There are so many whales surrounding our boat that it’s hard to tell who are the spectators – the paying customers or the curious white belugas gracefully surfing into view. One thing is certain; only the humans confined to the floating metal box are taking pictures. “I have the front half (of a whale), does anyone have the back half?” a woman asks as a whale slides out of view of her camera frame.
Every July and August, more than 3,000 belugas crowd into the warmer waters of the Churchill River estuary on the edge of Hudson Bay, turning Churchill into the home of the largest beluga ballet. This community of about 900 people is a subarctic outpost that sits on the edge of Hudson Bay, more than 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg. There are no roads to the community – only an airport, the Port of Churchill, and the train.
The friendly community is best known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World. But climate change’s poster child won’t congregate in the area until they migrate in October and November, and more than 8,000 visitors come to see them from the safety of tundra buggies that look like monster trucks.
Beluga Capital of the World?
In the meantime, belugas are getting their moment to shine. Local operators offer whale watching tours and a chance to kayak around or snorkel with these gentle, three-metre long whales. The weather isn’t very good that day, so plans to kayak or snorkel are scuttled but we do get to admire the whales as much as they watch us.
Wally Daudrich, owner of the Lazy Bear Lodge, stops the boat’s motor and lets it drift a bit. His eyes scan the water for signs of beluga whales just below the surface. He turns on a hydrophone and the high-pitched squeals of beluga chatter momentarily overshadow the sound of waves gently hitting the sides of the boat. Then, silence. “I guess it’s a whale of few words,” Daudrich jokes.
The French and British empires had far more to say about this area some two centuries ago. The Hudson Bay Company built the star-shaped Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site of Canada in the 1700s, and it became the centre of the English-French struggle to control the area’s fur trade. Not a single shot from the fort’s 40 cannons were fired when it fell in 1782.
Inside the Parks Canada Visitor Reception Centre, an interpreter dressed as explorer Samuel Hearne takes visitors on a tour of exhibits about Churchill’s human and natural history. Then we head out to see more than 800 Inuit artifacts and carvings made from stone, bone and ivory at the Eskimo Museum. Catholic missionaries collected them on their travels and brought them to the bishop’s residence in 1944.
At the end of the day, guide Kelsey Eliasson keeps a rifle casually slung over one shoulder and an eye out for polar bears as we walk along the rocky beach to Cape Merry National Historic Site and its lonely cannon along the water’s edge. Signs advise visitors that even in summer polar bears sometimes nap between boulders or wander out to stretch their legs. It’s a reminder that we’re just borrowing the land from the animals.
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Hélèna Katz lives on a small alpaca farm in the Northwest Territories, next to Wood Buffalo National Park where the bears and the bison roam. Her work has appeared in Canadian Geographic, Up Here, VIA Destinations, More and Homemakers, among others. Her website is at: www.katzcommunications.ca.