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Whale of a time

Adventure study tour lets visitors get close to magnificent belugas

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THRUSTING our paddles into the dark, choppy waters of the Churchill River estuary, my kayaking partner, Paulette Kelly, and I were soon surrounded by a pod of several seemingly bemused beluga whales.

Under a clear blue sun-blessed sky and with a slight breeze, it was perfect paddling and whale-watching weather.

As we paddled farther out into the widening river, we encountered even more of these graceful, elegant and inquisitive marine mammals with their permanently quizzical expressions -- all returning from feeding in the vast expanse of nearby Hudson Bay on this July afternoon.

More than 3,000 of the three to five-metre-long white belugas summer in the estuary, making it the world's largest readily accessible population, according to wildlife biologist Michael Goodyear, executive director of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) and our instructor for the week.

With its dual clear viewing panels, our 3.3-metre-long, 86-centimetre-wide inflatable yellow kayak from Sea North Tours Ltd. even allowed us to view whales passing just below us, bubbles emanated from their air holes.

A couple of the other kayakers were even able to touch the belugas as these friendly creatures came within centimetres of the surface.

"Look, look. A whale and its calf coming up on the right side," I shouted from my position in the stern as Paulette shoved her waterproof, encased camera into the cool river water to try to capture that special shot. I clicked away on my digital camera, too.

All this time, another spectacle was taking place about six metres above us.

Arctic terns, which winter off the coast of Antarctica and fly perhaps 40,000 kilometres (the farthest annual journey of any bird, say the ornithologists), were diving for capelin and other fish -- the same species eaten by belugas.

When these slightly built avians emerged from the water, dark-coloured parasitic jaegers, which seldom come ashore except to nest, pursued them in order to steal their hard-earned catch.

After 2-1/2 hours of beluga bliss, two motorized Zodiacs began herding us back to shore as high tide began rolling in. Paulette and I had drifted out farther than we'd anticipated so one of the Zodiac drivers, Cameron, a Winnipegger who is doing a PhD in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, towed us part-way back to land.

We were participants, along with eight other people, in Belugas in the Bay: The white whales of Churchill (July 21-26), an adventure study tour run by the CNSC. The independent, non-profit research and education facility is located at the former Churchill rocket range some 23 kilometres east of the town of Churchill, about 1,470 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg on the shores of Hudson Bay.

The CNSC's new two-storey "state-of-the-art" 27,000-square-foot facility opened earlier this summer.

The next day, we had the pleasure of whale-watching on a custom-built 32-passenger aluminum jet-powered tour boat while returning from an excursion to Prince of Wales Fort, a national historic site situated on a point of land jutting out into the Hudson Bay.

Our captain and the owner of Sea North Tours, Mike Macri, took his time as we circled about for over an hour among the curious and playful creatures, while passengers vied for positions -- starboard and port, fore and aft -- to capture the best shots.

"It blows me away that we're on the edge of an ocean in Manitoba," said fellow passenger Morgan, a solidly built safety consultant for an oil company from Lloydminster, Sask., who was on a holiday trip with his wife, Terri, and two young daughters, Kate and Emily.

"Just to see these belugas is amazing. I've never seen so many whales in such a concentrated place."

Two days later, our group spent more than two hours on a Churchill River Zodiac charter, where we had more contact with the highly social "sea canaries" -- so named by ancient mariners because belugas are the most vocal of all whale species. Our Zodiac driver, Jamie, an articulate, 20-something music student at Concordia University in Montreal, manoeuvred the quiet outboard-powered craft in large lazy circles far out in the river, right to the mouth of Hudson Bay, where we cavorted with more of the perpetually beaming belugas.

At one point, she dropped a hydrophone transmitter into the opaque waters so we could listen to the flexible-necked, big-brained belugas' varied vocalizations -- a strange series of whistles, squeaks, squeals, chirps, grunts and other high-pitched sounds.

Whale-watching wasn't the only item on our agenda, though it was the main attraction. The five-day program also included hour-long presentations every evening on such topics as the science, culture and history of belugas; On the Edge of a Frozen Sea: Other Marine Life in Hudson Bay; current research at the centre; and "Uncertain Ice: Polar Bears and a Warming Climate."

