National Geographic Traveler—Called to the Wild

Called to the Wild

by Robert Earle Howells

National Geographic Traveler

October 2008

[This article won the Travelers’ Tales 2009 Solas Award for Best Adventure Travel Story.]

Opening Spread, National Geographic TravelerHow I came to be snorkeling in Hudson Bay amid 3,000-pound beluga whales is the story of a growing obsession. In the past five years, I’ve watched humpback whales feed and breach off the British Columbia coast…hovered offshore in a kayak while grizzly bears diffidently munched on tender shoots of late spring grass, and yes, they can swim…cast a flashlight beam on skulking caiman (crocodile cousins) from a canoe in the Amazon…watched elk rut on a Banff golf course…tip-toed through a herd of wild bison on an Oklahoma prairie.

In a world brimming with virtual experiences, encountering wildlife in their natural setting is a welcome and thrilling dose of reality. Increasingly, it’s what I seek in my travels. When I can hear the wild splashing crescendo of a whale’s breach, hear the feathery brush of a raven’s wing, smell the pungent muskiness of a herd of elk, catch the glint of a gator’s eye, I am relieved to know that a bit of the real world endures. I know that separation from the natural world is an illusion. Because here I am: as alive and breathing as the creatures I’m watching.

Or the creatures watching me.

Which was the case with those beluga whales.

I’d been floating in Hudson Bay for maybe two minutes when the first three whales sidled into my narrow snorkel-mask view. A tight echelon of ghostlike white swimmers emerged from murky oblivion and glided beneath me until their enormous heads were almost directly under mine. What happened next was so surreal that even replaying it in my mind seems like fantasy. Amid a swelling symphony of grunts, clicks, and whistles, all three whales rolled their heads up clockwise (belugas have necks) and affixed a single-eyeball gaze upon me. No question who the curio here was. I lay silent and still, bobbing with the light chop. Rendered immobile by my dry suit and tiny breathing apparatus (and looking like a bloated Hefty bag), I hovered in the cold water, unable to even whistle or click back.

The experience was unnerving at first. But as I anthropomorphized that semblance of a smile on the belugas’ faces and settled into watching their steady progression, I relaxed. A sense of intimacy came over me that I hadn’t experienced during any other wildlife-viewing session. Never had I been so close to something so large that felt so benign, perhaps, I mused, even friendly. And then: “Bob, there’s a polar bear in the water!” Uh-oh…

Churchill, Manitoba, is best known for its annual fall mustering of polar bears. Hundreds of bears anxiously pace the shoreline, awaiting the freeze-over of Hudson Bay and a return to their icebound lives as hunters of ringed seals. Tourists huddle in Tundra Buggies—big-wheeled buses—to witness the spectacle. In the course of checking into a fall polar bear trip, I learned that the bears, however incongruously, pass a summer vacation of sorts near Churchill. Summer is supernova time in western Manitoba. Wildflowers erupt, Canada geese breed, polar bears laze about, and—here was a revelation—beluga whales gather by the thousands in the shallow mouths of three rivers that flow into Hudson Bay. The whales congregate in the Churchill, the Nelson-Hayes, and the Seal to feed, breed, and even to molt—they rub the sandy bottom to shed a thick layer of skin.

Manitoba outfitter Churchill Wild makes the most of this irresistible conjunction, and a very short summer, by packaging a weeklong trip called Birds, Bears, and Belugas, which they base out of their small Seal River Heritage Lodge, about 40 roadless miles north of Churchill. Mike Reimer, a veteran fishing/hunting/nature guide, owns the lodge with his wife, Jeanne, who comes from a family of Manitoba wilderness lodge owners.

“We have an exceptional location,” Mike Reimer told me in advance of my trip, “where we’re able to closely observe polar bears, beluga whales, caribou, and wolves. But it’s also about sharing our experiences on this land that has been our extended family’s home for over 80 years.”

Reimer added a philosophical note that echoed my city-dweller’s enthusiasm for wildlife-viewing vacations: “We want to make sure that people are able to renew their severed connection with land and sea. I think that is what brings people north to our wild places—that pull to go back to a wilderness where you can feel a closeness again with the earth.”

A trip to Seal River entails an overnight in Churchill, a town of 900 that takes its polar bears, and polar bear tourism, seriously. “If you see a bear,” said Rose Preteau, Churchill Wild’s town-based driver and hostess, “just head for the nearest house. No one in Churchill locks their doors for that very reason. We want our children to be safe.” I didn’t have to test the locals’ hospitality during my Churchill walks last July, but within five minutes of my motel I came upon a sobering warning sign near the bay: “Polar Bear Alert. STOP. Don’t Walk in this Area.”

More inviting were the gift shops, where stuffed polar bears and associated trinkets abound. Belugas, I noticed, garnered only second-class status; bear gee-gaws outnumbered whales five to one.

