On expedition: belugas

  • Written by  Andy Murch
  • Published in Ontario
On expedition: belugas
09 Sep
2014
Expedition leader and underwater photographer Andy Murch took a select group of divers out to Canada's Hudson Bay to meet belugas

Churchill is a tiny settlement perched on the southwestern edge of Hudson Bay in northern Canada. Too far north to get there by road, it is only accessible by plane or by overnight train across the permafrost. Its remoteness is immediately apparent when you step outside the terminal and look across the flat, desolate landscape at the utilitarian buildings that form the town. During the winter, Churchill is subjected to -30ºC prevailing winds that sweep down from the high arctic. At that time of year, shallow Hudson Bay freezes solid. Even in the summer months, there is often a fresh breeze blowing a blanket of slate grey clouds across the tundra but temperatures can climb to a balmy 15ºC.

Fortunately, the day I arrived with a small group of adventurous divers hoping to encounter beluga whales, the clouds parted and the sun cast its orange warmth over the frozen north and stayed there more or less until the day we left.

Around 3,000 Canadian belugas spend their winters hunting around the polar ice cap. As soon as the pack ice in the northern reaches of Hudson Bay begins to break up, they move south following the capelin migration; a small silvery fish in the smelt family that the whales are extremely partial to.

When we reached our hotel, the reports were good: the ice had melted on schedule and the belugas had already arrived in force.

Jumping into a 4x4 truck that I had arranged to give us more freedom to explore, we bounced along dirt roads to the river mouth to see for ourselves. Sure enough, there were hundreds of alabaster cetaceans moving from the river to the bay with the outgoing tide.

Even from this distance, visibility looked challenging but we knew it would be and it was better than the alternative. There is a spot in Russia's White Sea where you can also dive with belugas. The water is often clearer but there is a net across the exit to the bay so the belugas are effectively held captive albeit in a large natural enclosure. That was not something I wanted to support, so here we were in Churchill, Manitoba determined to swim with white whales in green-tinted water; it was all part of the allure!

The next morning we donned wetsuits and drysuits and boarded a small zodiac to find the whales. That first day, most of the whales stayed in the river where the visibility was really bad.

Fortunately, belugas are such curious and playful animals that as we motored through the silty water, a pod soon started following us. Before long they came right up to the back of the zodiac to play in the wash from the propeller. Not one to miss a photo opportunity, I dunked my camera over the transom and took a series of shots of the belugas staring at their reflections in my dome port.

Eventually the whales moved out into the bay where the viz was just good enough for us to slip in with some hope of actually seeing them. They were timid at first but now and then one or two would swim close enough to get a better look through the emerald green haze.

That afternoon we drove along the shore in search of polar bears. The tundra is mostly composed of sand, scrub and low lying granite rocks with a few stunted trees here and there. One would think it would be easy to spot an enormous, white, relatively common animal against such a backdrop but no matter how much ground we covered, the bears eluded us.

While meandering down one of many tundra dirt tracks, we stumbled upon a plane wreck that the locals call Miss Piggy because it was overweight when it crashed. Putting aside memories of our own heavy checked bags and endless camera gear that we had snuck onboard in over-weighted carry-ons, I scaled the wreckage for a better view of the landscape.

From my vantage atop the plane I could see for miles around through the thin polar air. To the north, Hudson Bay stretched to the distant horizon. Even from a mile or two inshore I could see the backs of numerous bright white whales porpoising across the bay like a score of tiny Moby Dicks searching for Captain Ahab.

The following day we couldn't wait to get back out to sea. Jumping in near the first large pod of belugas we saw, we tried mimicking their sounds and humming tunes through our snorkels; a trick that we were told would encourage the whales to come closer.

Both techniques seemed to work quite well. Some hummed songs by the Beatles, some tried to chirp like the belugas themselves and one diver swore that the American Anthem was the most effective. I experimented with all sorts of noises and tunes and the one that worked the best for me was Reveille (the military wake up call), perhaps because of the staccato high notes that sound a bit like beluga-speak.

The belugas’ underwater banter has earned them the nickname ‘canaries of the sea’. Although they have no vocal cords, belugas are capable of producing a large variety of sounds including cackles, whistles, trills and squawks. They also produce noises by grinding their teeth and by splashing. With such a sophisticated means of conveying their thoughts, it is not surprising that they have no need for posturing, breaching and other visual displays that many toothed whales and dolphins use to communicate.

Before long the belugas were all around us but tantalisingly deep. I tried free diving (not an easy task in a drysuit with no means of inflation) but the bulk of the whales were down at 12m/40ft hunting for capelin on the sand.