Besides the massive 250-year-old Prince of Wales Fort, which is currently undergoing renovations and further archaeological excavation, we also visited nearby Cape Merry national historic site, located a couple of minutes walking distance from the town centre. It contains the remains of an 18th-century gun emplacement and a cairn commemorating Jens Munck, a Danish explorer whose expedition was forced to camp throughout the winter, leaving many dead of cold and hunger. During an afternoon in Churchill, we were entertained by Métis elder/artist/storyteller Myrtle deMeulles, a member of the Order of Manitoba and a specialist in caribou hair sculpting, at the Métis Hall. We also had a tour of the famous Eskimo Museum, with exhibits that pay tribute to "the living creativity" of the Inuit, among other displays, and a guided tour of the splendid little museum in the Parks Canada Interpretive Centre/Via Rail Station.

Meanwhile, excursions to places like Bird Cove, where we spotted a polar bear emerging onto the rocky shore of Hudson Bay, the Twin Lakes boreal forest and the Ramsay Trail behind the CNSC, allowed one to experience the Churchill region's distinct and complex natural environment.

The area brings together three broad ecological zones: the boreal forest, Arctic tundra and northern marine environment. Wildflowers bloomed in places, and it's also a birder's paradise in summer.

"I saw 57 species, including whimbrel, Hudsonian godwit, golden eagle, common eider and Pacific loon, as well as Arctic terns and parasitic jaegers," said group participant John Glass, who lives in southern Ontario, said in an email to me a couple of days after our return from Churchill.

-- The beluga whale, or white whale, derives its name from the Russian belukha, which means white.

-- Belugas have been called the "sea canary" for the cacophony of sounds, probably communication, that range from high-pitched whistles to low, repeated grunts. Researchers have found that squawks are emitted at a higher frequency when belugas are alarmed.

-- Belugas also have a well-developed sense of hearing and refined ability to detect objects by sound. Called echo-location, this natural sonar is important to a species that lives a good part of its life in dark waters.

-- Belugas are relatively slow swimmers at three to nine kilometres per hour. They surface two to three times per minute when breathing but can submerge for up to 25 minutes in an emergency situation, such as when an ice crack quickly closes and they need to take a long swim to reach open water. They can dive more than 600 metres and can also swim backwards and upside down.

-- The seven recognized populations of beluga whales in Canada with their status: eastern Hudson Bay (endangered), Ungava Bay (endangered), Cumberland Sound (threatened), St. Lawrence River estuary (threatened), western Hudson Bay (special concern), eastern High Arctic/Baffin Bay (special concern); eastern Beaufort Sea (not at risk).

-- The current estimated number of beluga whales in Canada is 57,300 (62,000-85,000 worldwide) based on a survey done by aerial surveillance in 2004. It combined observational research with statistical information.

-- 500 to 760 beluga whales from the western Hudson Bay region are taken each year by Inuit hunters. The 3,500 whales in the Churchill River area leave in late August or early September.

-- Beluga whales are vulnerable to predation by polar bears, killer whales and occasionally walrus and humans.

-- In general, adult belugas are almost completely white, while young belugas are gray. The head region is rounded with a prominent melon and a short broad beak. One highly noticeable trait is the lack of a dorsal fin; instead, belugas have a narrow dorsal ridge. The pectoral flippers of belugas are broad and the flukes become strongly convex on the trailing edge in mature whales. They have flexible necks due to the fact the seven neck vertebrae are not fused as they are with other whale species.

-- In general, male belugas (3.4-4.6 metres and up to 1,500 kilograms) tend to be larger than females (three to four metres and up to 1,360 kilograms). Whales from the western Hudson Bay population tend to be smaller.

-- At birth, which takes place from June to early August, calves are approximately 54-80 kilograms. Calves are nursed for up to 24 months and may remain with their mother for up to three years.

-- Diet: Benthic (bottom-dwelling) fish such as capelin, cod, herring, smelt and flounder and invertebrates including clams, snails, sandworms, crabs, shrimp, octopus and squid.

-- Life span is 25-30 years (in captivity)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2011 D1

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