Zzzzziiiiiiip. I pull my wetsuit zipper up and waddle forwards. 5mm doesn’t seem like a lot when you look at a ruler, but when you have 5mm of neoprene surrounding your body it certainly feels like a lot.
I am in Churchill, Canada. A tiny town, nestled next to the Hudson Bay in the province of Manitoba. It is late July and I am here to see the beluga whales, who admittedly don’t have the same notoriety as the autumn polar bears, but are undoubtedly much more friendly.
Unlike the autumn months where tourists clamber aboard the giant Tundra Buggies® to see polar bears and other wildlife, the same mode of transportation cannot be used on the Churchill River Estuary to see the belugas. There are a few different options for visiting tourists who hope to catch a glimpse of these friendly cetaceans: one is by boat (which includes a trip out to the famous Prince of Wales Fort), another is in a Zodiac® and finally, for the more adventurous, getting right on the water by kayak or stand up paddleboard.
I choose the latter and I am admittedly a bit nervous. I have only been on a paddleboard for 10 minutes the previous summer at the lake, but my guide assures me that although it is called a stand up paddleboard I can sit or kneel on it at anytime or even the whole time if I’d like. “And if you fall in the water, that is what this is for” says my guide as they point to my wetsuit.
We meet at Sea North Tours and take a short ride to the docks. The tour times change according to the tide levels, the water being the smoothest at low tide. After meeting our guides and getting a safety briefing we kit up in our neoprene suits and set off. There is a second guide who sticks with us in a mini inflatable Zodiac, just in case.
Paddling on the river is definitely different from paddling on the lake and I kneel down a few times when I am feeling nervous to get my balance, but after about 5 minutes I am on two feet and paddling like I was born to do this.
I am taking in the views when I first hear some excited chatter coming from my fellow paddleboarders, followed by the sound of belugas. It is hard to miss, with chirps and whistles it is quite a unique sound. A pod of six belugas intrigued by the stand up paddleboards swim by and we excitedly stop paddling to watch. They swim around us and beneath us, allowing us to truly grasp their size; the adults are nearly 13 feet long and the babies are just shy of 5 feet! We watch them swimming, until one bobs their head up above the water and the crowd goes wild!
Our guide explains to us that belugas are extremely vocal, so much so that they have been nicknamed the canaries of the sea. They are creatures of habit too, which is why they congregate in the Hudson Bay year after year. The females return to the same place each year to give birth after carrying their babies for well over a year—nearly 15 months in fact! Once the baby belugas (calves) are born they stick close to their mums and will continue to stick close for two years. The calves are gray when they are born, not white like adult belugas, and it takes four to five years for their skin to lighten.
©Frontiers North Adventures
We spend around 3 hours paddling on the Churchill River, and as we head back to shore I stick close to our guide, partly for security, but mostly for the interesting facts they are reeling off.
I almost fall off my paddleboard when my guide tells me that beluga whales have really malleable heads and are able to change their external head shape whenever they want! That amazing share with all my friends fact along with all the great shots of belugas I took allows me to put a big checkmark next to my bucket list item of "paddleboarding with the belugas".
After the beluga paddleboarding our group meets for a meal, between the delicious fare we look at each other's photos, laughing and reliving the early part of our day. I go to bed that evening, excited for the adventures that lie ahead and I dream of being serenaded by the belugas.