Have you ever seen a prairie whale?

beluga-undewater

HOW TO GET THERE:
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Deep in the heart of Canada which, apparently, beats . . . there are more than just fields of golden grain waving in the wind.

In the prairie province of Manitoba, on the edge of Hudson Bay, a gateway to the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, beluga whales come to play by the thousands each summer. The waters around the Churchill River estuary are host to these graceful mammals in the latter part of July and the first half of August.

Beluga-Whale-1Belugas are easily identified by their white skin, although the babies are born pink, dark grey or grey-brown. They are the only whales that can turn their heads to give you a curious glance as you pass by in your harbour boat because they have a flexible neck. They are nicknamed sea canaries for their bird-like chirping calls. And they talk a lot, vocalizing with whistles, clicks, low grunts and clangs along with their chirps. They breed early in summer between April and June, before they migrate to the southwestern shores of Hudson Bay to deliver, then nurse, their newborns which were started 14 to 15 months earlier. The babies stay with their mothers for the next two years, fading to blue-grey and finally to white as they reach maturity, between six and eight years of life.

belugas-and-peopleBelugas also molt or shed their outer skin in July. They accomplish this by rubbing against the bottom of river inlets.

Females, after they reach sexual maturity somewhere between four and seven years, give birth to one offspring, rarely twins, about once every three years. They live an average of 35 to 50 years, although it is believed they can live much longer.

The smallest in size of the whale populations, belugas only grow to about 16 feet long and weigh, on average, 1,500 kilograms. They seem to delight in human contact, swimming under the Zodiacs and often raising their heads to look curiously at the humans inside.

Those who have seen the scant population of belugas at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River may think they wouldn’t be impressed by what they may feel is a common sight, but the impact of thousands upon thousands of these magnificent animals in Hudson Bay is very profound.

You can get up close and personal with them, too. The Lazy Bear Lodge will take you out to snorkel and swim with these fantastic creatures and they will take you on a boat tour of the hidden spots where the belugas hang out. The Lazy Bear also offers wilderness tours by boat that will literally take you out of this world to a place time forgot.

July and August in Churchill

In July, the average temperature in Churchill is 12.7°C (55° F). The year-round population of the town of Churchill is between 800 and 900, but those numbers swell during polar bear and beluga seasons. The tundra is teeming with life from the tiny flowers and lichen carpeting the granite boulders and an abundance of other small animals and birds. You might see a fox or an Arctic ptarmigan.

July and August in Churchill are still very good times for birdwatchers. Over a hundred birds nest here, including the parasitic jaeger, snowy owl, tundra swan, American gold plover and the gyrfalcon.

History buffs will get satisfaction from visiting the excellent Eskimo Museum in the town of Churchill. It houses a permanent collection of early Inuit carvings and other memorabilia – stunning representations carved in ivory and bone showing what life was like before the Arctic was invaded by moderns. Everyone has great tales to tell about the early days of the fabled Fort Prince of Wales and of Churchill itself.

Buy a book or two filled with stories of the North and you’ll be hooked for a lifetime on the people you’ll meet and the adventures you’ll read about in this rugged land. And you will want to come back in mid-October to see the polar bears, whose numbers swell the population to twice its human size.

All photos provided by and taken on tours given by the Lazy Bear Lodge. Kayak photos by Paul Mutch.