So I guess I lied about the last beluga whale photos I posted by writing they would the final shots of the season. These clear underwater shots by Douglas Kahle are some real gems. We can’t seem to get enough looks at these incredible mammals that return to the Churchill waters every year.
Google Earth map of beluga whales moving north for the winter.
Almost all of the belugas are on their journey north by now, many to the Hudson Straits area where they will overwinter. The straits have open water or polynas that allow the whales to surface for air from time to time as needed. The above map is from 10 days ago so whales are further north and traversing the Hudson Bay at this point.
Beluga underwater in Churchill. Douglas Khale photo.
Pod of belugas underwater. Douglas Kahle photo.
Curios and friendly beluga whales in Churchill. Douglas Kahle photo.
Beluga spyhopping underwater in Churchill. Douglas Kahle photo.
The Hudson Bay is packed solid with thick ice and seems to be supporting a healthy seal-feeding season for polar bears. Extreme cold and stormy weather has been pervasive throughout the region this year and should lead to a extended hunting season for bears on the ice surface. Here is the link of the most recent Hudson Bay ice chart from Environment Canada Ice Survey.
Ice accumulating on the Hudson Bay. Karen Walker photo.
Polynas up in the Hudson Straits harbor herds of beluga whales waiting for ice to break up and allow for their spring migration. These open water leads are formed either by warmer currents upwelling from below and keeping an area adjacent to the sea ice unfrozen or from currents and wind conditions that move through the region. They are vital to the survival of narwhals and beluga whales that do not migrate south in the winter.
Beluga whale on the surface. Steve Selden photo.
When the belugas arrive in early summer, almost 2,500 animals will inhabit the coastal waters near Churchill including all the rivers and inlets there. At high tide, the Churchill River becomes a calving estuary stretching nearly eight kilometers up river. These relatively warm waters will make for a calm calving process and infancy. When newborn, calves are a darker almost slate gray. This color, opposing the milky white of the adult stage, is thought to be a subtle camouflage trait for the darker water they inhabit. As they grow and become whiter, the color is camouflage as well when living up north amongst the sea ice of near color. Since adults are more alert and more adept at detecting and eluding predators. Young grey -colored whales enjoy the guardianship and protection of their mothers…swimming tightly in their slipstream.
In summer Churchill has many treasures. Guide Sandra Elvin speaks to a group. Steve Selden photo.
The summer in Churchill is a daily reveal of mystery and treasure hidden in the willows and wildflowers of the tundra and the pre- cambrian rolling boulders of the coastal barrier. Each foray into the wild can produce anything the imagination can bring to mind. A beluga whale carcass nestled in the sea grass out at Halfway Point, a polar bear wandering through the boreal forest looking for some eggs from nesting birds, or even a black wolf lumbering in and out of boggy areas near the town weir out along Goose Creek road. As the summer moves forward, polar bears can be spotted along the coast as they arrive from the ice floes in the bay. Each day, each season produces something new and unexpected. Nothing compares to Churchill in the summer….the pace slows down and time seems to come to a standstill. Of course if you like the chance seeing 40 or more polar bears in a day fall might be the time to visit as well. Natural Habitat Adventures has a wide variety of trips that fit into your travel plans.
In the Churchill Arctic summer, between two to three thousand beluga whales voyage southward across the vast Hudson Bay from the Hudson Strait which flows into the Atlantic Ocean to summer in the estuaries around Churchill. These whales winter in the straits since water currents provide life -giving polynas-open water areas where whales and other marine life can surface for air intake. During the Spring as they start their trip, ice still somewhat chunks up the Hudson Bay and makes the trip perilous. Polar bears out on ice floes can sometimes gain access to the whales and find a hearty meal. This can also occur in winter when whales get trapped using only a small opening in the ice when accessible leads or smaller polynas have close up.
Why, one may ask, am I talking about beluga whales in the middle of the northern winter? Recently, documentation of beluga whales trapped in ice being eaten by polar bears have brought attention to the fragile lifestyle of these marine animals. While global warming might not be ideal for polar bears, beluga whales would welcome a little more ice free areas in the far north. It’s not uncommon for belugas or other whales to become trapped in vast expanses of floe ice. With few openings to the world above the whales become isolated unable to reach the next blowhole. belugas can stay below the water surface for about 15 minutes at a depth of up to 66 ft. When they cannot find another air source they must remain at the one they have.
While guiding Churchill Summer trips for over 10 years we were able to get very close to these majestic animals. Quite often we see scars or slashes on the backs of their matte white bodies. These scars or markings are used to identify the belugas much like larger whales are identified by their tale fluke markings. Beluga’s tale flukes are small and rarely seen on a consistent basis. I would inform travelers, without exact evidence, that these markings were sometimes from polar bears attempting to kill the whales. This could really only be true when the whales are trapped within the ice as polar bears would have little chance catching up with a whale in the water. As we can see here this has happened just recently before our eyes in the Arctic.
