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Doing the Bump With the Belugas

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An isolated corner of Manitoba is one of the few places left in the world where humans are the outsiders on display for the wildlife to observe.

Beneath the waves, two smoldering coals for eyes watched me with an intense, unyielding stare. Pristine white bodies floated up elegantly from the depths, one after another, surrounding my kayak in the open water. Their ghostly pale faces with wide, Joker-esque smiles pushed closer. A long, powerful sound burst up through the air, like a slowly deflating balloon, followed by silence and more expectant staring.

I was having a one-sided conversation with a pod of curious beluga whales. The mouth of Churchill River in northern Manitoba, Canada, was calm and quiet on this chilly, overcast July day, but these bright white whales were not. Belugas, nicknamed “the canaries of the sea” thanks to their song-like sounds, are social, playful and highly communicative. They repeated their shrieks and tunes, floating around me in anticipatory silence. There was only one thing left to do: sing along.

In response, raucous clicks and squeals drifted upward out of the dark water, like someone tapping on a microphone for attention, broken by steady streams of blowhole bubbles. I got the distinct feeling that I was being discussed.

“Brace yourself,” warned Noah Ransom, my wildlife guide, who had been singing his own songs to belugas in another kayak about 20 feet away.

A beluga lined up beneath me in the 36-degree water. An adult female beluga can reach 13 feet in length — roughly the same size as my sea kayak — and weigh nearly 3,000 pounds. The kayak rose seamlessly and evenly as the beluga pushed me up about a foot out of the water, then lowered me back down. A storm of bubbles arrived off the side, then a flash of white appeared. An impish face stared up at me, looking for a reaction, like a puppy who had just nosed over a ball. I laughed in shock while Mr. Ransom clapped and cheered. The beluga dove back down, raising and lowering the kayak a few more times, like the world’s most gentle roller coaster. Although the belugas were massive and their potential for destruction seemed enormous, in those mere seconds, their actions were light and playful.

“We are kind of like their rubber duckies in the tub,” Mr. Ransom said. “This is playtime.”

Each June, approximately 60,000 belugas migrate from Arctic waters down to Hudson Bay, which serves as a summer playground of sorts for the largest concentration of belugas worldwide. The whales give birth in these relatively warmer, sheltered waters, where there is no real pressure on the fish population nine months out of the year.

In this part of North America, with its wide-open, often inhospitable landscape, keeping a distance from other humans comes naturally. (As of May 8, the isolated tundra town of Churchill had no cases of coronavirus. The province of Manitoba lists 283.) The belugas interpret personal space much differently.

Hudson Bay feeds into Churchill River, where around 1,000 belugas had taken up residence alongside our two sea kayaks last summer. They arrived in pods — bright, almost fluorescent white adults with happy clown faces and the occasional gray baby tucked in between, trying to keep up with everyone else. As I paddled, belugas raced alongside the kayak. When I stopped, they’d nudge the paddles and rudders with a palpable curiosity. The sounds of gasping blowhole spouts mixed in with their normal chatter, which developed a kind of conversational rhythm as time went on.

In an area of the world known for its majestic polar bears, the belugas have gone largely unnoticed. In autumn and early winter, tourists usually arrive in Churchill for a chance to see some of the roughly 1,000 polar bears living in that area. By then, the Hudson Bay is full of ice and the belugas are long gone. The whales’ limited interaction with other species in Hudson Bay has allowed them to remain curious, innocent and safe, possessing an almost childlike wonder.

It was my own childlike wonder that brought me there. So many animals shape our childhood through stories and art. They seem so real and present, until one day the sing-alongs and cartoons end. They are an integral part of our lives, but we aren’t a part of theirs. I am part of a generation that grew up singing about baby belugas so often that we seemed like long-lost friends. It felt like a foregone conclusion that one day we would cross paths somewhere in the deep blue sea.

