Underwater image of a beluga approaching a boat.

A curious beluga whale swims close to the Beluga Boat for a better look. Live Beluga Cams provide both over- and underwater views of the annual gathering of belugas in the Churchill River estuary.

8/5/2019 2:14:38 PM

Belugas and Polar Bears

By Kieran McIver, Churchill Operations Manager

Churchill, Manitoba, is known worldwide for its polar bears, but for a brief window every summer, the beluga whales take over—an astonishing scene as they flood into the Churchill River estuary and surround the shorelines of Hudson Bay, their numbers reaching into the thousands.

For the whales, the Churchill estuary serves as a feeding ground, a space to rear their calves as they live out the first few months of their lives, an ideal place for their annual molt, and a sanctuary offering protection in the shallow waters from potential predators.

I feel fortunate that, for two months every summer, my world revolves around the river and the whales, and the Beluga Boat becomes my second home.

Beluga Cam

What makes the Beluga Boat so unique is our ability to share the whales with thousands of people around the world via live Beluga Cams in partnership with explore.org. Rigged with above- and underwater cameras, complete with hydrophones, we have the ability to stream live footage of the whales in their natural habitat Not only are viewers able to enjoy these incredible animals interacting with the boat and their surrounding environment, but they have the opportunity to take part in a citizen science project, Beluga Bits, by taking snapshots on the explore.org site.

When the Beluga Bits project started in 2016, the main goal was to find out if the same whales were returning to the estuary every year. It wasn’t long before the research team, led by Dr. Stephen Peterson, realized there was a lot more we could learn about the belugas through this method of data accumulation. Researchers now collect information on the social behavior and structure of the pods, wounds, the healing process, threats, and the overall health of the beluga population.   

First Polar Bears

It is now early August, midway through the beluga season. and my eyes are no longer solely fixed on the water. Each summer as the sea ice in Hudson Bay diminishes, eventually melting entirely, the polar bears who had spent their winter on the ice hunting for seals now find themselves forced to shore, where they will wait patiently until the fall when the bay freezes again. During this time, it becomes common to see the bears roaming the shorelines, sleeping among the rocks, or taking a swim in an attempt to cool off in the summer heat.

The time spent on shore between the ice break-up in summer and freeze-up in the fall is a fasting period for the bears. The ice-free period now lasts, on average, three weeks longer than it did in the 1980’s! While fasting, the bears will lose around one kilogram of body weight per day. It is safe to say the bears are hungry and have a lot of time to kill while they wait. These facts, combined with the natural curiosity of polar bears, often leads them to the town of Churchill where every once in a while, a bear will go unnoticed, slipping into the town limits. This happened for the first time this summer when a large bear was spotted on someone’s front door step. Luckily no one was injured and the bear was escorted out of town unharmed. The incident was a stern reminder of the need to be ever-vigilant even when going about your daily routine—something I never thought I would have to concern myself with growing up in southern Alberta.

The brief summer and hundreds of hours spent on the Beluga Boat each year is something I will look forward to as long as I can call Churchill home. It’s safe to say beluga whales and polar bears are a part of my life now, and my only regret is this wasn’t the case sooner. The whales, the bears, the town, and the people make this a truly amazing place to live or to visit—and it's one we’re committed to preserving for future generations.

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