And, as we can imagine when nature provides a disaster for one species, other species benefit from the misfortune. polar bears predate on the whales and humans then predate on both bears and the whales. The circle of life is continuous.
Sometimes Churchill can seem a million miles away. Weather in Winnipeg and Churchill this time of year …any time of the year for that matter….can be an adventure in its’ own right. Unpredictable at the very least. For Natural Habitat Adventures guide Karen Walker and group it surely felt like that as they were delayed leaving Winnipeg for a few hours before finally arriving in Churchill. After arriving in the polar bear capital, the group had a relaxing meal and then witnessed the amazing drum dance with Peter and Mary …a unique Inuit cultural experience in an intimate setting inside a upik..or tee-pee structure. A perfect way to ease into “tundra time” as we call the slow, relaxing pace of the north.
polar bear aware of a rover. Colby Brokvist photo.
On their first day out on the land a distant snowy owl greeted the group out at Gordon Point aboard their polar rover. Travelers got last glimpses of reddish tinted seaweed and golden tundra along the coast before becoming buried for the winter and morphed with the rest of the landscape into whites and grays. Later, along willow and spruce sheltered Ptarmigan Alley, a large male rested and stretched periodically. Lifting his head to size up the rover and guests gave everyone a nice taste of the polar bear’s life…nice way to start the trip. Another bear at the lodge walked out north towards the point while three others lounged around near the lodge. Every so often they would roll, stretch and become a little playful. very cool.
Sentinel snowy owl on the tundra near Churchill. Photo Colby Brokvist.
The following day another darker, juvenile snowy owl greeted the group as well. Seems to be quite a few “snowy’s” around this year..maybe this is their cycle year…such majestic animals. A half dozen bruins…a hockey team…were spread out around the area near the lodge. Mostly resting and stretching until some sparring started up…gloves off. The display started under the lodge then moved to the front where all travelers had great views. Ptarmigan scurried…or waddled..off into the willows bringing smiles to all.
A final day trip to the Eskimo museum gave all an excellent background on the intermingled cultures of local tribes as well as Thule, Dorset and Pre-Dorset history. All of these peoples played major roles in forming the feel and infrastructure of this incredible region. Some are ghosts..some are still with us…continuing to form the Arctic.
A polar bear leans against a rover.
A trip up to Cape Merry gave people a chance to observe the tundra up close and search the water of the Churchill River for beluga whales that some folks had spotted within the past week. It’s a bit late and I have not heard of whales staying south this long for a good while now. Most years belugas head north to the Hudson Straits area in the northeast by mid-September in order to beat any ice formation in the Hudson Bay. If the whales can’t make it back to the open -water polynas of the straits they will perish by being trapped under the ice. the Straits have open water due to currents that do not allow ice formation. Whales use these polynas to breath in the winter. As the group was leaving the cape, a beautiful, glimmering silver fox came right up to the bus….looking right into everyone’s eyes. He then hopped up on the boardwalk and greeted another group at very close range. The polar bear holding facility has a live -set trap right by the informational panels. Kind of a strange spot for such a thing. No travelers have been captured yet. It’s only a matter of time I’m sure…probably a photographer.
A final night out on the tundra produced inquisitive polar bears at the lodge. Three different groups were graced with bears coming right up to the machines and sniffing under the grated back deck or leaning up on the side of the rover. Natural Habitat guides Colby and Sue both had bears greeting their guests and then a big male came to Karens’ rover and sat next to the group for a good 15 minutes and then walked under the deck ….never standing to sniff boots but still thrilling for all the guests to have the animal separated by only a half inch of steel. As the wine and cheese was broken out and darkness set in, one polar bear did stand up and leaned against the window giving some guests another amazing thrill of a lifetime. Sparring and bears coming and going in the shadows made for a most memorable experience for all.
Guide Colby Brokvist has had some great bear activity on the land for his group of travelers to marvel over. Most recently as they ventured out in their rover, they made their way to Christmas Lake Esker where unfortunately not much was happening in the wildlife realm. Fortunes turned however as other guides radioed over to Colby’s driver that aa sow with two yearling cubs were way out toward second tower. They made swift pace over to the area and were rewarded with the sightings and then the cubs sparring playfully at perfect distance for photo’s and general viewing all while eating a nice lunch. An immature snowy owl out by the old Inuit stone kayak racks and five or so black bellied plovers splashed around in the tidal flats on the coast. Seeing all the Arctic wildlife together enhances the experience..you can get a better sense of the survival urgency when observing multiple life forms moving around in this environment at the same time.
Currently the polar bear holding facility…Jail to locals…has seven polar bears.
18 bears have been reported as threats during that past week.
A total of 95 bears have been reported to date this year.
No bears have been officially flown out though polarbearalley.com has reported that Animal Planet may have arranged and paid for an evacuation flight.