Swim with beluga whales. Conquer your fears.

July 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog, Whale Watching

Got fear? Try swimming with Beluga Whales in Hudson Bay.

Got fear? Try swimming with Beluga Whales in Hudson Bay.

by George Williams

Got any fears you need to overcome? I have a cure for you. Jump into the icy, murky waters of Hudson Bay and swim with beluga whales.

And that’s after flying five miles over four-foot waves in an inflatable Zodiac boat powered by a 60-horsepower Mercury outboard. If you sit near the front of the boat, it’s like riding a bucking bronco. You have ropes to hold on to – and you need them.

Eventually you figure out how to ride the waves like a pro, but you’d never want to let your guard down. I’d almost gotten to that stage when we ran smack into a school of beluga whales at the mouth of Manitoba’s last great wild waterway, the Seal River, 25 miles north of Churchill on the Northwest coast of Hudson Bay. Twenty or more cows and calves and a few big males spraying and sunning themselves in the choppy waves.

There were two Zodiaks, one with six people and one with seven. The first person brave enough to take the plunge was Margo Pfeiff, a freelance journalist working on a story for the LA Times. How game was Margo? She was suiting up before we even reached the belugas. Our boat was a little less enthusiastic. When our guide Andy MacPherson asked who wanted to be first to swim with the belugas, there was frozen silence.  Nobody volunteered.

“I’ll go in,” I said. “There’s no way I came all the way up here NOT to go in.”

Of course I was only pretending to be brave. I was actually scared. Terrified might have been a better word.  I’d never snorkeled before, and I certainly didn’t think jumping into Hudson Bay a kilometer off shore was the best place to start learning. Especially with the world’s largest land carnivore, the great white polar bear, abandoning the weakening ice pack and looking for something warm and chewy for lunch after a long swim.

Animals can smell fear, right?

But I’d seen photos of others doing it, so it had to be safe. Besides, if Margo could do it, I could do it. And she was already in the water singing Frosty the Snowman to a slippery pod of her own.  I was definitely going in.

So they squished me into a dry suit that makes you look like a floating Michelin Man. There’s no way a polar bear would eat that, right? (I later found out that polar bears love to chew on rubber, and that they had on occasion used Zodiak boats as chew toys.)  I slid over the side of the boat and into the water, already hyperventilating through the snorkeling gear. I then swung my legs up to the boat so they could tie the safety rope around my feet.

“Ok, off you go.”  And I drifted into the sea.

“Put your face down into the water! Stick your toes out! Start singing!”

I could barely hear their voices. Little did they know I was still panicking inside while staring straight down into a dark, wet, unfamiliar world. “Breathe slowly…breathe slowly…,” I thought to myself. And it worked!

I started to calm down. I could breathe fine. The water was cold, but not unmanageable for a tough Winnipegger. It actually felt invigorating. But I couldn’t really see anything. I could hear the whales chirping and squealing and talking to each other, but I couldn’t see them.  I started to sing, “Sweet Home Alabama, Where skies are so blue…” Then it happened.

A huge ghostly white figure appeared and disappeared quickly below me. Then a yellow one. Then another.  The next thing I knew I was face to face with a beluga! And I was comfortable! This was no longer frightening. It was fun!

“Hi there,” I said with a smile. The beluga nodded back, waited a few seconds and vanished.  Just as quickly another appeared, then another. All face to face. I reached out to pat them, but they were always just a smidgeon out of reach. No matter, I was actually talking up close and personal to beluga whales, in THEIR house, and having a ball doing it!

I didn’t stay in the water much longer.  Somehow my conversation (or singing) wasn’t quite holding the belugas’ attention. Actually, it was one of those rare occasions when I was at a loss for words. I really need to brush up on my undersea conversation skills. Like Susan Knight, a Consultant Rheumatologist from the UK who was the next to make the voyage into the water.

Unlike Margo, who had some measure of success attracting the belugas with her gurgling version of House of the Rising Sun, Susan was singing what sounded like a Christmas carol.  Whatever it was, it worked. The belugas loved it! It seemed only fitting that the “Canaries of the Sea” would love a Christmas carol and Susan soon had a choir of happy belugas following her intently. In fact, they were turning around and making a beeline for her from all directions. The Beluga Queen, they all wanted a word with her.

YouTube Preview Image

In the other boat guided by Terry Elliot, Colin Earl, an Australian living in Canada and working in a mine in Russia, also had the language of the whales aced. It seems his experience with wildlife in numerous countries transferred to the water. He made the video above, and had a great chat with his sleek new friends. One of them even gave him a love bite. He said it never happened. (His wife Vicki was in the boat above keeping a close eye on him.)

Regardless, I got none of that action.  But I did conquer my fear of the unknown!  And it was, after all, my first date… with a beluga whale.

Read more about swimming and snorkeling with the beluga whales, walking with polar bears and trekking the tundra with Churchill Wild, in Margo Pfeiff’s article, The Arctic warmth of Hudson Bay’s belugas, that appeared in the L.A. Times Travel section.

Learn more about swimming with beluga whales on the Birds, Bears and Belugas Adventure page at Churchill Wild.

Disclaimer: George Williams does contract Internet work for Churchill Wild.

Please (polar) bear with me…

Polar bear looking fior lunch! Rebecca Reimer Photo

Polar bear looking for lunch! - Rebecca Reimer Photo

by Doreen Booth

It was an early start on my first day of the tour and I would come to learn that there were many more sunrise beginnings during my northern adventure! As I am new to the company (not new to the family) I was going to the lodge to see what we are all about. No matter how many stories I heard, nothing prepared me for the experience I was going to have!

