Moving slowly and curiously, a huge polar bear wandered along the edge of rocks in full view, with self-assurance and swagger.
I was on a whale watching boat in Churchill, Manitoba, as part of Frontiers North Adventures’ Big Five Safari, and did not think it was possible to exceed the level of exhilaration and amazement I had already experienced, having spent the duration of the trip surrounded by majestic belugas popping up intermittently.
Talk about having one of those surreal moments! The previous evening, I had been pointing my camera at the clear, star-lit sky, capturing the subtle green notes of the Northern Lights – something I thought was impossible during the lighter summer months. And this was all within 24 hours of arriving in Churchill. I knew now why this tiny town on the Hudson Bay was such a magical place to visit.
More than 3,000 belugas arrive in the Churchill River every year, in July and August, to give birth and feast on the abundant supply of fish. The water is brimming with these wondrous white whales and their greyish calves. Seeing a polar bear in its natural environment, instead of on a television nature programme narrated by Sir David Attenborough, took this experience to a greater height. ‘Somebody pinch me’ was all I kept on thinking to myself.
Churchill is actually known as the polar bear capital of the world and many people come to spot the bears during Autumn high season, when they move towards the coast as ice begins to form. But, as my sighting demonstrates, the summer months also provide opportunities to spot polar bears.
We were constantly told to be careful when walking near rocks, because a polar bear could easily be lurking in the vicinity. On a walking tour out on the tundra, our guide, Paul Ratson, kept us close together and carried a gun as a safety precaution.
In an area known locally as Polar Bear Alley, we spotted a large paw print that Paul said was fresh from a few hours earlier.
My eyes were suddenly almost popping out of my head as I constantly scanned my surroundings, almost certain at some points that a polar bear would appear. It did not, but there was always that exciting and slightly scary feeling that it could be close by.
Kayaking and Snorkeling with Beluga Whales
Could this Manitoba trip get any better after seeing the Northern Lights and whales within such a short space of time?
The answer to this question is YES! In the days that followed the whale watching tour, I got to both snorkel and kayak with the belugas. After seeing them from the boat and hearing their impressive orchestral squeaking via a radio on board, I got to delve into their environment.
One morning, I found myself in a head-to-toe wetsuit, face down in the Churchill River in a starfish-like pose. Usually, the snorkelling takes place in the bay, where the water is relatively clear.
However, due to rainy weather conditions, the belugas had moved out to Mosquito Point, where the water was murky. Despite the visibility not being what it usually was, I still saw the silhouette of a beluga swimming directly beneath me. As I clung onto a rope at the side of the zodiac boat, I was overwhelmed to be having such a unique insight into the beluga world below.
I might not have been able to see them all, but I could most certainly hear them. As soon as my face was submerged, the sounds of numerous whales communicating with each other echoed all around me.
That afternoon, the belugas had returned to the bay. As the sky became an angry colour with thunder heard in the distance, we headed out in our kayaks. It felt like a storm was closing in, but the water was as still as could be. The rain began battering down and, before long, we were surrounded by belugas that were swimming so close you could see the details on their skin and the permanent smiles on their faces.
The whales’ heavy breathing could be heard all around; the whistling inhaling and exhaling sounds reminding me of an old steam train. As the wind picked up, we headed back to shore and I felt certain that this was one of those awe-inspiring moments that I would always remember.
Riding Mountain National Park
Before heading up north to Canada’s Arctic, the Big Five Safari took in one of the country’s most diverse national parks – Riding Mountain – a few hours’ drive up from Winnipeg. While Churchill would take care of the beluga and polar bear sightings, here we were on the look out for moose, bison and black bear.
Did we see all of them? Unfortunately, the black bears remained illusive on this occasion and I missed a quick sighting of a moose that others on the bus spotted. However, we saw plenty of bison. It wasn’t hard to find them though as there’s a bison enclosure within the park. The first sighting was on a misty morning, when everybody jumped up with excitement as a lone bison appeared. It was really atmospheric seeing this dark giant of an animal mysteriously shrouded in a blanket of fog.
The dewy conditions in the park made elements of nature that usually sink into the background, or disappear completely, stand out. This was the case with the many cobwebs that were beautifully highlighted by tiny droplets of moisture.
And this ladybird became a real feature…
Later on in the afternoon, the mist lifted and the sun was shining. It was not long before we stumbled across a whole herd of bison happily grazing and, for the most part, completely oblivious to the bus-load of spectators pointing their cameras out of the windows to capture the perfect shot.
There were, however, some bison that were more curious than others. In fact, one got a bit too close for comfort, creeping up unexpectedly behind the bus, prompting our guide to get everybody inside. You do not want to mess with the bison!
These are hefty animals. The males can reach the massive weight of 2,000 lbs and the bison is the largest terrestrial mammal in North America.
“The bison is our equivalent to the African elephant,” Parks Canada guide Annik Adam told us.
“They look so out of proportion with a wide three quarters and then really small at the back. It can be difficult to work out the male and females as they both have horns, but the males are much bigger.
“They drink five gallons of water a day and 24 pounds of food and are essential for the grassland as they keep the forest back.”
The bison herd comprises of 44 and Annik said some of the calves had arrived late and could struggle to survive.
“Some of them might have a hard winter,” she explained.
The abundance of wildlife in Riding Mountain National Park includes around 800-900 black bear, 3,000 moose and 1,700 elk. A rich variety of wildflowers and birds can also be found in abundance here. But, besides the wildlife, the landscape in itself is spectacular – especially the beautiful lakes, such as Deep Lake photographed above.
Bison or elk sausages anyone?
Up until my arrival in Manitoba, maple sausages seemed to be the staple style for a Canadian breakfast. Here, however, as part of the tour, we got to sample bison and elk sausages. They tasted distinctive and delicious.