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The tours and the town of Churchill, Manitoba

Polar Bears and Beluga Whales

Churchill, Manitoba.

The tours and the town of Churchill,

The town of Churchill is at the confluence of the Sub-Arctic, Arctic and Marine ecosystems, making it a rich ecological destination. The town of Churchill has around 1000 residents and 900-1000 Polar Bears. There are 25 Polar Bear populations around the arctic circumpolar region. Churchill’s Polar Bear population is considered part of the Hudson Bay west population with another population of bears on the east side of the Hudson Bay. When looking at a map of Manitoba, you will see that Churchill sits in the crook of a backwards facing right angle bend of the Hudson Bay. In this area of the Hudson Bay, the current moves counter-clockwise, this results in the currents grabbing fresh water from the Hudson River and mixing with the salt water of the Hudson Bay. Because of this mix of salt and fresh water, the water around Churchill has less salinity in it. This means it freezes sooner than the surrounding area, allowing the Polar bears an earlier access to the ice and the seals, despite this being a sub-arctic climate.

Also the Hudson Bay around Churchill is home to over 4000 migrating and breeding Beluga whales during July and August. Belugas, which mean “the white one” in Russian, are found around the arctic and subarctic waters around the world. Belugas are considered the most vocal whales in the world, often called the “sea canaries”. Belugas, despite being 10-15 feet in length, are very curious and gentle creatures. It was my hope on this trip to get to swim with them in the icy waters of the Bay with a 7mm thick full wetsuit keeping me warm and comfortable.

Though, Polar bears and Belugas are the main draw in Churchill. One can also spot other wildlife. In fact, the spring time is a birders and bird photographer’s paradise. Besides the springtime, the hopes during the summer are to see Arctic Foxes, Willow Ptarmigans, Red-throated Loons, Common Eider and more.

A note of interest:

The tour guides were very vigilant about being on bear watch and warned us repeatedly about going into areas that were beyond the town boundary. So exploring on one’s own outside of town seemed out of the question.

Day #1-

We were up at 4:30 catch our flight from Winnipeg to Churchill. After the 2 hour or so flight, we landed in the small Churchill airport. After gathering our belonging, we got into the Frontiers North van( one of several tour operators in Churchill) and proceeded to the Captive Bear Quonset hut. This proved to be an uninspiring filler, as there is no public access to the bear jail. This “jail” serves as a relocation center for troublesome bears. From there we went to the Churchill Interpretive center located within the train station. Next we headed to the Inuit Museum.

After such and early flight, this proved, for me, to be too much lecturing and sitting for one day. Though the information was good, it was hard to absorb it all.

Around 5:30 P.M. we headed out for our first Zodiac tour in the bay to see the belugas. The reason for the late departure was to give the tides the time to come in. Out on the bay, the belugas were indeed curious and swam underneath the zodiac, followed the zodiac and mothers and babies breached the surface all around us. Unlike other whales or dolphins, belugas rarely flip there dorsal fins out of the water and their heads remain submerged. The best way to get a sense of their mass and size is when they swim underneath the boat.

On this trip, the tour operators were saying that the water was as clear as it had been in a long while. They said heavy rains in western Alberta had caused the rivers to flood and that to control the flooding the Manitoba dam had been released stirring up the bay.

After a large lunch and a late dinner (8:00P.M.), it was bedtime. A very full day.

Day #2-

This was our one and only Tundra Buggy trip. After a large breakfast we headed out to where the Buggies are stored. We would be out from 9:00 A.M. until 3:00 P.M. The road out to one of the main touring areas is rough, not maintained, with large sections under water. The going was slow and tedious and because of the desire to get out to the best viewing area, there weren’t any stops along the way for viewing or photographing. It would take us, perhaps, an hour and a half to arrive at our destination and the same amount to return back to the storage garage. Now I understood why many folks said that you would want to be stationed out on the Tundra for several days (this is November and December), so that you wouldn’t be wasting time getting out and back. Plus the bouncing around was not something one would want to experience daily.

That being said, the buggy was cozy. There is a bathroom, propane heating stove and a wide spacious aisle. The buggy could hold 40 people. We were only 13. The windows opened from the top and were difficult to get up and down quickly. I also found there height not suitable for working from a beanbag with a long lens. With this being the case, I headed out to the back viewing deck.

When we arrived at the prime viewing site, we were rewarded with a mother bear and her cub. Because it was summer, the mother bear had been mostly fasting for several months and, as such, was not interested in expending much energy. Her cub, however, was playful. After some watching and patience, the cub moved out from behind his mother. The cub nudged his/her mother and she responded by sitting up to let her cub nurse. Our tour guide, who had been on numerous trips summer and winter to Churchill, had never before had the opportunity to witness a cub nursing before.

Because of the inaccessibility of the windows inside I chose to work from the viewing deck. I worked with a beanbag (BLUBB) and a Nikkor 600mm lens with a 1.7 tele-convertor. The bean bag I had filled with bird seed from the in town hardware store. I purchased a 9kg bag, but would have had plenty of fill with the 5kg bag (I left my seed with the tour operator at the end of the trip for the next photographer).

Even though it was August, it was quite chilly with a strong wind out on the deck. Because of that, and also because I was the only serious photographer on the tour, I had the back deck all to myself most of the time. The beanbag worked great and was definitely the way to go. So remember, even though it is August, the weather can change dramatically.

