The tundra near Churchill, Manitoba is transformed in summer. Flowers, birds and polar bears dot the landscape and beluga whales swim in the cool waters just offshore. This destination deep in the Canadian Arctic has such an abundance of wildlife that it is on the bucket-list of many nature lovers. Polar bear watching and viewing beluga whales are the top things to do during the summer in Churchill, but there are other sites to see as well. We absolutely fell in love with this beautiful corner of Canada on our first summer visit.
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Polar Bear Watching in Summer
Summer is not the peak season for polar bear watching and to be completely honest, we had been in Churchill for two days before we saw our first polar bear. On our way to a tundra buggy excursion, we spotted a female polar bear with an almost fully mature cub just off the main road. Polar bears can be quite lethargic during the summer months, but these two were walking along at a good pace. We pulled over to the side of the road and watched them.
Related: Read our post about visiting Churchill during peak polar bear season.
The Polar Bear Alert Program
Things got exciting when conservation officers showed up. The bears were headed in a direction that would lead them into town, so one of the conservation officers fired some warning blasts to scare them into changing their course. Keeping polar bears and people apart for the safety of both is the primary objective of the Polar Bear Alert Program, which we were seeing in action. Later we popped by “polar bear jail,” otherwise known as the “polar bear holding facility” to see the outside of the building as well as the live traps used to catch nuisance bears. If bears continue to get too close to humans, they are trapped and held until the late fall when they are released onto the ice.
A Tundra Buggy Polar Bear Watching Tour
After the two bears had cleared out, we made our way to the tundra buggy for our excursion. A tundra buggy is a custom-designed 50-passenger vehicle with a diesel engine, a sturdy steel frame, steel sheeting, 8 wheel drive tandem tires, many windows and a viewing platform at the rear.
The first tundra buggy was really a modified school bus that was built by a man named Len Smith in 1979 to take family and friends safely out onto the tundra. According to our tour guide, Smith drove the vehicle across old military roads to get deep onto the tundra and observe the wildlife. One day a National Geographic reporter heard about the new invention and convinced Smith to take him out to see the bears. After the story was published, visitors began flocking to this remote and isolated community to view the bears and Smith found himself with a new business.
It was quite a bumpy ride as we made our way across the tundra. With the constant freezing and thawing, roads do not survive well and the military roads that are used by the tundra buggies are old and abandoned, so they don’t get much if any upkeep.
If it is safe to do so (read – no bears in site), passengers can get out of the buggy and get a closer look at the plant life in this unique biome. Since we didn’t see any bears, we made a stop and got out for a closer look. It was amazing to see the tundra up close and to feel its spongy texture beneath our feet. Our guide, Hailey, identified the various plants and some of us took the opportunity to sample the edible ones. During the summer you can find many edible plants on the tundra and a footprint can last for years.
After our afternoon on the tundra, we were pretty excited to keep looking for bears. While we didn’t happen to see any bears on our summer tundra buggy excursion, we did manage to see a total of four polar bears over the course of a weekend – just enough to make us want to come back for another visit – in the fall.
Related: If you love the Arctic, you’ll love our post Ilulissat, Greenland – Birthplace of Icebergs.
The Difference Between Polar Bear Watching in Summer and Fall
Polar bears are naturally less active in summer, because they are conserving their energy. These great white bears become most active during the winter as they use the ice flows to hunt for seals – their natural food source. October and November are the peak months for polar bear watching in Churchill. Polar bears migrate to the area to get out onto the frozen Hudson Bay. We saw many polar bears from the safety of the tundra buggy on our second trip to Churchill. If you visit in winter, it’s highly unlikely you would see any polar bears, as they are out on the ice hunting.
Ever Heard of a Grolar Bear or a Pizzly Bear?
Grizzly-polar bear hybrids have occurred both in captivity and in the wild. The result is called a grolar bear or a pizzly bear. The resulting hybrids have traits of both species.
Have Fun in the Arctic and see some Great Iceberg Photos: Read our post, Take the Iceberg Pareidolia Test.
