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Home :: Articles :: Manitoba: Going into the blue with belugas

Going into the blue with belugas

While the rest of the snorkelling group piled into the Zodiac inflatable boat, I was stuck in a wooden changing shack trying to squeeze my thigh into what appeared to be a black garden hose, thinking I probably shouldn’t have lied about my weight.

My rented wetsuit and I were on the shores of Hudson Bay, on Canada’s Arctic coast. With a water temperature of 8°C, shortcuts weren’t an option – the gear was going on. With one final push, I was inside. Covered with a bodysuit, booties, gloves and a black hood, I waddled to the water looking more like a harp seal than the Bond girl I’d imagined.

Our group of four was participating in a snorkelling adventure conducted by Sea North Tours, an adventure outfitter based in Churchill, Manitoba.

'All eyes and no teeth'

Located on the western shores of Hudson Bay, near the mouth of the Churchill River at latitude 59°N, the town is best known as a prime spot for viewing polar bears. However, its remote location also offers a magical combination of few boats, little hunting and plentiful food that creates the perfect habitat for white beluga whales. Up to 3 000 of them migrate here during their calving season to fatten up on shellfish, cod, char and whitefish before heading into the deep Arctic at the end of September. It was my first time snorkelling and, although the Arctic might seem a strange place for an inaugural fin and swim, I had been frustrated by other sightseeing tours that offered hours of searching followed by a flurry of glimpses. I wanted to see a whale in its natural habitat. Sea North’s low-impact philosophy was also appealing. There would be no whale-chasing – we would simply stop the boat and wait for them to approach us.

“Beluga whales spend only five to 10 percent of their time on the surface, so snorkelling is the best way to see them,” owner Mike Macri explained during orientation. Sea North has conducted whale watching tours since 1977, but snorkelling was a new option.

Brendan McEwan, our guide, navigated the Zodiac into the bay. Arctic terns circled overhead and whitecaps skimmed the water’s surface. He shut off the engine. Strange noises, magnified by the boat’s hydrophone, echoed from the water. Those half-moons weren’t whitecaps – they were whales.

“Why don’t you get in the water and see if you catch their interest?” he suggested explaining that belugas are known as the canaries of the sea for their singing. Receptors in their mandible jaws and heads enable vocalisation in a process called echolocation.

With my feet dangling over the edge of the Zodiac, I tightened my mask, grabbed the guide rope and slid into the frigid water. I’d invested in custom-made prescription snorkelling mask thinking if I was going to be surrounded by hundreds of marine animals weighing 1 400 kg each, I wanted to be certain that they weren’t the predatory type.

At first I was struck by the clarity of the water. Visibility stretched for 10m in every direction. Translucent jellyfish propelled themselves past, pushing water through their bell-shaped pink bodies.

Then, a massive white form slipped through the murky edge. It was a beluga whale of about 5m long. It turned sideways so that its body lay parallel to mine and looked directly at me. Despite my fascination with the up-close encounter, I realised that icy tendrils of water were creeping up my sleeve. My fingers ached from the cold. In my haste to get in the water I’d forgotten my insulated gloves. I bobbed back up to the surface.

“I wondered how long it would be before you realised you’d forgotten something,” said Brendan, sliding the gloves on. I grabbed a rope and readied to go overboard. “Um, you just grabbed the boat anchor,” he said, switching my grip.

As a neophyte snorkeller, I had a lot to learn. Back under the water, it was showtime. Several more whales had materialised – including a mother with her grey calf. A pod of adult whales opened like a flower in formation below me. Passing within inches of my head, they twisted, turned and cocked their heads as though saying hello. High-pitched whistles, low grunts and cooing sounds surrounded me. I was definitely outnumbered.

“Remember, they are all eyes and no teeth,” Mike had said earlier.

Deciding to warm up on the edge of the Zodiac, I took in the surroundings. Across the water stood the remains of the Prince of Wales Fort, a designated national historic site due to its prominence as a trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company from the late 1700s. Today, shipping liners still load grain at the nearby docks. Increasing traffic from such ships, habitat degradation and climate change all pose threats to whales. The Eastern Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay beluga whale are already designated as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Churchill’s Western Hudson Bay beluga population of 57 000 may be the largest and healthiest population of white belugas in the world, but it is still listed as a Species of Special Concern due to similar threats. One can only hope that recovery plans are successful.

After one more trip underwater, the tour was over. Despite almost an hour in frigid water, I wasn’t cold, I was exhilarated.

Those pretty pink jellyfish were Arctic lion’s mane jellyfish – a lethal species. Their venom is a lethal neurotoxin. Suddenly my wetsuit seemed to fit like a second skin – maybe I wasn’t such a neophyte after all.
For more information, visit the official tourism site at www.travelmanitoba.com or Sea North Tours at www.seanorthtours.com

Churchill, Manitoba: The town is accessible only by road or rail. Visit www.calmair.com or Via Rail at www.viarail.com. Accommodation is very limited so travel arrangements should be made well in advance or with a tour operator.

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