In Churchill, Canada, the beluga whales love listening to The Beatles, or so say the locals.
With around 900 residents, Manitoba’s largest subarctic settlement sits stranded where the Canadian taiga meets the clear waters of the Hudson Bay. Once an important relay station moving prairies of wheat onto international freighters, Churchill’s towering grain silos now sit silent after a devastating lakeland flood rendered the cargo rails inoperable.
Tourism is now Churchill’s primary earner, its roots dating back over 30 years when purpose-built tundra buggies were assembled to bring visitors within growling distance of the region’s roving polar bears. And every fall — in October and November — thousands of travelers multiply the town’s population as they furiously snap photos of white-furred beasts from the safety of their safari carts.
But in the summer, few show up to greet Churchill’s other animal visitors when they come to town seeking safe haven from the elements and their predators. From July through August almost 60,000 belugas swish through the blue of the Hudson Bay, playing in the riverine estuaries and birthing their young.
Often dubbed the “canaries of the sea,” belugas are highly sociable creatures that communicate and echolocate through a calculated series of chirps, whistles, and creaking door sounds. Dr. Valeria Vergara has been studying beluga behavior throughout northern Canada for over 18 years, and through her research funded by the Vancouver Aquarium Vergara has discovered that the whales’ language system is so evolved and complex that each creature has its own name, or "signature," that they call out to stick with their family unit when navigating turbid waters. Further to their vocal habits, belugas, unlike most members of the cetacean family, don’t have fused vertebrae; their bending necks lend them an extra anthropomorphic quality.
Thousands of belugas seek the mouth of the Churchill River each summer, bobbing up and down like popping corn under the shadow of the disused granaries — the phenomenon is so commonplace for Churchillians that few realized it was a salable adventure travel experience until recently. As a result, this immersive marine wildlife excursion — arguably the most robust and captivating on the planet — has remained largely untapped, providing whale watching enthusiasts a highly personalized experience out on the water.
The armchair traveler can witness the secret society of beluga whales on Explore.org, which floats a live underwater camera through the bay every day each summer. In person, tourists ply the water on small-boat excursions as hundreds of whales puff their blowholes and pop up to say hello. Then a hydrophone is lowered into the deep to treat guests to a magnificent submarine symphony.
Go one better than whale watching and get in the water with the gentle giants during a half-day snorkel session. Zipped in a double layer of neoprene (that’s about 14mm of wetsuit protection) and fortified by adrenaline, you’ll immediately forget that you’re splashing around in frigid temperatures when the first pod of eager whales comes to say hello. There’s something uncannily human about the curious creatures’ temperament as they crane their necks and coo and click — it’s as though you’re connecting with a highly sentient alien being. Your guide manning the floating zodiac raft above will recommend that you sing a song to the whales to further pique their interest — you can’t go wrong with “Hey Jude” or “Penny Lane,” though “I am the Walrus” may cause a little confusion.
Plan Your Visit
The most seamless and stress-free way to put together your beluga adventure is to purchase a packaged experience from the reputable subarctic operator Frontiers North. Trips leave in July and August from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The “Enthusiast” excursion (from about $3,630 USD) is an all-inclusive tour that features two on-the-water outings. We prefer the “Adventurer” itinerary (from about $2,973 USD), which includes all internal charter flights, lodging, breakfast, and a smattering of activities, but allows for plenty of time to tailor-make your adventure by buying into additional experiences like stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, and snorkeling.