Beluga Whales in Churchill
During the summer months, approximately 60,000 beluga whales migrate to the Hudson Bay. About 3,000 of these whales make their way into the Churchill River Basin and can be seen on boat tours between June and September. They give birth to their young and feed in the shallow waters where they are safe from predators. In Hudson Bay, they eat shrimp, Capelin and Sand Lance. In late summer, they leave the Churchill area and migrate to deeper waters. There, they feed more intensively on larger fish such as Arctic char, Arctic cod, turbot, salmon and squid.
Interesting Facts about Beluga Whales
The Beluga whale is a toothed whale without a dorsal fin. Adults are pure white in color and newborns are dark grey. Scientists believe the average lifespan of a beluga whale to be around 15 years, but some live to be 40 or 50 years of age. Their main predators are killer whales and polar bears. Adults range in length from 2.6 to 4.5 metres and weigh up to 1900 kilograms. Belugas are found in cold Arctic waters. They are called the canaries of the sea, because they are one of the most vocal whale species on the planet.
Ever Heard of a Narluga Whale?
There have been cases of beluga whales (canaries of the sea) mating with Narwhal Whales (unicorns of the sea). It’s a rare occurrence, but when it happens the offspring is called a Narluga Whale.
How to See Beluga Whales in Churchill
There are several operators that offer summer boat tours to see the beluga whales near Churchill. We enjoyed two tours during our stay – a zodiac boat tour and a beluga whale tour that included a tour of the historic Prince of Wales Fort. Both tours were offered by Sea North Tours in Churchill. The belugas were close enough to touch on our zodiac tour. The other tour was aboard a larger boat and the captain placed a microphone under the water, so we could hear the whales vocalizing. It left no doubt as to why these whales have been dubbed the canaries of the sea. The other tour that I would absolutely love to try is sea kayaking with beluga whales. At one time, you were allowed to snorkel with the whales, but those days are past. The closest possible views are in a sea kayak – if you’re lucky.
How to Get to Churchill, Manitoba
There are no roads into Churchill, Manitoba. You can get to Churchill by Via Rail train or you can fly from Winnipeg with CalmAir. The flights are substantially more costly, but vastly more convenient. Flying to Churchill will take about 2.5 hours from Winnipeg. The train journey from Winnipeg to Churchill will take almost 2 full days.
You should be prepared for all kinds of weather when visiting Churchill – even in summer. Bring a waterproof all-weather jacket, a warm hoodie, hiking pants, a day pack and hiking boots. Layer up when it gets cold and remove layers when it gets hot. Here are a few other tips:
- Be bear aware at all times. Never walk outside the town without a bear guard. Polar bears are not afraid of humans. They will eat you.
- You can book a package through a Churchill tour operator that includes polar bear watching and tours to see beluga whales.
- You could also book your own tours and stay in a hotel in town. It’s best to book wildlife tours in advance, because they sell out.
- If you’re having trouble reserving wildlife tours, book a package. Tours operators have priority reservations.
Where to Stay in Churchill
There are a number of accommodation options in Churchill including several hotels in the town. We stayed in a hotel for our first visit on a tour arranged with Frontiers North. On our second visit, we stayed in a dorm room at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on a pre-arranged tour. The Centre is currently closed due to the Covid pandemic.
Other Things to See and Do in Churchill in Summer
Polar bear watching and seeing beluga whales are the two top things to do in Churchill, but there are other sites and experiences to enjoy as well. Here are a few of them.
- Itsanitaq Museum – This remarkable Churchill museum contains an incredible collection of Inuit carvings and artifacts.
- Parks Canada Visitor Centre – Located in the train station, this visitor centre contains exhibits that highlight Wapusk National Park, Prince of Wales Fort and York Factory National Historic Sites.
- Prince of Wales Fort – Arrange a guided tour of the National Historic Site and learn about its history.
- Miss Piggy – This plane wreck is a provincial historic site and it makes a good photo-op.
- SeaWalls Churchill – This collection of murals was created to educate and inspire the community to protect the ocean.
More Amazing Nature Photos: Read our post, Meaning Quotes about Nature.