When I made the 40-mile flight by Turbo Beaver float plane from Churchill to Seal River Heritage Lodge the next day, the lodge was the only dot I saw on a dotless horizon. It’s perched on a lonely Hudson Bay promontory a few miles north of the Seal River, which suits it perfectly as a wildlife-viewing outpost. Big living room windows aim south across a tidal inlet of the bay and toward the Seal River. A spotting scope is at the ready for whatever opportunity might arise—a caribou on the march, a family of eider ducks dabbling at high tide. And two towers, one inside and one out, might give the lodge a penitentiary aspect (it’s also surrounded by high fencing), but they also afford excellent, and safe, perspective should a polar bear amble by.

Which happens frequently. And which dictates lodge policy: No one leaves the compound without an armed guide.

For my stay, that guide was naturalist Ian Thorleifson, a burly Icelandic Manitoban who spent six years in the field researching polar bears for the Canadian Wildlife Service in the 1980s.  “You wouldn’t think a white, thousand-pound bear could hide in a patch of willows,” Ian said. “But it can, and we don’t want to surprise one.” Not that the bear is lurking and hoping for a human meal. Most likely he’s sleeping. “If you encounter one close up, forget those stories about playing dead,” Ian cautioned. “Stand firm. Make yourself big. But whatever you do, don’t run. He’ll take you for food for sure.”

Which dispels any illusions one might have of polar bears as friendly or the least bit embraceable, a la the cuddly facsimiles rife in Churchill’s gift shops. “The most predaceous of all bears,” writes Stephen Herrero, in the morbidly fascinating book Bear Attacks.

Given that, I confessed to Mike and Ian that I feel a bit conflicted whenever I’m in wildlife-voyeur mode. Thrilling, sure, but what impact does my presence have? What if I were to stumble over a sleeping bear, and Ian had to put it away? Could I bring harm to the very creatures I so value seeing?

“My opinion always has been that if you really care about something, don’t go see it,” Mike said with a hint of sarcasm. “But that kind of thinking is bad for business. We always try to balance what is best for the wildlife and environment with a memorable experience for guests. We always allow the wildlife plenty of space to let us know we are not welcome in their sphere of activity. They have myriad signals they send indicating when it’s time to back off.”

Misgivings aside, I was dying to see a polar bear. And I only had to wait till the next morning, when Reimer roused me with a sharp knock at my door: “Polar bear headed your way, Bob. He might beat you to breakfast.” I lumbered out with my three fellow guests to watch a distant white dot become an 800-pound bear drawing a bead on the lodge, which was emitting tantalizing breakfast smells. He moved gracefully across the wet boulders exposed by a low tide, and paused occasionally to rise and sniff in our direction.

Within minutes he had strolled up an embankment covered in bright purple fireweed and began to pace a berm just outside our windows. Mike and Ian agreed that he was well shy of fully grown, but still, this guy was big and handsome—fairly fresh off the ice, so his coat was clean and his physique full, though his breath left much to be desired. Kidding. But he was just a few feet away from us by the time he’d moved to the back of the lodge, though on the outside of the fence. When he reared up aggressively, Mike had had enough. He banged hard against the side of the building, which prompted Dakota, the lodge’s black Lab, to woof wildly. The bear backtracked, looped around the front of the lodge, and disappeared toward the north.

Afterward, it occurred to me what had really transpired. I had watched with my naked eyes one of the earth’s most magnificent animals move across his native landscape, heeding his most fundamental instincts. All without the aid of Animal Planet. Amazing.

Tides and weather dictate when Churchill Wild can safely take guests out snorkeling with belugas, and both conspired against us—wind-whipped chop on the water, wrong tides at the wrong time—for a couple of days, which we spent taking easy walks across the tundra and tidal flats. Excitement on these strolls came largely as bird sightings: bald eagles, tundra swans, a sandhill crane. Shorebirds were in abundance: tiny Bonaparte’s gulls, huge herring gulls, Arctic terns, eider and pintail ducks, semipalmated plovers, and all manner of godwits, curlews, and sandpipers. Flocks of Canada geese would fly by. Marsh hawks ran strafing missions, and red-throated loons growled overhead. Lots of sik-siks—cute little Arctic prairie dogs. Whatever it was, Thorleifson displayed field-guide knowledge of it, right down to genus level if anyone asked. On these walks, I had to quell my preference for more charismatic fauna and cultivate a subtler attunement, and an appreciation for the landscape. No mountains, no forests—virtually no trees—but there was space. Lots of space. Green spongy tundra from the bay to the western horizon, spangled with wildflowers. The feeling was primordial, prehuman. Nature in full abundance. No human sights or sounds. No, it wasn’t nonstop, big-game action. But it was peaceful.

By midweek, all systems were go for a day of whaling. We piled into twin inflatable Zodiacs, one of which was outfitted with a welded-steel crow’s nest of sorts, and motored five or so miles to the Seal River estuary. I already had a sense of the ubiquity of whales in the estuary—I’d seen hundreds of clustered white humps in the river when I’d flown over it a few days before—but being among them en vivo was a different matter. As we chugged slowly into the river mouth, we began to see the undulating humps of white whale backs, alternately submerging and surfacing to breathe. Their expirations sounded like so many weightlifters hoisting iron in a gym.

As we turned slow circles (Churchill Wild has found that whales are less likely to spook when the motor’s running), I pulled on the dry suit—which both seals out water and provides buoyancy by way of tight gaskets around neck and limbs—mouthed my snorkel, and eased myself overboard.

