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Manitoba isn’t referred to as ‘The Lake Province’ without reason. Though Ontario and Quebec have more actual lakes than Manitoba, what Manitoba does have is more water per kilometre than any other province. There is plenty of freshwater in Manitoba, but many forget that this great province also has a saltwater coastline. So you’re likely to get a reaction involving some raised eyebrows and a dropped jaw when you share that you can swim with beluga whales in Churchill, Manitoba. Yes, you read that correctly.
Tens of thousands of these huge white whales migrate to Hudson Bay to feast on capelin before heading back to the chilly Arctic waters for the rest of the year. It is estimated that about 3,000 belugas spend the entirety of the summer near Churchill, making the summer beluga population the largest readily accessible group of whales on the planet.
Every year, the adventurous cruise through brisk, salty air on Hudson Bay to take the plunge into the icy waters of the province for the opportunity to swim with these gentle creatures. While there may not be schools of colourful fish jetting in and out of a coral reef, this uniquely Canadian version of snorkelling is incredible in its own way – namely that you’ll be swimming with whales, in Canada, in the subarctic.
The water temperature hangs around 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit), so in addition to booties and gloves, visitors zip into a thick hooded wetsuit. But the cold water and restricted wetsuit movement is a small price to pay for an underwater swim within feet of belugas as they sing and speak around you. That’s right- sing. Belugas are often referred to as sea canaries as a result of the high-pitched melodic sounds they make underwater, and most accounts suggest they sing with glee when they encounter curious humans.
You may have heard of Churchill, Manitoba before, but likely as a result of its notoriety in offering up opportunities to see another subarctic species; the polar bear. While October and November keep Churchill buzzing with people hoping to see polar bears, July to August, belugas migrate to the warm waters of the Hudson Bay and Churchill River estuary and stay through the summer months to give birth to and rear their calves. But this more inexpensive off-season isn’t void of opportunity to see polar bears exploring the extensive coastline – though it is a bit less likely.
In fact, the guide’s role is to not only find you pods of playful belugas and their calves but also to keep watch for any polar bears hoping to join in on the fun. Many people who have experienced this unique scuba experience comment on the supernatural sensation of being among the quick and quiet movement of the belugas, and the lingering adrenaline and thrill that the experience provides.
If you’re not as much of a thrill seeker or have some hesitations about swimming with these gentle giants, there are alternatives, namely kayaking above the water near the pods of belugas. Watching whales breach and curiously swim around your kayak seems like a pretty incredible alternative.
So, if you want to swim with one of the largest group of accessible beluga whales on the planet while also potentially seeing polar bears, ptarmigan, arctic tern, wild orchids and other Arctic flowers, all at a fraction of the cost of a trip during ‘peak’ season, head to Churchill Manitoba in Early to Mid June for a uniquely Canadian experience of a lifetime.
When: July to August
Cost: $195 / person
Safety: Look for polar bear warnings and don’t visit the shoreline alone.
Accommodations: Tour operators can book accommodations, but we recommend staying at the Lazy Bear Lodge and Tundra Inn.
Food: Gypsy Bakery, Tundra Inn
Getting there: Calm Air has regular flights from Winnipeg to Churchill, while VIA Rail offers a three-day train ride. Pay attention to weather forecasts to avoid delays leading up to your flight or train.
Like this post? Check out Bucket List: Sail The Great Bear Rainforest In Search Of The Spirit Bear and Bucket List: Climb The Cirque Of The Unclimbables, too!