Spotting the Arctic Big Five in Manitoba, Canada

The area surrounding Churchill, in far north Manitoba, offers a wealth of opportunities for wildlife-watching. We round up the creatures you'll likely encounter out on the snowy tundra.Monday, 4 November 2019

Arctic wolf.
Arctic wolf.
photo by Cheryl Hnatiuk, Churchill Wild

Snow crunches under foot as green and purple streamers light up the sky. One of the best places on earth to see the Northern Lights, this part of Canada is about as remote as it gets — there are no roads into Churchill; the only route into this tiny town is via train or plane. From there, a plane takes you on to one of Churchill Wild's three eco-lodges, where wildlife abounds and treks into the wilderness will likely throw up sightings of Canada's Big Five. This is the polar bear capital of the world, and while spotting large predators is commonly done from the safety of a vehicle, Churchill Wild offers walking safaris — and the unique chance to come face to face with the animals that rule this arctic wilderness. Here are the five to look out for:

Polar bear out on the tundra.
Polar bear out on the tundra.

Polar bear

When the ice of the Hudson Bay reforms in October and November after the summer melt, hundreds of polar bears migrate through Churchill, briefly outnumbering the local population. Sightings throughout the area are as good as guaranteed, and walking tours offer unparalleled proximity. As the world’s largest land carnivore, adult males can weigh up to 2,000lbs — several times the average human. Guided walking tours offer up-close viewing and photo opportunities, or even a near nose-to-nose encounter from behind the fence of one of Churchill Wild’s lodges. Polar bears' skin is actually black underneath their translucent fur, which appears white as it reflects the sun — but sometimes you'll see them with blue-stained bums from sitting in blueberry patches.

Arctic wolf stalking its prey.
Arctic wolf stalking its prey.

Wolf

Due to its isolation, the Arctic wolf is the only sub-species of wolf that isn't under threat from hunting and destruction of its habitat. This sub-species of the grey wolf is carnivorous and feeds on caribou (reindeer), hares and musk ox. While polar bears are usually at the top of the Arctic food chain, there have been reports of wolves eating bear cubs. While wolves are less of a guaranteed spot in Churchill than beluga whales or polar bears, outside the town, deep in the boreal forest that surrounds Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge sightings are common. One glance of their bright, wild eyes and thick, grey-white coats is enough to stay imprinted on the memory forever.

A herd of caribou.
A herd of caribou.

Caribou

Caribou, the North American word for reindeer, are wild, elk-like and larger than their European and Asian counterparts. While caribou herds across northern Canada are declining, the Qamanirjuaq (pronounced ka-min-YOO-ree-ak) caribou are still strong in numbers. Their ancient migration route takes them from north to south over the barren lands of the Arctic tundra near the Nunavut border. For a chance to see it, travellers should book onto an Arctic Safari, aiming to arrive in September. Unlike all other deer species, both sexes of caribou have antlers. Inuits traditionally relied on caribou for food, warm clothing and tools, such as hooks made from antlers.

A moose grazes in Manitoba's autumnal forests.
A moose grazes in Manitoba's autumnal forests.

Moose

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, 155 miles south east of Churchill, is located within the largest remaining remote moose population in western Canada, making its surrounds a great place to spot these herbivorous gentle giants in the surrounding streams and rivers. A species of deer, they stand between 5ft and 6.9ft high and feast on pine cones, moss, twigs and shrubs. Bulls — the male moose — are known by their huge antlers, which they shed once a year to conserve energy; a female moose is called a cow. During breeding season in September and October, bulls make a grunting sound, meaning they're easy to locate.

Two beluga whales in Churchill River, Canada.
Two beluga whales in Churchill River, Canada.

Beluga whales

When the ice breaks up and melts in summer, beluga whales come out in force, with around 60,000 visiting the Hudson Bay during their birthing season in July and August. Also known as the sea canary, these playful mammals are very vocal and fond of whistling. They're small in relation to other whales and are easily recognisable by their white colour. Kayak trips on the Churchill River offer a chance to see the creature from above, and visitors are encouraged to sing songs to elicit friendly interaction. (Fortunately, belugas feast on fish, not humans.) Churchill Wild's Arctic Discovery and Birds, Bears & Belugas safaris both offer excellent Beluga watching opportunities.

Essentials

The best times to visit this part of Canada is from July to November, particularly for polar bear viewing, although there are plenty of wildlife opportunities year-round. Air Canada flies from Heathrow to Winnipeg via Toronto (average flight time 12 hours). Churchill is then a two-hour flight or 48-hour train ride from Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba province.

Family-owned Churchill Wild operates a complete spectrum of tours from its three remote, luxury, sustainable eco-lodges, each built with local lumber and recycled materials. A 30-minute plane ride north of Churchill, the coastal Seal River Heritage Lodge — part of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World collection — is located by an estuary where beluga whales arrive en masse in summer, making its Birds, Bears and Belugas adventure package ideal. Seal River also offers polar bear safaris on foot, minimising environmental impact and maximising close-up contact. Southeast of Churchill is Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge (also part of the collection), strategically located to give the best access to polar bear denning (where pregnant mothers dig holes to give birth). Nanuk offers wildlife walks as well as excursions by eco-friendly open-air vehicles. Finally, Dymond Lake Ecolodge is only a short 15-minute plane hop from Churchill and is also ideally situated next to Hudson Bay to maximise bear viewing potential. The lodge comes complete with a viewing tower, and the surrounding walking trails take travellers deep into the wooly wilds of the artic tundra.

Churchill Wild is the only company in Arctic Canada specialising in polar bear walks; it also offers beluga whale-watching, caribou, wolf and bird tours. In March, there's also the Den Emergence Quest which coincides with the best time for view the Northern Lights. Packages include return airfares from Winnipeg.

Click here for more information.

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