Manitoba: Singing for whales

In summer, beluga whales head to Manitoba's Churchill River to breed. Spotting them isn’t always easy, but as it turns out, a tune or two may help tempt them closer to land

By Paul English
Published 14 May 2019, 17:03 BST
A pod of beluga whales swim alongside a canoe
A pod of beluga whales swim alongside a canoe
Photograph by Travel Manitoba

“What’s that you’re singing?” asks Lazy Bear Expeditions guide, Jason Ransom, drifting silently on a rigid inflatable on Manitoba’s Churchill River as I paddle alongside him, scanning a surface dappled in late August sun for telltale bubbles.

The day before, Jason had driven me around the town, and while admiring the Sea Walls mural trail, telling the story of the town’s First Nations history, industrial past and symbiosis with nature, two fellow travellers had half-joked that you’ve a better chance of spotting belugas if you sing for them. Hence why I’m belting out the refrain from Canadian band Arcade Fire’s song Wake Up. The high notes are proving a challenge, but the song choice is relevant. This is Manitoba, after all, and only a song of such epic proportions would be appropriate for my surrounds.

“I spend the next hour and a half in exquisite delirium, being toyed with and tailed by these beautiful creatures”

This small frontier town on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay holds the unofficial title of polar bear capital of the world, but I’m not singing for bears. A kayak in open water is hardly the safest spot from which to search for apex predators with gold-medal swimming credentials, after all.

Instead, I’m looking for one of the most enigmatic inhabitants of polar seas: the beluga whale; tens of thousands of which gather in the waters off Churchill each summer. It’s testament to their charm that when, five days later, I see polar bears feasting on a whale carcass, the stunning spectacle doesn’t eclipse the magic of my beluga encounters.

But, half an hour in to my three-hour kayak trip, sightings are no more than distant glimpses. It seems setting my subconscious playlist to cetacean-shuffle isn’t working. I switch to Deacon Blue, changing the first line of the chorus from ‘The Believers’ to ‘The Belugas’, and am so chuffed with my new game of whale-song that when a plume of bubbles erupts to my left, I react like a jittery cyclist after a close call at the traffic lights.

“Woaaaaaah!” I whoop, staring into the depths. Something bumps me, left, right, underneath, and suddenly the brilliant white of a beluga appears at the side of my kayak, nudging me gently through the water; its muscular, elegant body glistening in the sun.

I spend the next hour and a half in exquisite delirium, being toyed with and tailed by these beautiful creatures; my disbelieving squeals of excitement echoing, I’m sure, around every nautical mile of Hudson Bay.

The next day I sing again, offering the belugas a Flaming Lips song: “Do you realise that you have the most beautiful face? Do you realise we’re floating in space?” My guide lowers a hydrophone into the water and suddenly — incredibly — I can hear them chirruping around me. They surface, eyeing me inquisitively as I giggle in gratitude, lost to this life-affirming moment in which I almost convince myself these Arctic spirits know what I’m chanting. And that maybe, just maybe, they’d been listening all along.

Beluga whale, Churchill
Photograph by Superstock

Did you know?

Beluga whales are normally found in the Arctic Ocean, as well as the seas around Canada, Alaska and Russia, and can live in both saltwater and fresh water.

They can grow up to over six metres, and lack a dorsal fin, enabling them to swim more easily under ice.

Belugas rounded foreheads are easily distinguishable, containing tissue known as melon, which they use for echolocation, although belugas are also thought to communicate using facial expressions.

They breed in the summer months, coming to estuary areas like Manitoba’s Churchill River to feed and calve. These are the best times to see them.

How to do it

Lazy Bear Expeditions offers a two-day tour including transfers, accommodation and meals (excludes airfare) for CAD$577 (£330) per person.

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