When we returned at 3:00 P.M., we headed into town to get ready for our second Zodiac tour. The weather had changed dramatically. It was raining and the winds had picked up to 15-20 miles per hour. Some in our group decided to opt out of this trip. But armed with raingear and a point and shoot camera in waterproof housing, I decided to go. The weather was, indeed, wild but the zodiac felt very stable in the two to three foot swells. I was lucky enough to be in a boat with a young, adventurous driver, who was determined to find the Belugas. Because of the rough seas, he felt the belugas were to be found in the calmer waters of the Hudson River. He was right and we were richly rewarded for his efforts, with whales swimming all around us. The other two boats in our entourage had turned back, resulting in those boats siting no whales. Lucky us.

Another late dinner and then bedtime.


Others headed out to see the local dog handler. I stayed back having had several dog handling experiences back home in Vermont. All said he was quite the entertainer and well worth the effort.

We were scheduled that evening to snorkel with the belugas, one of my main reasons for venturing so far north. I had brought with me my underwater camera gear (the Sony Rx 100 camera in a Recsea housing with strobe and focus light). I so wanted to hear the belugas and have this up close connection with them. But, alas, it was not to be. The winds and rough seas prevented any boats from venturing out.

As consolation after dinner that day, we drove around the roads and down to the beaches watching the wild seas. I took several panoramic shots, bracing myself against the 30 mile per hour gust and the 32 degree wind chill. I loved the wildness of it all and found the wind exhilarating. But, of course, I had a warm van and hotel room to return to.­­


This was to be a down morning before catching our plane in the early afternoon back to Winnipeg. Some would want to shop. I, however, had hoped we could reschedule the snorkeling adventure. Once again, it was not to be. The winds and seas were still rough and the operators said that the rains had muddied the waters so that visibility would not be that great. Deeply disappointed, there was nothing to be done. Such is the nature and vagaries of wild life viewing. Perhaps, now knowing Churchill as I do, I can at some future date plan a trip to Churchill just to swim with the Belugas, with weather contingency plans in place, of course.


Now knowing what I do about getting to and around Churchill, I think it would be possible to plan the trip without a tour guide. There is a rental car agency in town, which would help with getting to and from the Zodiacs, though I did not check to see how expensive they were. I think it would be possible to book the tours, but it might be best to take the train, if time allows, as this would be less expensive than waiting to make sure there would be space left on the tours for the random traveler. The hotels in Churchill range from $140.00 to $230.00 per night during the Beluga season. The rooms have refrigerators and microwaves and there is a grocery store in town, plus, the hotels offer continental breakfast. So you would most definitely save on food over the cost of an organized tour. There is also a hostel in town that provides bunk rooms for $35.00 a night, and private rooms with a share bath for $80.00 a night. The downside to these accommodations is that they are only open during peak "bear season", that being November and December. . The meals in the restaurants in Churchill are very good and varied, but expensive. Entrees run between $15.00 and $30.00. A hamburger costs $12.00- $15.00. This may not seem too bad, but the cost adds up since every meal is running in the $20.00 to $40.00 range. Imagine being back home and going out to eat every night at a fine restaurant for every meal and you start to get the idea. The cost starts to add up.

So in conclusion, I don’t feel finished with Churchill. I still want to swim with the Belugas and I have already make phone calls to see if there is a way to go out on a three day tundra buggy lodge excursion during the November, December bear season, without all the trappings of the rest of the tour. They said it was possible. Now it is a matter of just finding the money!

Equipment considerations:

Travel GearTraveling- I traveled with a Think Tank Airport Airstreamer, a Domke vest, and a long lens bag that I could strap on as a backpack. This was a bag with straps and a belt that a friend had configured and enlarged for me from the case for my Nikkor 200-400 lens. I have seen a collapsible long lens bag advertised that would serve the same purpose. I also checked a bag with my clothes, tripod with Whimberly head and other accessories (we flew out of Montreal, Canada and they allowed the first bag to fly free. Nice!)

In the Domke vest, I carried filters, a small point and shoot, my Kindle, and my wallet and passport. The long lens bag, with my Nikkor 600mm lens with a Nikon D700 camera and battery grip attached, fit easily in the overhead bin, even the small prop jet plane to Churchill. The Think tank Airport Airstreamer fit easily underneath the seat of the small prop plane as well.[easyazon_block add_to_cart="yes" align="right" asin="B00EJRLZ8G" cloaking="default" layout="top" localization="default" locale="US" nofollow="default" new_window="yes" tag="wwwcindysmith-20"]

In the Think Tank bag, I carried my waterproof camera gear (Sony RX100 with Rescea Housing, focus light, 1- Ys-D1 Strobe, Wide angle lens), along with my newly purchased Nikon D810, a Nikkor 28-300mm lens, a Nikkor 70-200 f 2.8 lens,a set of tele-extenders, an Sb- 600 flash with Better Beamer, extra batteries and chargers.

In all, I took three camera bodies- a Nikon D700, a Nikon D810, and the Sony Rx100 I took only three lenses- A general purpose Nikon 28-300mm, a 70-200mm, and the long Nikon 600mm. I tried to travel as comprehensively, but as light as possible. Most of my packing was camera gear with only the clothing essentials.

I believe I planned well, photographically, for this trip. The only thing I couldn't control was the weather.

I do hope someday I get to swim with the Belugas, though.

Article By Cindy Smith

+The+tours+and+the+town+of+Churchill,+Manitob, Polar+Bears+and+Beluga+Whales, Visiting+the+Sub-Arctic+town+of+Churchill, Summer+in+the+Sub-Arctic

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Published: 10/21/2014 10:44:50 AM

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