I arrived in Churchill knowing that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to wild animal encounters. I hoped to glimpse a beluga or two. Instead, out on the water, I entered a completely different world — one devoid of humans, where I was the strange creature on display. I had come to watch them, but really, these marvelous creatures were watching me.

Even on a summer day on the water, Churchill was a quiet place, where the wind carried sounds for miles. The atmospheric buzz of all-terrain vehicles on coastal bear patrol hummed consistently in the background. Locals brought their children and dogs to splash in the tide and pick up pretty stones along the shoreline, taking advantage of the long northern sun. Polar bear warning signs went unheeded; the deafening hum of the vicious, biting flies seemed like more of an imminent threat. Off in the distance, past the fireweed and haphazard wildflowers, bright flashes of white caught the sunlight. That far out, with no accompanying sound, it was hard to tell whether they were cresting waves, swimming bears or (much more likely) belugas.

Signs all over Churchill proclaim it “the polar bear capital of the world.” In past years, roughly 10,000 tourists a year have visited the town of fewer than 1,000 people for exactly that reason — to observe the bears in a kind of cold weather safari from the comfort of intense off-road vehicles outfitted with snow tires.

Wally Daudrich, a tour guide, saw an opportunity to highlight the area’s other, less dangerous summer residents. Like the belugas (and many people who end up in Churchill full-time), Mr. Daudrich only intended to stay for a season. Four decades later, he runs Lazy Bear Lodge and the associated Lazy Bear Tours, one of only two tour companies in town last year that offered water-based beluga tours, and the only full-service one. Lazy Bear is cautiously optimistic about the 2020 summer season, but as is the case these days, everything is subject to change.

Every chance he gets, Mr. Daudrich is out on the water — usually as the captain of the Sam Hearne, a tour boat named after one of his favorite historical figures, who joined the British Royal Navy at age 13 and then came to Hudson Bay at 18 to work as a trader. On tours, Mr. Daudrich navigates along part of Ahern’s old shipping route, around Button Bay, the Prince of Wales Fort and Eskimo Point — a favorite summer resting spot for polar bears.

The day after my first kayaking beluga encounter, I joined Mr. Daudrich on his tour boat where he rattled off decades of observations and anecdotes about belugas. The whales like high-pitched sounds, especially women’s and children’s voices, possibly because those sounds hit the frequency belugas are used to. They notice bright colors. They have an uncanny instinct about people. “They can sense chronic diseases and mobility issues, and they seem to have a greater curiosity for them,” he said.

“They’re very intelligent animals. They can clearly recognize the prop of each boat,” said Mr. Daudrich, who has often encountered pods of repeat visitors from his tour boat. Off to the side, a bright white whale shot up vertically, as if standing. The belugas occasionally “spy hop” — pop straight up out of the water, like a submarine scope — to get a better look at things, face to face.

Under water, belugas rely heavily on sound. They are some of the most vocal marine mammals, using echolocation to bounce sound waves off surfaces and judge distances. Because of their natural habitat in dark, icy waters, belugas remain somewhat mysterious to scientists in many ways — but they are widely regarded as extremely intuitive and sensitive, with excellent communication skills.

When the belugas are nearby, their many comical sounds drift up above the water. Mr. Daudrich likes to use a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) to listen in below the surface, which is nothing short of a cacophony. Beneath the waves, there’s an overstimulated audio highway of chirps, clicks, shrieks, squeals and static.

“It’s crowded down there. There’s lots of background chatter like you would hear in a crowded room,” he said. “Most of their sounds are high-pitched but they have a whole repertoire of lower sounds, too.”

The belugas are curious, playful and unafraid — and as a result, Mr. Daudrich has lost a number of hydrophones to the whales over the years.

In general, the whales somehow recognize that their own strength and power in the water overshadow ours, and they are extremely gentle — but they are large, and accidents happen.

“They have occasionally tipped kayaks. They like to play. They’ll lift you straight up and put you down, but if you stop paddling, they’ll lose interest and go away,” he said.

