Beluga whales love to check out the explore.org beluga cam.

© Beluga whales love to check out the explore.org beluga cam

8/14/2015 2:03:21 PM

Bobbing with Belugas

Contributor:
Patrick Mislan

Every summer, something very unique happens in the large estuaries where freshwater river systems meet the saltwater of Hudson Bay. Beluga whales gather by the thousands to socialize, give birth, feed, molt their skin, and bask in the relatively warm inflowing water. One such gathering in the estuary of the Churchill River is the reason I spent the past three weeks in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

Belugas are whales that are highly adapted to life in cold Arctic waters. They can grow up to six meters (18 feet) long and weigh in at 1,300 kilograms (3,000 pounds), depending on region. They have thick skin and large amounts of insulating blubber to keep them warm through the long, dark winter. Belugas don't have a dorsal (back) fin, which allows them to move more easily among drifting sheets of ice. As mammals, beluga whales need to breathe air. Since Hudson Bay freezes completely in the winter, belugas must overwinter in the Hudson and Davis Strait, where strong circulating or upwelling currents keep ice-free regions (polynyas) year-round.

Adapted to cold they may be, but it seems that a summer retreat to the "warmth" of southern waters seems like a good idea even if you're a beluga whale! Approximately 3,500 whales of the Western Hudson Bay population migrate to the Churchill River estuary as the ice breaks up in early July.

This year, the annual beluga gathering is available for all to see as the "beluga boat" broadcasts live to the Internet every day throughout the entire season. The boat is equipped with a remote controlled on-deck camera and a swivelling underwater wide-angle camera. Explore.org in partnership with Polar Bears International and other sponsors have made this project a reality and caught the interest of viewers around the world! 

I've studied the polar bears in this region for years, but had lots to learn about whale ecology. The Arctic is such a unique place—the more I see and experience here the more in awe I am of the resilience of the animals and plants that call this place home.

I had never seen a beluga whale before setting foot on the beluga boat three weeks ago. I served as the boat's assistant captain, alongside experienced Arctic guide, explorer, and Churchill veteran Hayley Shephard. We were tasked with bringing the full experience of the beluga migration to viewers at home, complete with an underwater hydrophone and live real-time interpretive guiding via an onboard headset.

I could never have imagined just how sociable, playful, and curious these whales could be! From the very moment the boat hit the water, the whales started following, circling and inquisitively inspecting us. Belugas, and their close cousins the narwhals, are unique among whales in that their neck vertebrae are not fused together. This gives them the ability to move their head independently of their body so they can look around, a characteristic that seems to enhance the impression that these are curious, playful, and intelligent creatures. Belugas swimming by, rolling onto their backs and craning their neck to look directly into our underwater camera also makes for interesting and dynamic underwater cinematography! 

Churchill offers a very intimate experience with the beluga whales. What is extra special is that, one does not need to intrude, harass, or otherwise disturb the whales in any way to achieve it. You simply place yourself in their world and they make the choice to include you in their normal social behavior. It isn't uncommon for a pod of whales to completely change course from 50 meters away to come and inspect the boat, hang out, and play and sing nearby to us for long periods of time. The hydrophone captures the haunting and otherworldly vocalizations of these "canaries of the sea" to share with the world. If you have never heard a beluga song, you absolutely must check out the beluga boat broadcast. It truly sounds like something out of a science fiction movie!

My time on the beluga boat was amazing and truly unforgettable. Many here in Churchill say that the annual beluga migration is the region's best-kept secret and I think I agree with them. This year, however, we may have let the cat out of the bag as viewers from around the world shared the breathtaking experience with us via an active live chat board paired with our broadcast on explore.org. People from as far away as Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands (to name just a few!) were along for the ride with us (albeit, virtually). They asked great questions, engaged with the guides and each other, and shared beautiful snapshots they captured from the two onboard cameras. It was exciting to log on each day and receive warm welcomes from regular viewers and share in the fresh enthusiasm of first time beluga watchers. It's an honor and a privilege to spend four hours a day drifting among playful whales, but it is all the more rewarding when you can share that experience with such passionate nature lovers around the world.

You can watch the Beluga Cam live Monday through Friday, with times varying depending on tides and weather. At other times, you can view highlights. 

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