I finally made it down to their level and waited for a big pod to swim out of the planktonic soup. The drysuit squeeze limited my mobility and added to the crushing weight I was feeling in my lungs but I continued to stare through the murky water hoping that a pod would close the gap.

The ocean was so thick with gelatinous life of all descriptions that even when a wall of belugas finally swam up to me I could barely focus my camera through the comb jellies, syphonophores and gigantic lions-manes with their long stinging tentacles. After a desperate kick skyward that involved much gasping, spluttering and coughing, I decided it might be better to wait for the whales at the surface.

That afternoon we headed off on another exploratory drive across the tundra. Still no bears but this time we stumbled upon hundreds of sled dogs staked out next to a small river. After a little investigation, we learned that they are purebred Canadian eskimo dogs. Closely related to arctic wolves, they have an extra layer of fur that keeps them warm even during the coldest of tundra winters.

Brian Ladoon (a local breeder) is attempting to bring the dogs back from the brink of extinction. Eskimo dogs are one of rarest breeds in the world with only a few hundred remaining. According to Brian, the Canadian government did their best to eradicate the dogs in order to undermine Inuit culture at a time when their land was being taken over by European settlers.

The next day we intended to dive with the belugas again but as we motored out of the bay we caught sight of a polar bear mother and her two-year-old cub, snoozing together by the shore.

Polar bears only hunt for a few months each year when the pack ice is thick enough to travel on. The rest of the time they lounge around conserving energy.

To our delight, this particular cub was not frightened of our zodiac that was slowly inching closer. After some cautious glances in our direction, it finally splashed into the water to cool off while its mother vigilantly stood guard on the rocks nearby.

For the next two hours we watched in wonderment as the cub explored the sub-tidal zone. Every now and then it would clamber out onto a rock and give itself a shake. Then it would slip back into the water and pick up bits of kelp to nibble on. It was a fantastic opportunity to observe ice bears during their summer downtime.

I was itching to enter the water with my camera but our captain wouldn't hear of it. When a pod of belugas finally swam by, we motored out to them and slipped in under the pretence of interacting with the whales. I immediately started edging towards shore but just when I thought I was in with a chance of an underwater polar bear shot, my head bounced off the side of the zodiac and I looked up to see the guide frowning down at me. Sheepishly, I climbed back in the boat.

It seemed as though the belugas grew bolder each day or perhaps we were just getting better at closing the gap. On our fourth and final morning in the water, the belugas were the most playful yet. They responded to our clumsy attempts to communicate and even started copying our own movements. For example, if we nodded at them or shimmied in the water, some of the closest whales would nod back at us or wriggle in response. The belugas were clearly as fascinated with us as we were with them.

While our dive gear dried out for the long journey home, we boarded the tundra buggy and went in search of bears and other terrestrial wildlife.

The tundra buggy can reach coastal areas that even the most robust 4x4 would struggle in. Its high sides offer unparalleled views of the tundra while providing a safe platform for traveling through bear country.

For six hours we combed the tundra and unearthed sprawling polar bears, prancing caribou and a large variety of tundra bird life. It was a fine way to finish off a well rounded expedition but after such close encounters with belugas and bears in Hudson Bay itself, I felt strangely isolated from nature bouncing along in a 4m high tundra buggy.

That evening we wandered down to the shore for a final look at the white whales moving in and out of the river mouth. The sunset was obscured by cloud and a cold wind was blowing through the stunted black spruces that cling to the shallow soil above the permafrost. Our weather window was coming to an end but it was perfect timing. Now we just needed to pack up our dive gear and head to the airport. This time, I would let them weigh my carry-on. 

 

FACT FILE

• Calves are born gray or even brown and only fade to white as they become sexually mature around five years of age

• The beluga's body size is between that of a dolphin's and a true whale’s, with males growing up to 5.5m (18ft) long and weighing up to 1,600kg (3,500lb). They have a stocky body and a visible neck and can move their heads from side to side and have the ability to look behind

• They don't have dorsal fins - just a small dorsal ridge

• Their ense of hearing is highly developed and they possesses echolocation, which allows them to move about and find blowholes under sheet ice

• Belugas are gregarious and they form groups of up to 10 animals on average, although during the summer months, they can gather in the hundreds or even thousands in estuaries and shallow coastal areas

• They are slow swimmers, but can dive down to 700m (2,300 ft) below the surface.

• They are opportunistic feeders and their diets vary according to their locations and the season. They mainly eat fish, crustaceans and other deep-sea invertebrates

• Belugas use sound to find their prey. They also use sound to communicate and navigate by producing a variety of clicks, chirps and whistles and are known as the 'canaries of the sea'

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