12 Dec Beluga Whale Experiences in Churchill, Manitoba
Polar bears are typically the biggest draw for visitors coming to Churchill, Manitoba, but there is a different white mammal that also gets much deserved attention in the summer months: beluga whales! We made our way to Churchill this past summer on a trip hosted by Travel Manitoba, and we were so excited for all the beluga whale experiences on our itinerary. Churchill is home to so many exciting activities all year long, but some of our favorite adventures during our summer visit were the ones with beluga whales.
Throughout the summer months, from mid-June to mid-September, around 60,000 beluga whales come to the waters of the Hudson Bay and the Churchill River. The whales come to the coastal region during the summer months for the abundance of fish to feed on and to have their babies in the warmer waters.
There are so many unique beluga whale adventures in Churchill, and we had the chance to experience four of them: a boat and fort tour, a kayaking tour, a zodiac boat tour, and even a standup paddleboard tour! Our trip was not part of a package tour, so we ended up going on many individual day tours during our visit. All of our beluga whale experiences were booked through Sea North Tours, which is actually owned by the same family as our hotel, the Polar Inn and Suites. This made our meetup point for the tours super convenient, as we met in our hotel lobby practically right outside our hotel room door. And then our fantastic shuttle driver, Arnar, would drive us straight to the Port of Churchill so our adventures could begin.
One aspect of Sea North Tours that we really loved was the emphasis of the rules for interacting with beluga whales. We were instructed and reminded with every tour that we should let the whales come to us and that we should not chase them. Another rule was that touching/petting the beluga whales was a big no-no. Because people and beluga whales are both mammals, we have the ability to transfer viruses and diseases to the whales and nobody wants that to happen! Another fun fact about Sea North Tours is that all of their boats are whale safe, meaning that the boats either have prop guards or no exposed moving parts underwater.
Beluga whales are special mammals, and we absolutely loved every encounter we had with them during our time in Churchill. They are often called “sea canaries” because belugas are the most vocal whales in the world, and they are also the only whales with a flexible neck. It was so neat to see them turn their heads to look at us! Beluga whales are also very social, playful, and inquisitive, which made them extremely fun to watch.
Read on for more details about all of our beluga whale experiences in Churchill!
Beluga Whale and Historic Fort Prince of Wales Tour
We jumped right into our adventures on our first evening in Churchill. After spending the past 48 hours riding on the train from Winnipeg, we were excited to get outside and explore. Our first experience was the Beluga Whale and Historic Fort Prince of Wales Tour.
This tour, just like all the others, departed from our hotel, the Polar Inn and Suites. We boarded a bus and rode the shuttle to the tour meeting point at the Port of Churchill. When we arrived, we gathered around the “Beluga and Fort” table for a lesson about belugas and why they come to the area each year, plus a bit of background information about the fort. Then it was time to get on the boat.
The sun was shining a warm, golden hue, and it was a perfect evening. Our captain took us out onto the Churchill River and it wasn’t long before our boat was surrounded by beluga whales. Literally every direction we turned, we spotted another group of whales. There were so many whales that it was actually difficult to focus—I felt like my head was spinning in circles trying to spot them all! We spent an hour or so soaking up the views, learning facts about the beluga whales, and listening to beluga whale sounds via an underwater microphone. It was magic.
Sightings were so good that our captain let us stay out on the water a bit longer than scheduled. It was even hard for the crew to pull away from all the beluga whales!
Eventually, we got off the boat and made our way to the Fort Prince of Wales via a groomed path and wooden boardwalk. On the way to and from the fort, we were accompanied by a bear guard on a 4-wheeler. She rode to higher ground and kept watch for any polar bears that might come our way. We didn’t see any bears on the tour, but just in case, locals definitely (and thankfully) take bear safety seriously in Churchill.
Construction on the fort that is standing today began in 1731, but even though construction continued for 40 years, the fort was never actually completed. Over the years, the fort had a variety of uses, but one of its main uses revolved around fur trading. It was also used as fortification for protection over the Hudson Bay’s resources.
We enjoyed walking through the historic fort and learning about how the area around Churchill came to be. It was a wonderful introduction to the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”, and we were super excited for our next beluga whale experience to come.
Kayaking with Beluga Whales
Once again, we boarded a bus from the Polar Inn and Suites and made our way to the Port of Churchill for another exciting beluga whale adventure. This time around, we were going on a kayak tour! After the entire group was dropped off at the port, we were given PFD’s, spray skirts, and paddles. Then, we received instructions on paddling techniques, how to set up our boats, how to get our gear on, and rules about paddling around the belugas.
