Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Orcas pop up near Churchill, feed on belugas

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Sea North Tours photo

Remi Allen and his father Dwight Allen, of Sea North Tours in Churchill, jumped in their six-metre Zodiac boat and headed out to the marina to watch for the whales on Tuesday.

Part of Remi Allen's Tuesday was spent killing time with killer whales.

The 23-year-old Churchill resident received a nice surprise when several orcas made their way into Hudson Bay earlier this week. The excitement started when Dwight Allen, Remi's father, received a call from a friend inquiring about the killer whales in the bay.

The Allens immediately stopped what they were doing at their business (they own and operate Sea North Tours, a marine tour business), headed out to the marina and jumped in their six-metre Zodiac boat.

"We were probably out there for a good 20 minutes before we saw something," Remi said Thursday.

"Dwight spotted dorsal fins and at this point, we were probably a kilometre and a half out. It wasn't the calmest day, so we were in some big swells.

"The estuary was just too shallow for them to come in."

Allen said he knew before they jumped in the boat that orcas were out there. The beluga population -- the undercard of Churchill's eco-tourism draw -- is usually sporadic this time of year. But on Tuesday, it was bumper-to-bumper beluga traffic in the shallow water where the Churchill River spills into the bay.

"They know that was the safe haven there," Allen said. "As we made our way out, there were all these belugas coming up. They were all packed in there. Get out in the bay and not a trace of them."

Allen estimates as many as 11 killer whales were out in the bay, a congregation made up of a full-sized male (bull), females, smaller adults and calves. At one point, one of the younger whales came up above the surface just a metre from the boat.

"They showed absolutely no fear towards us at all," Allen said.

"As long as I matched their speed, they didn't care if I was in the middle of their pod. They were surfacing all around us."

At one time, instances of killer whales in Hudson Bay were extremely rare. As climate change affects the North, the frequency of sightings has started to increase, said David Barber, a Canada Research chair of Arctic systems science at the University of Manitoba, who specializes in Arctic marine systems.

"We have a lot less sea ice now than we used to have," Barber said. "And the amount of open water, or the duration of the open-water season, has been increasing over the last 30 years. The sea ice is a habitat and/or barrier to marine mammals in the Arctic.

"What's been happening over the last decade or so is that killer whales are now penetrating further into the Arctic and staying there longer."

Barber said their large dorsal fin made it difficult for the killer whale to manage in ice-heavy water. With that threat gone, and an abundance of new food available, northern waterways are now an attractive dinner spot.

That was the case Tuesday, when Allen found out what happened when the pod went deep into the water out of sight, only to surface a short time later.

"We ripped over to where they were, over in Button Bay, and we saw this big bloodstain in the water," he said. "I guess when they were down they killed a beluga. You could smell the blubber in the air. And the (killer whales) were moving on to the next one, like nothing had happened.

"It was pretty incredible to see."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2014 A6


Updated on Friday, September 5, 2014 at 6:53 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline

4:40 PM: Adds slideshow

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