And of course, they like to chat.

The greater Churchill area is a place that in theory could be overrun with seasonal tour companies ready to cash in — but that was not the case when I visited. Part of it was because of its isolated geography. Last year, visitors could only travel to Churchill via an expensive charter flight or the notoriously unreliable two-day train, both originating from Winnipeg, 624 miles away. Another reason is its expense. Prices are high across the board in Churchill because of its inaccessibility, with most accommodations disproportionately expensive for their quality. There is no real market for the luxury traveler, and absolutely no patience for the selfie crowds. It’s about the wildlife here, and anyone who wants more is missing the point.

Churchill often gets overlooked, and in general, plenty of residents are fine with that. However, in 2018, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans issued blanket nationwide restrictions on whale watching that required keeping a minimum distance of 100 meters, or 328 feet, all times. This created a problem in Churchill, because nobody told the belugas.

“In other places, most people see six whales on a tour, maybe 200 to 300 yards out. Here, it’s 1,000 to 5,000 whales, and they love to interact,” said Mr. Daudrich, who pointed out that it’s impossible to regulate naturally curious creatures that reach 3,500 pounds and 20 feet in length. “The whales are so friendly here that we can’t abide by those rules. We keep our distance but they approach us.”

This comes in contrast to other areas, like the dwindling beluga population in Quebec’s St. Lawrence River, which has heavy shipping traffic and large vessels.

“They behave differently in the St. Lawrence River than in their natural environment. They keep a distance from everyone because they use their bulbous foreheads to navigate and communicate,” said Mr. Daudrich, who noted that kayaks and inflatable Zodiacs sit above water and don’t seem to interfere with their communication.

Churchill’s Beluga Whale Tour Operator Association, an advocacy group that establishes protections for the belugas and tourism codes of conduct among wildlife tour operators, petitioned the government on this issue. (Mr. Daudrich is president, alongside board members from Frontiers North, Sea North Tours and Churchill Wild.)

Before the 2018 restrictions, visitors had been able to snorkel in various places alongside whales, including the Churchill River. That was banned nationwide without exception, but after investigating the boat distance issue, the federal government issued special Churchill-specific distance regulations. Lazy Bear came up with “aqua gliding,” in which an inflatable boat tows a large foam mat that people can lie on and put their faces in the water.

“We found that when people are completely in the water, the whales back off around five to 10 feet. They especially don’t seem to like scuba — I think it’s the bubbles,” Mr. Daudrich said. In contrast, aqua gliding keeps bodies out of the water and the whales feel free to approach at will.

On a rainy July afternoon, I lay face down on a floating mat attached to a Zodiac in Churchill River. I was completely covered in a dry suit and a snorkeling mask, ready to peek beneath the near-freezing waves. As soon as the engine turned off and we bobbed in the bay, flashes of white torpedoed toward me on each side, coming in closer and closer.

I put my mask in the water and opened up my eyes, just in time to see a ghostly face. The beluga floated toward me, turning from side to side so that each wide-set eye could evaluate me. Nearly face-to-face, I could see for myself how expressive these creatures are. Unlike other whales, belugas have a flexible neck — making it possible for them to turn and look at you — even seemingly nod, like humans. Their bulbous melon heads are also flexible, which allows them to make recognizable facial expressions.

We locked eyes, and time seemed to stop. They exuded an innocence, wisdom and patient acceptance I hadn’t seen in my other wildlife encounters. Here we were, bobbing along in the same currents, very different beings sharing the exact same moment in time. I got the sense, real or imagined, that we understood each other on some level.

The belugas would be gone in a few weeks. Each September, they head up north to the Arctic, where they live amid sea ice that protects them from predators, relying on their catalog of singsong chirps, whistles, clicks and tunes to communicate with each other and navigate their environment. This summer, they will bring their joyful noise back to the shelters of Churchill and Hudson Bay, whether the humans arrive or not.

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