Paddlers can choose either a single or double kayak for their time on the water. We decided to go in singles, but in retrospect, a double kayak would have been a better choice. The whales love to investigate your boat when you are paddling and if you can take turns paddling it is easier to photograph and enjoy the adorable visitors that come up to your boat. Regardless of our kayak choice though, we still spotted more whales than we could possibly count.
As soon as we got in our kayaks, we began to see whales. The belugas came up to our group of kayaks to say hi—they were so curious and playful! At one point during the paddle, I had multiple whales (possibly 5 or more…it was hard to keep track) swimming next to my kayak as I paddled. One of them kept playfully nudging my boat, and it was just the coolest experience. Having the whales swim up to us and choose to interact was astonishing—it definitely made for a special experience. And this just seemed to keep happening again and again throughout our time in Churchill!
We spent two hours out on the water during low tide, and even though the water is murky during low tide, we were still able to see the belugas very well. The weather was spotty throughout our entire trip to Churchill, but thankfully the rain stayed away for most of our kayak excursion. Just as we were getting ready to head back to shore the rain started, so we only got a little wet on our paddle back to shore. We couldn’t have asked for a better morning on the water!
Zodiac Estuary Boat Tour
The zodiac tour was next. We left bright and early, but the skies weren’t actually bright…it was extremely foggy the morning of our zodiac tour. We rode out to the Churchill river in a boat with 6 other people plus our guide.
At times we could barely see 10 feet in front of us, but we could sure see the whales that swam up to the boat! We spent 2 hours on the water and whales surrounded us the entire time. They splashed, nudged the boat, and even stuck their heads straight up out of the water to say hi.
All the motors on sea north boats are whale safe with a cage guarding the blades, which is a good thing because the whales loved the bubbles that the motor created! They would swim up to the motor and play in the waves and bubbles we created as the boat drove around. The whales sure were curious—they even came up to our GoPro’s to say hi when we popped them in the water for a peek below the surface.
We had the chance to listen to the whale sounds with an underwater microphone again on this tour. It was absolutely amazing to hear such a large number of whales all singing and communicating at once. The sounds coming from the water merged into one massive chorus of whale calls. We also spotted the beluga whale boat that livestreams 360º videos of the whales online. Since we were out on the water, we didn’t catch the feed from the day of our tour, but we made sure to check back later. It was fun to pull up the live feeds and reminisce about our experience after we returned home and were missing all the adorable beluga whales.
Beluga whales aren’t the only wildlife you have a chance to see from the zodiac boats (or any of the tours for that matter). If you are lucky, you might spot a polar bear on the shore or swimming in the water! We weren’t quite that lucky on our zodiac tour, but during our helicopter tour the following day, we did manage to spot some boats that were lucky enough to see a polar bear on shore. What a neat experience that must have been! Thankfully, we spotted plenty of bears on our helicopter tour and a couple of bears on our Tundra Buggy adventure during our trip to Churchill. So, we had some great success with our sightings, overall!
Even with the thick fog on the morning of our tour, we still had a wonderful time whale watching. Each tour just seemed to keep getting better and better.
SUPing with Beluga Whales
We loved ALL of the beluga whale tours, but honestly, this one might just have taken the cake. The perspective you were able to gain from a stand-up paddleboard was so different from the rest of the tours, and it was a great way to wrap up our time with the beluga whales in the Churchill River.
To start off our adventure, we rode the shuttle over to the port again. But, this time we made our way inside the cute snorkel shack building. This building used to be for snorkeling tour guests, but these tours are no longer allowed as the activity was deemed too stressful for the beluga whales. Now the shack is used as a changing room for SUP tour participants.
Once inside, we suited up with wetsuits, booties, PFD’s, and paddles. The water and air temperatures in Churchill are on the chilly side, even in the summer, so we were happy to wiggle our way into toasty warm wetsuits.
With all of our gear ready to go, we made our way to the river for a SUP lesson from our guide, Erin. Micah and I have both been stand-up paddle boarding many time (we even own a board!), but I still learned so much about proper SUP technique from Erin. It was amazing and I felt so much more efficient when we were out on the water. In other words…if you are new to SUPing, don’t worry because Erin has you covered!
Just as the previous three beluga whale tours, we were once again blessed with lots of whale sightings. At one point, I had three to five whales following my board for several minutes; I even got a few more playful nudges! Luckily, I stayed on my board and didn’t fall in.
Beluga whales are just so adorable and spotting them from the vantage point of a SUP was such a neat experience. Not only were we able to see below the water better on a SUP, it felt like we were almost swimming with the whales because we were just so close to them.
What a way to end our beluga whale experiences in Churchill, Manitoba!!