The Story Behind the Story: Chuchill’s Beluga Whales

Here’s the story on kayaking with belugas, and here’s the story behind the story.

I love animals. I always have. At this point, I’ve basically turned my job as a travel writer into a not-so-secret way to seek out animals in their natural habitats whenever possible. I love luxury hotels and cool restaurants (who doesn’t?) but for me, the ultimate travel experience is getting to go see the natural world, as it was created, and its amazing creatures.

Kayaks lined up along the shores of the Churchill River

This means I end up in some remote places. In general: the higher the animal population = the harder to get to = the fewer the humans. This is the case with a little settlement called Churchill up in northeastern Manitoba, Canada. From the moment you step off the plane, there are signs everywhere in Churchill proudly announcing it as “the polar bear capital of the world.” I have been to the Arctic twice by now and have never seen a polar bear, so this was exciting – but I wasn’t there for the bears. I was there for the belugas. Or, as I told people before I left, “I have to go see a man about a whale.”

At some point many years ago, I learned about the annual beluga whale migration in Hudson Bay, Canada. I had no idea where Churchill was at the time (it’s on the shores of Hudson Bay) and had never been to Manitoba. All I knew was that you could get up close and personal with whales in their natural habitat and I immediately added it to my bucket list. I pitched this idea to my editors at the New York Times in 2018.

Belugas live high up in the Arctic (much higher than Churchill) most of the year in dark waters. Even if you were able to withstand that inhospitable environment long enough to spot them, you wouldn’t get to see them too closely in between the ice fields and black water. They come down to the Hudson Bay area in summer to give birth in an area without any predators. Orcas are belugas’ biggest predator, and while it’s not unheard of for orcas to travel down to Hudson Bay, they generally stay away because their enormous size makes it too challenging to enter the cove. Polar bears will take a swipe at a beluga now and then, but apparently belugas have an equal chance of winning that fight so most of the time the bears leave them alone and stick to fish.    

Belugas!

In July of 2019, I traveled from Newark to Winnipeg and then onwards to Churchill. The charter plane from Winnipeg to Churchill stops at Rankin Inlet in Nunavut (the most northern Canadian province) once a day. I ended up on that flight, where I sat around the airport with the most aggressive, psychotic flies and mosquitos I’ve ever seen. That was the main topic of discussion there, but we had another real-life drama unfolding.

That week, two teenagers had gone on a theft and murder spree, launching a nationwide manhunt. They managed to travel huge distances across remote areas of the country, slipping past police along the way. I watched a news report where one of the suspect’s fathers said they have excellent survival skills and have probably been in disguise.

They were headed in the direction of Churchill at the exact time I was visiting. The only way into or out of Churchill is on a small plane or on the train, which arrives three times per week. The train pulling in is a big deal at normal times, but this day, the police were searching every single person and train car. Heading to Churchill when you’re on the run from the law is a special kind of foolish – it’s a very small, isolated community where everyone has shot guns. The general consensus was that if anything were to get these two in the Churchill environs, it wouldn’t be the bears or the people – it would be the bugs. I have never in my life seen such aggressive, giant, biting flies. One followed me for 45 minutes just to bite me through my clothes over and over. In the end, the fugitives stayed away, and were later found dead in the wilderness. Probably from those summer flies.

Otherwise, Churchill was very quiet. The mayor walks his two giant dogs up and down the main street. The big event of the week is pizza night at one of the local bars. (It’s the only way to get pizza.) I worry when I see a place like this, with such amazing wildlife, because the last thing I want is for it to get overrun. I am hopeful that won’t happen there, because it’s a tight knit, ultra-remote community of scientists, wildlife professionals, and other protective, intelligent people who know what they have. Then, of course, there’s the coronavirus, so tourism to Churchill this summer is heavily restricted. In a way, that’s great. The people who really want to go see the belugas will keep them in mind for next summer, and the people who just want a photo opp will have moved onto something else by then and forgotten all about them.

A gray baby beluga to the left of its mother

The New York Times stopped printing its travel section early in the pandemic, because they didn’t want to encourage travel. My story was one of the last destination pieces to make it to print, and that was because the story was so remote and unique. I had to rewrite it several times as the news changed weekly, but I’m very happy with the way it came out.

(1) Comment

  1. I loved reading this story and seeing your photos. What a wonderful experience that must have been.

Every time you comment, an angel gets its wings

%d bloggers like this: