A Churchill calendar: When to see what

Posted May 04, 2023 | Author Jillian Recksiedler

Churchill, an isolated town in Manitoba’s north along the Hudson Bay coastline, is a magnet for outdoor adventurers and nature lovers. Experiencing Churchill’s natural wonder triumvirate – kayaking with belugas, chasing the Northern Lights and seeing polar bears spar – is possible on the same trip, depending on the season. But if you don’t see all three phenomena, trust us, after one visit you’ll want to return to this frontier town anyway. Churchill has distinct offerings each winter, spring, summer and fall.

Sight to see: Northern lights

Best time to go: February to March

It’s 2 a.m. and -20 degrees Celsius outside. The northern sky is clear and the darkness thick. A fluorescent green swirl unfurls across the black. Suddenly, it’s as though someone flipped on the light switch, and the entire sky illuminates with ethereal sheets of emerald green. Churchill is one of the best places on earth for viewing Aurora Borealis because of its location directly under the aurora oval. Mother Nature can perform any night of the year (Churchill boasts viewings 300 nights a year), but midwinter has the clearest skies to maximize your chances. Choose your viewing style on fully guide, multi-night tours: get a 360-degree view under an aurora dome at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre; recline your chair in the custom-designed Aurora Pod; or view from the cozy comfort of Thanadelthur Lounge or Dan's Diner with operator Frontiers North Adventures . Specialized aurora photography outings for independent travellers are available by booking directly with Nanuk Operators, Discover Churchill, and Indigenous tour guide Beyond Borealis Expeditions.

Wildlife to see: Birds

Best time to go: May to June

Pack your binoculars and field guide. More than 250 species of Arctic birds and ducks nest or pass over the Churchill River estuary on the coast of Hudson Bay on their annual spring migration. The Spring's Wings learning vacation at Churchill Northern Studies Centre allows visitors to catch glimpses of red-throated loons, arctic terns, eiders, sanderlings, plovers, long-tailed jaegers, snow geese and gulls. The most elusive on the list is the rare Ross’s gull. Depending on conditions, a boat tour on the water is a more adventurous way to look for birds, while dodging artful ice floes.

Wildlife to see: Beluga whales

Best time to go: July to August

Summer in Churchill welcomes droves of a white mammal…but it’s not what you’re thinking. The western Hudson Bay population of beluga whales is estimated at 58,000, and thousands of those enter the warmer waters of the Churchill and Seal Rivers estuaries for feeding and breeding. Jump in a kayak to paddle out into the river estuaries. Gasp when you realize those whitecaps are actually a pod of belugas heading towards your kayak. Out of the depths a ghostly beluga whale brushes past your kayak and slows to check you out. Companies such as Sea North Tours offer beluga viewing day tours by inflatable boat as well as kayaking or paddle boarding (!) with the whales. Others such as Lazy Bear Expeditions offer multi-day, guided packages to experience Churchill’s summer arctic safari by large passenger boat. Matonabee is a one-of-a-kind wildlife viewing vessel that offers large underwater viewing windows for an intimate encounter with whales. Conservation Journey: Beluga Whales is a science-based tour with Frontiers North lead by beluga whale researcher and marine mammal scientist Dr. Valerie Vergara. Whatever typeboat tour you go on, request that a hydrophone be placed in the water so you can hear the distant squeaks, whistles and clicks of this curious 'sea canaries.'

Wildlife to see: Polar bears

Best time to go: July to November

The polar bear ambles closer and your heart begins to race. Emotions run the gamut: you have the urge to flee, but you’re paralyzed in awe. Is something so serene really that vicious? Locking eyes with a polar bear in the wild will transform you, and Churchill is the most accessible place in the world to view them in their natural habitat.

Churchill is known as the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’. The type of backdrop you wish to see polar bears against will dictate the time of year you go. If you dream of seeing polar bears in a snowy environ, head north in October to November. This is when Hudson Bay begins to freeze over and the polar bear party heats up. Dozens and dozens of bears congregate along the coastline, just outside of town limits, eager to socialize, spar with other bears, but mostly, get out on the sea ice to dine on seals. Wildlife enthusiasts view bears from the safety of massive tundra vehicles with multi-day tour companies like Frontiers North Adventures, Great White Bear Tours, and Lazy Bear Expeditions.

À la carte polar bear viewing tours are available with smaller, boutique tour guides who takes guests in Land Rovers and trucks on roads between the town of Churchill and the Churchill Wildlife Management area. If you like the personalized experience from locals who live year-round in Churchill, consider booking a tour with Discover Churchill, and Indigenous-owned Beyond Borealis Expeditions and SubArctic Explorers.

For the most exclusive option, travellers seeking more of a thrill can safely walk ground-level with bears at isolated tundra lodges with Churchill Wild.

Polar bear lying in the green summer tundra near Churchill

If you shun cold weather, viewing polar bears in the summer will be more your comfort level. July and August is less busy, yet becoming more popular among travellers to see polar bears. In summer, visitors are most likely to see them from the water, looking back at the shoreline. In summer, bears are often solitary and low-key — snoozing in the rocks along the coast, living off the fat reserves they accumulated all winter long by hunting seals on the sea ice. Lazy Bear Expedition's Ultimate Bears & Belugas Summer Adventure is the only Churchill operator to offer a full-day jet boat tour up the Hudson Bay coast to infamous Hubbard Point, aka Fireweed Island, where multiple polar bears may dip in the water to cool off or roll in the pink fireweed onshore. Churchill Wild offers summer polar bear viewings at two of their remote, fly-in wilderness lodges, Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

About The Author

Hi, I'm Jillian, a marketer, communicator, traveller and Manitoba flag waver. Growing up in rural Manitoba during the '80s means I have a penchant for daytrips, maps (the paper kind), and prairie sunsets. I never tire of sharing stories about my home.

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