The day of my departure to the lodge was extremely windy, and not that I like to admit this, but I am not the best “flier”. Our friendly pilot, Nelson, knows this all too well and let me have the co-pilot’s seat on the way out to the lodge. When we landed, the departing guests advised us to watch out for the bear on the trail. WOW, our first bear already? We were able to snap a few photos of him napping on the trail before he awoke to his audience and went to look for a private room.

After a delicious lunch and our visitor’s briefing, we headed out on our fist hike braving those still strong winds and walking at a slight angle in order to stay standing up! We saw four more bears and hadn’t even gone very far. We made sure to get back to the lodge in time for appetizers and drinks. What a great way to wind down in the lounge with a fire going in the woodstove, large picture windows facing the bay, and a glass of wine! I like it here already.

The following days were a blur! We were up at 7 a.m. for coffee and enjoyed the view out the large lounge windows.  All you saw was water, rocks and oh yes POLAR BEARS! There was a spotting scope for everyone to use and we were always on the lookout. We could see the bears coming from miles away and it was truly amazing to watch them swim to shore as they can move extremely quickly through the water.

After breakfast we would get ready for our first hike of the day! There were some (me for example) that didn’t go out for a hike and would stay at the lodge to enjoy some peace and quiet. Little did we know that there wouldn’t be much peace. There were bears sauntering around the lodge, sik-siks (ground squirrels) posing for you, bears galore to watch and we even got to go Cloudberry picking! Jeanne had an itch to make fresh cloudberry jam so off we went to pick.

The bears sure had us busy at the lodge during our stay. We had a bear playing with Mike’s boat in the middle of the night (we heard the bear bangers go off), we even had a bear peaking through someone’s window and I am not sure who was more scared the bear or Ida! A few of us were whale watching. We all made our way down to the boats and we were all very excited in anticipation of the Belugas we were going to see.

It was a quick trip to the river and once we arrived you could see these magnificent whales swimming all around. They very quickly came up to the boat to see what we were all about. They would turn over onto their backs and look up at you through the water. It was just amazing!! The next step was to get our first “swimmer” into the water.

Robert was in a dry suit with a snorkel and mask. He was so ecstatic that I think he would have just jumped straight in to see the whales. He was given directions to put his feet into the loop and we would start up the boat. The rest of us were amazed that he was willing to get into the water with these large animals. Turns out I am a big chicken – I just couldn’t get in. We started the boat and started to pull Robert behind us slowly. Our guide Andy told us to just watch – well wouldn’t you know it but whales were coming from all over to check out Robert in the water. They were only a few feet in front, beside and under him!

It is difficult to express what an amazing experience we had. I can give you as much information as you need prior to coming to the lodge but nothing really prepares you for what you are about to experience and enjoy!

Polar bear lodge on Hudson Bay updated for 2009!

July 12, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog, Newsletter Stories

Seal River Lodge on Hudson Bay Coast

Polar Bear Lodge on Hudson Bay - Kike Calvo Photo

What can we say but -WOW!! What an amazing season we had in 2008 thanks to all you wonderful people who made the effort to travel to our little Arctic paradise to take part in one of our polar bear wilderness adventures.

We might have to turn down the “volume” a bit as the sheer numbers of incredible “gigabyting” bear and whale sightings got to be a little overwhelming at times! (Websters: gigabyting: the sound made by multiple high speed shutter exposures blending together, usually involving six or more digital cameras. Occasionally applies to singular user if finger has become fixed in full auto mode due to visual over-stimulation.)

There is always a lot of work behind the scenes that goes on prior to the delivery of any great wildlife experience and this past year was no exception. We hope you enjoyed the new bedrooms with en suites as it took more than just a little effort to complete that renovation in time for the opening date in July. The project actually began taking shape with much planning, measuring and sketching going on in July of ‘07 while we were running that year’s Birds, Bears & Belugas program. This was followed by ordering and purchasing materials in fall of 07, shipping them to Churchill via train in January of this year, and finally hauling the 80,000 lbs of building materials to the lodges.

The hauling from Churchill to the lodge took place in April over the sea ice using a D6 Caterpillar and large sleigh which is quite an adventure in itself and soon to be a photo feature on our new web site. We then returned on June 15th with a construction crew of 6 very able bodied men and women who “slaved” many long exhausting hours to be ready for opening day. Stuart put the last coat of paint on at 4 a.m.  six hours before the first guests arrived. Kudos to Len, Real,Yvan, Stuart,Andy,Terry, Riley, Karli and of course the “human forklift” – Barney!

The new rooms still need a few finishing touches and Jeanne has her sites set on a new kitchen and dining room which means we’re starting the whole building project planning over again for 2010!

Spring hauling was a great success, a lot was accomplished, no one got hurt or lost in a “whiteout” (blizzard) and best of all no equipment failures! Four of our Inuit friends from north of the border brought their trusty Bombardiers down from Arvait on the sea ice and managed to haul in 20,000 lbs. in one trip. Talk about a traveling road show, what a riot that was, though Dave and I had a little trouble with the raw beluga, walrus, and caribou offered for lunch and were grateful for the moose meatloaf  Dave had packed for us.

Our Fire & Ice adventure in April, though a bit on the short side, was a huge success.All guests raved about Dave’s awesome cookery, the dogsledding, snowshoeing to the sea ice, northern lights, snowmobiling, and of course the finishing blizzard on the way back to Churchill wasa hit as well!