One of the tough realities I learned about watching and photographing nature is that there is no guarantee. For example – on my recent trip to India, we saw footprints and heard growls in the distance but never saw a tiger. I visited Iceland at the height of the 11 year solar storm cycle which produces the auroras – and our 10PM-midnight stay on the lava fields afforded us an unobstructed view of one of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen of undulating waves of color across the night sky. Yet the next night, a group went out and saw nothing. My friend Lenore and I took two separate whale watching cruises in NYC – and nary a fin – yet social media is chock full of breaching whale photos from people who have taken the exact same boat across the same waters.
I have learned to try to keep expectations low, therefore but on this trip a big part of our itinerary centered around our success at seeing in the wild two amazing, mystical sub-arctic/arctic animals – beluga whales and polar bears.
As you can see from the photo above – the reality succeeded not only expectations but also well went beyond my imagination. Let me start with a few videos from Lenore to give a sense of what we CONSTANTLY saw on our multi-hour boat tour across Hudson Bay:
Here are a few facts about the gentle, inquisitive, friendly and very vocal beluga whale:
- Belugas, along with their cousin, the narwhal are the smallest whales:
- Although small, the beluga is carnivorous, along with the narwhal and orca which are the only whales with teeth. Baleen whales, like blue, sperm, minke and humpback, have plates along their upper jaw that they use to filter food from the water. Belugas eat fish, shrimp, squid, crabs, octopus and snails
- Beluga are the only whales without fused neck vertebra, allowing them to turn their heads
- The bulge on its head it called a melon and this can change shape depending on the beluga’s vocalizations. It is also key to its echolocation abilities
- Belugas can swim backward
- Groups of beluga are called pods – and the beluga know each other and have different sounds to call members of their pod. The group, similar to elephants are very close knit and like dolphins they love to play
- There are about 150,000 beluga whales in Canadian waters and during spring to early summer more than 57,000 whales head into the warmer waters of the Hudson Bay protected area to have their babies
- Beluga whistle, click and emit other high pitched noises, which is why the are called “canaries of the sea.”
- “Beluga” is from the Russian word “bélyj” which means white. They are not related to the sturgeon
The boat tour was beyond belief – thousands of beluga all around us – singing, playing, twirling in the water – many have babies (which are tannish when born) that followed their moms closely and could be seen at times nursing – truly breathtaking. But there was more to come.
There are two other options for getting a bit more up-close and personal to the belugas, although swimming with them was recently banned in a effort to protect these beautiful animals from overzealous tourists. I applaud the effort. Instead, one can kayak and wait for the curious beluga to swim along side and give the kayak a playful nudge, or you can aqua glide. I chose the latter.
Remember this is the sub-arctic and the water in Hudson Bay rarely gets above mid 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so in order to travel on it and submerge at times one needs to be properly attired. I therefore got fitted for a dry suit, which is made out of neoprene, or vulcanized rubber. Its main purpose is to keep water away from your body, so it is fully sealed at the neck and wrist. It also covers your feet, but in addition waterproof boots are also worn, along with waterproof gloves and a halfhood for your head. Drysuits fit more loosely than wetsuits and allow you to wear clothes or other insulating layers underneath. Since I generally run hot, I just wore a rash guard and some lightweight waterproof pants. The masks were one piece snorkels and fitting them over the rubber hood as well as my should length hair was not a easy task.
Before getting on the boat, we had to do a few deep knee bends to force out any air lingering inside the drysuit and finally I was ready.
The water was a bit choppy, and our guide warned us that we might have to turn back if he felt it was not safe. Fingers crossed, we boarded a Zodiac and motored our way to the middle of the Bay where we were going to be for the next 2 hours or so – remember the water is frigid and choppy.
A floating flat mat was tethered to our zodiac and two people at a time can lay flat on it while our faces and hands were submerged. It took a little balance, particularly since the water was fairly turbulent, and somehow water managed to trickle through all my drysuit seals. No matter, I was in it for the long haul. As an added incentive for the belugas to swim near, we were told to “sing” in a high pitched voice underwater.
It was worth it – these photos show a bit of the beluga beauties:
Here are some of the wonderful sounds of the beluga whale:
Finally, this is not my video, but it ia just good cute not to show (click blue “video”)