Churchill, Manitoba has been known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World since the 1980s. Each fall more than 12,000 tourists flock to the small frontier town (population: 899) to witness polar bears gathering, awaiting sea ice to form on Hudson Bay.
These ursine kings of the Arctic aren’t the only charismatic mega-fauna to inhabit the area. An estimated 10,0000 beluga whales migrate into Hudson Bay each summer, with approximately 3,000 congregating in the estuary where the Churchill River meets the Bay. The belugas make much friendlier paddling companions than the bears.
Paddleboard with beluga whales at the edge of Hudson Bay
Kayak trips have been popular for tourists hoping to get on the water with the beautiful 1,000-pound cetaceans, however, standup paddleboarding is a new option for getting close to the playful belugas of Churchill.
Belugas are attracted to disturbances in the water, including those created by a paddle. Incredibly curious, the whales often follow the boards, eyeing up at them from just under the surface. They’ve even been known to knock paddlers off their boards with boisterous flicks of their massive white tails. Don’t worry—the gentle beluga prefers a diet of crab and cod to stinky neoprene-wrapped paddlers.
Paddleboard tours typically last two hours on the water. With gearing up and a safety briefing, the whole trip totals about three hours. The trips are run at low tide to give paddlers the best view of the belugas in the mouth of the warmer Churchill River, rather than out in cold Hudson Bay.
Whales, bears, bald eagles, moose and wolves are plentiful. Book a separate tour to visit the tundra hotspots where polar bears frequent.
July and August are best for beluga watching. Visit in August for the best chance of seeing both belugas and polar bears. The weather is typically cool in summer—about 60°F—and it can change quickly. Dress accordingly.
Tundra buggies are massive all-terrain vehicles hopped up on extra large tires. Frontiers North Adventures’ buggies take tourists and photographers out to the bears for closer viewing, while keeping them safe from becoming dinner.
The town of Churchill is accessible only by rail and air. Or you could paddle there.
The Tundra Inn Dining Room and Pub has the best food in town. Don’t miss trivia night and open mic night.
Beluga whales have a protrusion on their heads called a melon. | Feature photo: Daniel Raiti