Beluga insider: Alex de Vries

Posted July 29, 2015 | Author Breanne Sewards

Photographer. World traveler. Polar Bear guide. Beluga whisperer. Alex de Vries is one of the few individuals who gets to interact with the wildlife of Churchill on a daily basis – and he’s got the stories to prove it. In celebration of #BelugaWeek, we interviewed Alex to get the insider scoop on our blubbery friends.

So, how did you end up with the coolest job in the world?

Persistence and a little luck. I first met Dwight Allen, the owner of SeaNorth Tours in the Spring of 2012 on the edge of the ice floe of the Hudson Bay. I was unprepared, inexperienced and certainly not expecting to run into a Polar Bear, but Churchill has a way of constantly surprising you. Dwight pointed out some fresh Polar Bear tracks about 50 feet further up. No gun, no cell phone, no way of protecting myself, I didn’t exactly make the greatest first impression, but it allowed me to put a face to the name. For the next two years I harassed Dwight and Louise Allen and when a guiding position opened up they finally broke down and gave me a job.

What is the most memorable reaction you’ve seen someone have when spotting their first beluga?

The most memorable reaction I’ve ever seen someone have just happened a few days ago when a full grown woman wept uncontrollably as she couldn’t contain her excitement.

You travel abroad quite often. If given the opportunity, how would you convince someone from another country that they need to come to Manitoba to see the whales?

When I travel I turn into Churchill’s biggest ambassador. Between the whales, the polar bears and the northern lights, Churchill is a huge conversation piece. All I have to do is show people pictures of Churchill and they instantly fall in love. Despite Churchill’s small population it’s relatively well known, mainly because of the polar bears of course, but in my opinion the belugas are far more impressive. What makes the belugas so unique is their curiosity. Belugas are one of two whales that have the ability to turn their neck and look up at you. You’ll also frequently see them swimming on their backs to get a better look at you and they particularly enjoy playing with the kayaks. It’s this curiosity that really makes you feel like you’re making a connection with the animal. I’m convinced that Churchill is one of the best whale watching destinations. There’s no other place in the world where you can view such a large concentration of whales. If you combine that with a good possibility of seeing polar bears and northern lights, how could you not want to visit Churchill?

Any tips for first timers who are coming up to snorkel with the belugas?

Snorkelling is without a doubt the best way to view the whales. Belugas are extremely vocal and you can hear them quite clearly underwater. I tell my snorkelers to try and mimic their sounds or sing them a song, particularly anything by the Beatles. They LOVE the Beatles! If you’re worried about the cold, don’t be. Our 7 mm wetsuits are designed to keep you warm while plunging into the subarctic waters of the Churchill River and Hudson Bay. If snorkelers do get a little chilly they usually forget all about it once they have engaged a pod of friendly whales. Most of the time I can’t get people out of the water because they’re enjoying themselves so much.

What has been the strangest experience you’ve had with belugas?

The most out of the ordinary experience I’ve had with belugas also happened just a few days ago. There was a huge feeding frenzy in the Churchill River, just in front of the port. There must have been hundreds of whales feeding on capelin when a little boy on my tour asked me if there are any other whales that swim in the Churchill River. I confidently said, “Nope, Belugas are the only whales that swim in the Churchill River”. Shortly after the little boy points out a massive 35-40 ft Bowhead Whale that would later swim so close under my zodiac that I thought it was going to lift me out of the water.

What is one misconception that people have about belugas that you’d like to clear up?

The biggest misconception people have is thinking the beluga whales are dangerous. I’m often asked if belugas bite. I then explain that belugas have teeth, but they don’t use them like you or I. Belugas will take a huge mouthful of capelin and then use their teeth as a strainer to push the water out so they’re just left with the capelin and then swallow it whole. Once this has been cleared up people usually can’t wait to get into the water with them.

Okay, enough beluga talk for one day! What else do you recommend visitors do in the summer months in Churchill?

I highly recommend talking to locals. Churchillians are very proud of their town and community. Ask them about their closest bear encounter and they’ll give you a handful of stories, all very true. When I first visited Churchill 6 years ago I thought the locals were all pulling my leg, but after living here for the last five years I now have my own handful of stories. I also highly recommend doing the Parks Canada Sloop Cove interpretive hike to Prince of Wales Fort. All the interpreters are extremely knowledgeable and make learning about the fur trading history very interesting.

About The Author

Hey! I'm Breanne, Editorial Content Specialist for Travel Manitoba. First to jump in the lake and last to make it down the River Trail. Lover of croissants, cats, and croissant-shaped cats. Got a story idea? Email me at

Editorial Content Specialist