Got any fears you need to overcome? I have a cure for you. Jump into the icy, murky waters of Hudson Bay and swim with beluga whales.
And that’s after flying five miles over four-foot waves in an inflatable Zodiac boat powered by a 60-horsepower Mercury outboard. If you sit near the front of the boat, it’s like riding a bucking bronco. You have ropes to hold on to – and you need them.
Eventually you figure out how to ride the waves like a pro, but you’d never want to let your guard down. I’d almost gotten to that stage when we ran smack into a school of beluga whales at the mouth of Manitoba’s last great wild waterway, the Seal River, 25 miles north of Churchill on the Northwest coast of Hudson Bay. Twenty or more cows and calves and a few big males spraying and sunning themselves in the choppy waves.
There were two Zodiaks, one with six people and one with seven. The first person brave enough to take the plunge was Margo Pfeiff, a freelance journalist working on a story for the LA Times. How game was Margo? She was suiting up before we even reached the belugas. Our boat was a little less enthusiastic. When our guide Andy MacPherson asked who wanted to be first to swim with the belugas, there was frozen silence. Nobody volunteered.
“I’ll go in,” I said. “There’s no way I came all the way up here NOT to go in.”
Of course I was only pretending to be brave. I was actually scared. Terrified might have been a better word. I’d never snorkeled before, and I certainly didn’t think jumping into Hudson Bay a kilometer off shore was the best place to start learning. Especially with the world’s largest land carnivore, the great white polar bear, abandoning the weakening ice pack and looking for something warm and chewy for lunch after a long swim.
Animals can smell fear, right?
But I’d seen photos of others doing it, so it had to be safe. Besides, if Margo could do it, I could do it. And she was already in the water singing Frosty the Snowman to a slippery pod of her own. I was definitely going in.
So they squished me into a dry suit that makes you look like a floating Michelin Man. There’s no way a polar bear would eat that, right? (I later found out that polar bears love to chew on rubber, and that they had on occasion used Zodiak boats as chew toys.) I slid over the side of the boat and into the water, already hyperventilating through the snorkeling gear. I then swung my legs up to the boat so they could tie the safety rope around my feet.
“Ok, off you go.” And I drifted into the sea.
“Put your face down into the water! Stick your toes out! Start singing!”
I could barely hear their voices. Little did they know I was still panicking inside while staring straight down into a dark, wet, unfamiliar world. “Breathe slowly…breathe slowly…,” I thought to myself. And it worked!
I started to calm down. I could breathe fine. The water was cold, but not unmanageable for a tough Winnipegger. It actually felt invigorating. But I couldn’t really see anything. I could hear the whales chirping and squealing and talking to each other, but I couldn’t see them. I started to sing, “Sweet Home Alabama, Where skies are so blue…” Then it happened.
A huge ghostly white figure appeared and disappeared quickly below me. Then a yellow one. Then another. The next thing I knew I was face to face with a beluga! And I was comfortable! This was no longer frightening. It was fun!
“Hi there,” I said with a smile. The beluga nodded back, waited a few seconds and vanished. Just as quickly another appeared, then another. All face to face. I reached out to pat them, but they were always just a smidgeon out of reach. No matter, I was actually talking up close and personal to beluga whales, in THEIR house, and having a ball doing it!
I didn’t stay in the water much longer. Somehow my conversation (or singing) wasn’t quite holding the belugas’ attention. Actually, it was one of those rare occasions when I was at a loss for words. I really need to brush up on my undersea conversation skills. Like Susan Knight, a Consultant Rheumatologist from the UK who was the next to make the voyage into the water.
Unlike Margo, who had some measure of success attracting the belugas with her gurgling version of House of the Rising Sun, Susan was singing what sounded like a Christmas carol. Whatever it was, it worked. The belugas loved it! It seemed only fitting that the “Canaries of the Sea” would love a Christmas carol and Susan soon had a choir of happy belugas following her intently. In fact, they were turning around and making a beeline for her from all directions. The Beluga Queen, they all wanted a word with her.
In the other boat guided by Terry Elliot, Colin Earl, an Australian living in Canada and working in a mine in Russia, also had the language of the whales aced. It seems his experience with wildlife in numerous countries transferred to the water. He made the video above, and had a great chat with his sleek new friends. One of them even gave him a love bite. He said it never happened. (His wife Vicki was in the boat above keeping a close eye on him.)
Regardless, I got none of that action. But I did conquer my fear of the unknown! And it was, after all, my first date… with a beluga whale.
Read more about swimming and snorkeling with the beluga whales, walking with polar bears and trekking the tundra with Churchill Wild, in Margo Pfeiff’s article, The Arctic warmth of Hudson Bay’s belugas, that appeared in the L.A. Times Travel section.