people can be in the water at once and there is a maximum of six snorkellers per boat.
Accommodations can be arranged through both tour operators. Calm Air flies to Churchill from Winnipeg, or you can take the longer two-and-a-half day train ride. Note that both methods of transportation are often delayed by weather.
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