My body was frozen in place. I gripped the kayak paddle with clenched hands, holding my breath as the white form of the beluga whale came directly towards, then underneath, my kayak. It slipped to the other side and broke the surface to spray mist in my face. The mist—from the waters of the Churchill River in Churchill, Manitoba—was surprisingly warm.
I shook off the shock and dipped my paddle into the calm river, watching the white and grey forms of adult and baby belugas surface and play among the bright yellow kayaks. Baby whales swam in the mini-whirlpools created by my paddle, which I moved slowly so as to coast while attempting to photograph their quickly surfacing forms before they dove down again.
Nothing can really prepare you for a close encounter of the cetacean kind. You’re on their marine ‘turf’: sharing the deep with a species that has existed on earth for millions of years. It’s a humbling experience, one that is open to any adventurous traveller who’s signed on for a Wild Planet learning vacation at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC).
The Churchill Northern Studies Centre is an independent, non-profit research and education facility located 23 kilometres east of Churchill. Founded in 1976, its mission is to understand and sustain the North. Scientists from all over Canada come to this field station to study arctic animals like belugas, wolves and polar bears, as well as plants, birds and the northern lights (the Aurora Borealis). The scientists also measure the profound effects of climate change on the animals and subarctic environment.
A learning vacation at the CNSC is different than a regular holiday at a wilderness lodge or hotel. While bunking in dorms and sharing facilities in a collegial environment, you have the opportunity to take a deeper dive into the natural environment and science of this northern sub-arctic region of Canada.
You also get to eat dinner with scientists and guides and chat about beluga whale behavior or the size of the migrating caribou population, from the individuals performing scientific studies in real time. It’s a thrilling experience for any curious traveller who is interested and concerned about our planet and all of its incredible inhabitants.
During our Wild Planet adventure, trained guides and scientists led our exploration of Churchill and its environment. Our small group learned about the health of boreal forests, hiked on spongy muskeg and foraged for wild blueberries and low bush cranberries. We noted paw prints of wolves outside of the 18th-century Prince of Wales Fort, and were on the lookout for polar bears, which tend to roam in and around Churchill in late August. At night, we enjoyed presentations by resident scientists on their latest research findings, which shone a light on the rapid changes taking place in the north.
But without a doubt, the highlight of our learning vacation was the opportunity to paddle among the whales. When the beluga passed underneath my hull, it had nudged the kayak just slightly enough to initiate a brief wobble. As I reluctantly returned to shore, I chose to take that intimate encounter as a reminder of how our common space is a similar shaky vessel. Of how important the preservation of that space is for our mutual benefit and existence.
Disclaimer: The writer was a guest of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.