Churchill’s first claim to fame was not polar bears or grain, it was beluga whales. In February of 1689, the Hudson’s Bay Company passed a resolution ‘that the Churchill River bee settled this yeare with a good ship and a competent cargo for trade and materials for white whale ffishings.’
That year, a harpooner boarded the supply ship bound for York Factory. Henry Kelsey and a small troop of Company Men and Cree Homeguard would travel to Churchill that summer and establish the first trading post at Churchill. Twenty-eight casks of whale oil were rendered and shipped back to England.
The whales oil would be rendered in large open copper pots, giving the Churchill post a reputation for having a very ‘distinct’ aroma. Around the post, whale meat was used for dogfood or bait and the steaks as well as part of the skin and fat (maqtaaq) was eaten by the residents. Whale oil had a variety of uses but was most often used for lighting campfires.
The Churchill whale fishery was never the largest part of trade but remained the most consistent over the post’s lifetime. For the most part, the whales were netted. These nets were hand-tied, comprising 24-inch stretched mesh, about 15-20 deep. One of the methods was to place a slack net over the mouth of a shallow bay, once the tide rose and whales entered the area, the men would be draw the net taut, trapping the belugas – either to strand or be harpooned and recovered.
This was most common near the present-day Port of Churchill and the best bay for hunting has now been dredged. Inuit hunters at Seal River used this technique as well. Of course, the nets had to be placed in different locations over the years (and even through the season) as beluga whales would begin to avoid areas where they knew nets were set.
By the late 19th century, whaling had dropped off a fair bit in the Churchill River and Inuit hunters were paid to bring whales down from the Seal River estuary. Their efforts basically kept the post from completely closing down during the decline of the fur trade. As many as 600 Inuit would visit and trade with the Churchill Post on a given year.
Once the rail reached Churchill in 1929, the Hudson’s Bay Company set its sight on an increased commercial whaling operation on the Churchill River. However, within two years, there were almost no beluga whales returning to the Churchill River, probably a combination of hunting pressures and the new activity at the port. The venture was abandoned and, after a couple years, the whales returned. By this time, the ‘post’ had been closed and relocated to the new townsite.
Adanac Whaling and Fish Products
Locals continued to harvest beluga whales for meat and dogfood. The hide was even occasionally used for dog harnesses. By 1947, commercial whaling was once again attracting the interest of Churchill and the Manitoba Government.
Adanac Whale and Fish Products was built for $150,000 and opened for business in 1949. Department of Fisheries and Oceans visited to seek some baseline data on a species that still remained a mystery aside from local observations and ideas.
The full capacity of Adanac was to be 2,000 whales per summer but an annual harvest consisted of around 500 animals, still a fair number. In Adanac’s biggest year, they shipped shipped 172,000 lbs of oil, 133,000 lbs of ground meat from 584 belugas.
About 70% of the whales harvested in Churchill were harpooned. Two men working as a team are necessary, and they must be equipped with a canoe of good size, such as a 20-foot-freight model, in order to combat the rough water and to be stable when towing a beluga lashed to its side. A 10 h.p. outboard engine provides adequate speed when in pursuit of animals and has power enough to tow a dead beluga against the river current or receding tide. Any high-powered rifle will kill beluga once they have been harpooned.
Harpoons were usually about eight feet, very similar to the traditional Inuit style. The tip would disengage and stay with the animal. A 30-40’ rope tied to an airtight container, usually a five-gallon can, would be attached to the harpoon tip. The whalers would follow this container and the whale, waiting for it to surface so they could dispatch it with a rifle. Hunting usually occurred at high tide on a calm day. The hunters would look for whales in shallow areas where they could not dive to escape.
At the whaling plant, whales were pulled up to the second floor by a steam powered winch. The blubber was cut into strips and then 2’ pieces for rendering. An over-sized pressure cooker would be filled and sealed. Rendering took about one and a half hours, again producing a not-so-welcome odour for The Flats.
The amber-coloured oil was stored in large tanks outside the building, waiting to be shipped south for use in margarine or as industrial lubricants. The liver was saved and small quantities of steaks were made but most of the meat was ground up and frozen in 50 lb cartons. These bags of whale meat were, in turn, shipped to commercial fox and mink fur farms. An average whale yielded about 350 lbs of eligible oil and 600 pounds of ground meat.
When commercial whaling renewed in Churchill, Department of Fisheries and Oceans also launched the first real beluga research program in the area. From 1947-49, they spent summers in Churchill, the first aerial surveys were undertaken in 1948 and 1950. Researchers travelled to Churchill in late August to examine a small commercial catch and also gill-net some whales. Harpoon guns were used to mark belugas with an ink ‘tattoo’ shaped like a maple leaf and bearing the word ‘Canada’.
The earliest estimates (obviously low, given that 500 whales were harvested every year) were of 600-1000 whales in the Churchill and around 700 in the Seal River area. Much lower numbers were spotted south of Churchill.
They observed that whales were in good numbers when the ice left the river mouth, June 15, 1949. Locals reported that the whales would usually stage just off the mouth of the river and appear as soon as the ice ‘broke’. John Voisey, then trapping at Tavani, NWT, was among the first to note the presence of killer whales in Hudson Bay and to tell researchers that some belugas may over-winter in northwestern Hudson Bay.
Research was actually quite challenging. ‘Whale season’ was different in the 1950s. Unlike today, the belugas would become more skittish as the summer progressed. Approaching a pod of whales within 100-150’ was considered ‘close’ in the whaling era. An exception would occur when killer whales passed by the mouth of the river. Orca were occasional visitors back then, welcomed by the whalers as the beluga whales would invariably head towards the shallows to avoid these predators.
By mid-August, any motors (even a paddle!) in the water would cause all the whales to retreat to the bay. DFO even tried anchoring a canoe to the reef off of Cape Merry in the hopes of getting close to belugas, however after just one ‘hit’ from their harpoon tattoo gun would send the rest of the whales diving deep.