Now that I have visited Churchill during three different seasons, a friend asked me which was my favourite. My answer was a tie between both Bear Season (in late fall) and Beluga Season (in the summer). Although it was amazing to see the northern lights for the first time during Aurora Season (winter), personally, I don’t think there is anything that compares to the thrill of seeing wild animals in their natural habitat.
Images of Northern Lights from Aurora Season (February 2022).
I travelled back to Churchill at the beginning of August with Polar Bears International. During any busy touristy season, they invite Ambassadors (visiting scientists) to volunteer their time to work in their Interpretive Centre. This time it was Beluga Season. It was my third time volunteering with them, and I was so excited to see Churchill during a completely different time of year.
I was warned about the potential invasion of biting insects, but other than one very bloody bite on my first day, I was lucky to not have to deal with any others the rest of my time there. And other than a couple of days of rain and one evening lightening show, the weather was mild and warm. When I was there in February the temperatures were unbearably cold (almost -45C every day!), so I didn’t spend much time outside of the centre. But this time of year, there was plenty to do and see. I never expected the cold, white, barren landscape I saw earlier in the year to be so full of life in the summer. Other than putting in my regular volunteer hours at the Polar Bears International House, I had the opportunity to join Frontiers North Adventures out on the tundra in one of their Tundra Buggies. While it’s rarer to see polar bears up close and personal in the summer, we still saw a couple from afar that day. We also saw plenty of birds, from sandhill cranes to bald and golden eagles. We saw bright swatches of green against the orange lichen of the exposed bedrock. We saw hundreds of wildflowers, such as the vibrant purple fireweed. And my personal favourite, was seeing a caribou for the first time. Funny enough, when I was first accepted into the University of Alberta, it was with the intention of carrying out a study on barren-ground caribou. But that project fell through and the polar bear study I ended up conducting rather serendipitously fell into my lap. So, seeing both caribou and polar bears on that day out on the tundra was very special to me.
Images of Hudson Bay and the tundra during summer in Churchill, Manitoba.
On one of the warmest days, I went for a (very) quick polar dip in Hudson Bay, which was by far the coldest water I’ve ever swam in. I’m a hot weather girl, so it was crazy to me to swim in such cold water, especially when you have to keep a constant eye out for swimming polar bears.
Swimming at the Town Beach in Churchill, Manitoba. Landscape photographs from Jessie Kalinowski.
Then there was the dog sledding. Truthfully, I did not know what to expect going into this – I really did not know much about dog sledding in general. But we went with Dave Daley, a Metis man who breathes a love of his dogs and his culture into every sentence. The feeling of being pulled by a team of dogs was exhilarating, but my favourite part was his interpretive talk of his history, his relationship with his dogs, and his experiences doing long distance dog racing. I could not recommend this experience enough.
Dog sledding with Dave Daley.
But the belugas. I was really there for them. This time of year is referred to as “Beluga Season” in Churchill because every summer belugas migrate into Hudson Bay where the calm, shallow, productive waters of the Churchill River estuary provide a sanctuary for their yearly moult and the birthing of new calves1-3. There are thousands of belugas near Churchill during Beluga Season,4 and it is impossible to not see them. Even standing on the shore you can see hundreds of white spots dotting the bay – the white backs of the whales surfacing for air. It is no wonder that tourists flock from all over the world to get a chance to see them.
During this time of year Polar Bears International operates the Beluga Boat (newly dubbed “Delphi”), which houses the Beluga Cams4. These two cameras are linked to Explore.org, which live streams footage from the boat from two angles – one on top of the deck, and one below the water5. While the boat is operating, people from all over the world can get a glimpse (and a listen!) of these playful whales. Oftentimes Polar Bears International will invite scientists on board to chat about belugas or other aspects of sub-Arctic ecology. I was fortunate enough to not only ride along for an afternoon and see belugas myself, but also talk about my own research on the live microphone. We saw hundreds of belugas – and one ringed seal! – that day.
Out on Delphi with Polar Bears International.
It’s one thing to see the belugas from a boat, but quite another to stand-up paddleboard alongside them. I’ll admit, aside from 2 very shaky minutes I spent the entire time knee-boarding. The waves were a bit large and truthfully, I’m quite scared of deep water. But, needless to say it was an unreal experience. I purposefully ventured away from my group hoping that it might entice some of the whales to come to me… it worked. At one point I was surrounded by 5 or 6 belugas that were clearly interested in the fin of my board. And at another point one followed me for a while then jetted off with a playful tail splash. I was nervous leading up to that day – I didn’t know much about belugas and being in the water with them seemed a bit scary. But everyone told me that I had nothing to worry about and it didn’t take long to realize they were right – belugas are gentle, curious, playful creatures. They are quite unlike any other animal I’ve had the opportunity of spending time with and I’m so thankful to have had that time with them.
Paddleboarding with belugas.
I hope that you can feel my love for Churchill in these few words. The polar bears, the belugas, the tundra, the people – there’s nothing quite like it. It’s a spectacular part of the world and I am grateful to have experienced it.
But this wouldn’t be a climate change-focused blog if I didn’t bring up some of the impacts that these stunning white whales may face in the future. Without a dorsal fin, belugas are capable of swimming under sea ice. In fact, some beluga populations must travel long distances under the sea ice during their annual migration, and they have evolved over time to know where natural openings in the ice are where they may surface for air6. Unpredictable sea ice conditions are changing their migratory routes and some belugas are getting trapped under the ice6-7. They also go under the ice in search of food, or to escape one of their primary predators, the killer whale. With a loss of sea ice comes a potential collapse of the Arctic marine ecosystem, and warmer waters is causing fish (belugas’ favourite food) to shift their distribution, which may cause belugas to travel further in search of food3,6,8. With a loss of sea ice also comes less protection from orcas, meaning that belugas will be more at risk of predation attempts in the future3,7,9.
Clearly, climate change and its impacts on sea ice affects the entire Arctic ecosystem. I hope that you take the time to learn more about climate change, including how it affects wildlife around the world, and to talk about these issues with your friends and family. It will take all of us working together to solve this global issue.
- McIver, K. (2021). Belugas and polar bears.
- Churchill Northern Studies Centre. (n.d.). Beluga whales in Churchill.
- Polar Bears International. (2022). Arctic sea ice day and Beluga Cam launch.
- World Wildlife Foundation. (2015). Arctic beluga whales facing multiple challenges brought on by climate change.
- Polar Bears International. (n.d.). Beluga Cams.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2022). Whales and climate change: Big risks to the ocean’s biggest species.
- Laidre, et al. (2008). Quantifying the sensitivity of Arctic marine mammals to climate-induced habitat change. Ecological Applications, 18(2), S97-S125.
- Hauser, D. (n.d.). How are beluga whales responding to Arctic sea ice loss?
- McCall, A. (2019). Sea ice: the beluga’s protector.
- See my Resources page to learn more about climate change and how to help
- Click the links throughout this post for more information (black text links to other webpages)