Belugas and Polar Bears

Guest post by: Kieran McIver, Beluga Boat Captain and Churchill Operations Manager at Polar Bears International

Churchill, Manitoba, is known worldwide for its polar bears, but for a brief window every summer, the beluga whales take over—an astonishing scene as they flood into the Churchill River estuary and surround the shorelines of Hudson Bay, their numbers reaching into the thousands.

For the whales, the Churchill estuary serves as a feeding ground, a space to rear their calves as they live out the first few months of their lives, an ideal place for their annual molt, and a sanctuary offering protection in the shallow waters from potential predators.

I feel fortunate that, for two months every summer, my world revolves around the river and the whales, and the Beluga Boat becomes my second home.

Photo by: Madison Stevens, Polar Bears International

Beluga Cam

What makes the Beluga Boat so unique is our ability to share the whales with thousands of people around the world via live Beluga Cams in partnership with explore.org. Rigged with above-water and underwater cameras, complete with hydrophones, we have the ability to stream live footage of the whales in their natural habitat. Not only are viewers able to enjoy these incredible animals interacting with the boat and their surrounding environment, but they have the opportunity to take part in a citizen science project, Beluga Bits, by taking snapshots on the explore.org site.

When the Beluga Bits project started in 2016, a main goal was to find out if the same whales were returning to the estuary every year. It wasn’t long before the research team, led by Dr. Stephen Petersen at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, realized there was a lot more we could learn about the belugas through this method of data accumulation. With the support of volunteers, student researchers, and new machine learning methods, researchers can now collect more robust information on mothers and calves, the social behavior and structure of the pods, wounds and their healing process, the overall health of the beluga population, and other aspects of the river’s ecology. One of the exciting findings from this project so far has been photo evidence of two new jellyfish species in the estuary- the melon comb jellyfish and common northern comb jellyfish (not previously documented within Hudson Bay).

Photo from Beluga Cam

First Polar Bears

It is now mid-July, the beginning of the beluga season, and now that the boat is up and running my eyes are no longer solely fixed on the water. Each summer as the sea ice in Hudson Bay diminishes, eventually melting entirely, the polar bears who had spent their winter on the ice hunting for seals now find themselves forced to shore, where they will wait patiently until the fall when the bay freezes again. During this time, it becomes common to see the bears roaming the shorelines, sleeping among the rocks, or taking a swim in an attempt to cool off in the summer heat.

Photo by: Kt Miller, Polar Bears International

The time spent on shore between the ice break-up in summer and freeze-up in the fall is a fasting period for the bears. The ice-free period now lasts, on average, three to four weeks longer than it did in the 1980s. While fasting, the bears will lose around one kilogram of body weight per day. It is safe to say the bears are hungry and have a lot of time to kill while they wait. These facts, combined with the natural curiosity of polar bears, often leads them to the town of Churchill where every once in a while, a bear will go unnoticed, slipping into the town limits. This year the first polar bear was spotted near town on June 25th, and we’ve been seeing a few bears every now and again since then. There haven’t been any exciting encounters in town so far (that I’ve heard of), but we have had some nice sightings from the Beluga Boat. Just this week I saw a mother polar bear and cub walking along the rocky shoreline while getting dive-bombed by Arctic terns (coastal birds) attempting to protect their nests on the ground. The terns would call loudly and harass the family as they lumbered through the rocks. It was quite the sight to see.  

Photo by Kieran McIver, Polar Bears International

The brief summer and hundreds of hours spent on the Beluga Boat each year is something I will look forward to as long as I can call Churchill home. It’s safe to say beluga whales and polar bears are a part of my life now, and my only regret is this wasn’t the case sooner. The whales, the bears, the town, and the people make this a truly amazing place to live or to visit—and it’s one we’re committed to preserving for future generations.

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