Swimming with beluga whales

by Pamela MacNaughtan

Photo: Travel Manitoba
Photo: Travel Manitoba

Churchill, Manitoba is known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, and each fall thousands of people flock to this small town to see them. Many don’t realize that each July and August, the Churchill River is filled with roughly three thousand Beluga whales. It’s a huge number, one that you don’t truly understand until you’re standing on the riverbank, and realize that the ‘white caps’ of the water are actually beluga whales swimming gently through the water.

Weather plays a big factor in beluga whale activities in Churchill; when the weather is good it’s possible to not only to ride a Zodiac in the river, but to snorkel with them as well.  Sitting in a boat and realizing that you are surrounded by whales is awe-inspiring, there is nothing quite like seeing whales swimming all around you, and when they get curious and come to the boat, swimming beside you and under you.  Even the most reserved person will find themselves saying ‘holy sh*t’ from the sheer excitement — even if they say it under their breath.

Photo by Pamela MacNaughtan
Photo by Pamela MacNaughtan

From the boat you can safely stick your hand into the water, lightly stroking the back of a whale. It’s an incredible experience, only surpassed by the feeling of slipping into the chilly waters (you’re in northern Canada, the water doesn’t warm up, even in summer), snapping your mask into place, sticking the snorkel into your mouth, looking around and realizing that despite all the whales you saw on the surface, there are hundreds more below you.

There’s no need to be afraid swimming with beluga whales. They are just as curious about you as you are about them. The babies will be grey in colour, and don’t turn white until about five years of age when they become sexual active — don’t worry, they prefer mating with their own kind.

This is a once in a lifetime experience, one that many Canadians don’t realize exists; bring a GoPro with a floaty attached in case you drop it, as well as an underwater case for your phone. This is an experience you will want to video and photograph.

Click here for more info about swimming with beluga whales from The Great Canadian Bucket List.

Photo: Travel Manitoba
Photo: Travel Manitoba

Polar Bear Tip: while most of the polar bears are several kilometres outside of town during summer, some do wander into town. Never walk around town on your own, especially out by the rocks near the river as polar bears can literally pop up unexpectedly and if they’re hungry, you will become dinner. If you have an excellent guide, chances are they will take you to a couple places where you may be able to see a polar bear from a safe distance.

Pamela MacNaughtan is a writer and blogger from Ontario who not-so-secretly prefers life in Québec.

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