Shortly after the first trio of whales eyed me and disappeared, a quartet appeared. Then came individuals, mothers with calves, groups of four, five, six—each 12 to 15 feet long—slid up in turn. Even when I couldn’t see whales in the murky water, I could hear them. Belugas are the most vocal cetaceans in the sea. Their sounds have more to do with echolocation than chit-chat, but I couldn’t help imagining their amazement at the bloated Hefty bag floating in their midst.

I was well aware, or course, that these singers were big wild creatures with teeth. I had asked Thorleifson if they’d experienced any untoward whale-human encounters. “No,” he said. “We’ve never even had anyone scared by the whales. Sometimes they nose a snorkeler, or suck a bit at a dry suit. It’s just an extension of their curiosity. But if you reach out to try to pet one, it will almost always swim away.” I didn’t try. There was never any question which was the huge beast in its own domain, and which of us was the awkward visitor. I remained motionless.

Still, I had to wonder if our presence had some impact on the whales. Weeks later, I put the question to Pierre Richard, a research scientist with the Canada Department of Fisheries & Oceans’ Arctic Aquatic Research Division. He chuckled. “Impact? They might actually like it.” There have been no scientific studies, he said, but “my guess is that there’s no deleterious impact of that kind of tourism whatsoever.” Richard went on to add that the western Hudson Bay whales are the largest beluga population in the world (57,000). Scientists are much more concerned about the belugas threatened by pollution in the St. Lawrence Seaway and by overhunting in Alaska’s Cook Inlet than by the impact of swimmers on the thriving whales in Hudson Bay.

When Thorleifson spotted a polar bear swimming a couple of hundred yards away from me, he reeled me back into the boat (I’d been tethered by my feet), and we switched seamlessly back to bear-watching mode, bobbing in the outflow of the Seal River. Ursus maritimus is a powerful swimmer. This one looked fiercely determined as he paddled with his huge forepaws and loudly exhaled the force of his effort—which to me was movingly heroic. But this was a routine swim for him, Ian said. Bears might swim as far as 300 miles after ice breakup. We backed away to let him paddle in peace.

Also upon my return I corresponded with Ian Stirling, senior research scientist for the Canadian Wildlife Service, author of Polar Bears, and probably the world’s foremost authority on the subject. I asked him about the net value of tourism when it comes to polar bear protection—does the consciousness-raising value of bear watching outweigh any impact from our presence? “I am a strong supporter of properly done, nonharassing, ecotourism,” Stirling wrote back. “I think it is one of the most important things we do ecologically.” Like Pierre Richard for the belugas, Ian Stirling has a greater concern for the polar bears of western Hudson Bay. No great surprise here: global warming. He sent me a paper he wrote for the  journal Arctic that cited a decline in population size, condition, and survival of young bears “as a consequence of earlier breakup of the sea ice brought about by climate warming.” Early ice breakup means less time hunting seals, more time fasting on shore.

We spent the morning of our last day at the lodge back on the water. Fewer whales this time, but lots of polar bears—no doubt a causal relationship. Twice we saw mothers swimming with their cubs. Ferocious or not, small soggy polar bears swimming with Mom is as cute a sight as I’ve seen in the animal world. On land, we spied through binoculars a huge polar bear doing a King Kong act to chase off two others. Another pair joined the tussle. Five bears now, out on Fishing Point in the middle mouth of the Seal River. The biggest guy was feeding on something, and a closer look (still from hundreds of yards offshore) showed that it was a beluga.

“Sometimes a whale gets stranded by a low tide,” said Ian. “Bears will leap in, club it repeatedly with their front paws, and hold its head underwater until it drowns.” Then it’s a prolonged dinnertime. Interestingly, no one really noticed this bear-beluga phenomenon until about 10 years ago. Concomitant with global warming? “We’d had six years of warm springs and hot summers with fires in the denning areas, the ice was late in forming in the fall, and we started noticing bears feeding on belugas,” Thorleifson said. Pierre Richard is skeptical about a global-warming link: “Bears will take advantage of anything they can lay their teeth on,” he told me.

In any event, it was a reminder of the rawness of nature in the far north. Cute bears are brutal enough to kill a whale if they’re hungry.

We pulled away from the feast and found ourselves again among the wheezy respirations of a pod of belugas. Slipping into the water felt like returning to an incredible performance in progress—a little slice of eternity, and power, and beauty. And symphony. When I reluctantly signaled that I was ready to return, Ian reeled me in. I eased over the gunwale and sat silently in the boat.

Few travel episodes have lodged so vividly in my consciousness as my underwater sojourns with the beluga whales. But their lingering essence is familiar: At home in the city, I can close my eyes and become transported to places of astounding beauty, where I see grizzlies grazing beside a fjord, bald eagles swooping down from the heights of Sitka spruce, bison silhouetted against a tallgrass prairie sunset. I know that somewhere in a frigid northern ocean, a polar bear is heeding its ancient instinctive call to swim home, and beluga whales are filling the sea with melody. It is the solace of wild places. It is the meaning of the belugas’ song.