This aeriel video footage by Brian Fergusson gives us an idea of the incredible numbers of beluga whales in the waters surrounding the town of Churchill. The Hudson Bay and the Churchill River are filled with belugas and their young calves. The whales migrate from the north and spend the summer months in these estuaries all along the southern Hudson Bay coastline. Churchill has become the prime destination for travelers to view the pods of whales from zodiacs, kayaks and even snorkel with the mammals in the cool water. There’s no other accessible point to view thousands of belugas in such a condensed area and Churchill provides the infrastructure to comfortably partake in whale viewing excursions.
National Geographic wildlife photographer Nansen Weber has been going to Cunningham Inlet by Canada’s Somerset Island in the high Arctic with his cameras for 16 years. Every summer thousands of beluga whales join him for an amazing spectacle in the shallow inlet. For about a month, the beluga whales gather for what is a very social time as well as molting period and nursery time for newborns. The Cunningham River is a northerly version of the Churchill and surrounding estuaries in the southern Hudson Bay in that its’ temperatures average eight degrees F warmer than the surrounding ocean waters. The warmer water is a welcome respite for the whales and facilitates the behavior mentioned.
Weber and the whales seem to coexist in the inlet with the belugas approaching him closely as if they remember him from the year before. The drone footage of the whales, polar bears, and the incredible rugged landscape lends perspective to the massive wild region that is largely unspoiled.
That notion could be changing however with climate change and federal policy allowing research and transport throughout the Arctic. Shipping channels around the Northwest Passage are becoming more accessible with ice reduction due to warming temperatures. This will allow large ships in the region and they, with all the noise they produce, will undoubtedly have an affect on the animals echolocation faculties.
“This might be the only place on Earth you can enjoy the beluga whales like this that is still wild like it’s been for the last 500 years, but maybe it’s going to be changing. Just in my lifetime of being in the Arctic for 20 years, I’ve seen climate change. There’s new birds that are migrating up north that I haven’t seen before, there’s mosquitoes now where there shouldn’t be mosquitoes, the ice patterns and weather patterns are all weird. It’s kind of a dilemma that’s always there in the back of your head while you’re enjoying the beluga whale spectacle in front of you,” Weber says.
Weber’s videos and photos shed light on how ship traffic and resulting noise pollution may alter the beluga whale population’s migratory routes. “There has been scientific evidence that the ship traffic—the sonar—affects the communication between the belugas, so that could definitely be a problem for the future for our belugas in Cunningham Inlet.”
All of the Arctic region and all of its inhabitants will be affected with changing climate. “It’s not only about the beluga whales. I mean, we have polar bears, there’s narwhals and bowheads along the Northwest Passage, arctic char that run in the rivers. Inland you have the musk ox, the caribou that graze, all the migratory birds that fly up every summer to enjoy the short arctic summer, the snowy owls, the falcons. It’s just a huge ecosystem that’s all tied together,” states Weber.
A close – up look at kayaking on the Churchill River with the beluga whales. These friendly and curious creatures often approach the boats and, as you can see, afford the opportunity for travelers to touch a beluga on the melon. What an incredible experience!
Beluga whales trained by biologists to retrieve experimental torpedoes in the 1970’s and 80’s in Arctic cold waters thought of themselves as family to the crew. They often formed deep bonds with their trainers and would stay with them even though they were able to swim freely. The whales, especially one, learned to express their devotion in a quite human-like way over the years!
Biologist Sam Ridgeway was one of the bilogists working with the whales and had high praise for the mammals.
“They come to think of us as family,” Ridgway said. “And that’s the reason they stay with us. We have no way of completely controlling them, and yet they do their job and come back. They kind of view themselves as part of a team.”
One of the belugas was named Noc (pronounced no-see) and he was particularly bonded to the staff. One day a navy diver thought he heard a command from his supervisor over the intercom while diving but it wasn’t from him. it was actually Noc mimicking human voice after carefully observing the interactions and commands from his loyal crew.
The diver thought he heard a voice order him to get out of the training tank. However his supervisor had not given any such order. Noc had over – inflated his nasal cavity in order to distort the sound he emitted. It was eerily human – like. Following this initial incident, Noc often attempted to communicate with his trainers and even did so on command.
If you listen closely you will hear the underwater dialogue that closely resembles human speech. Many whales and dolphins have this incredible ability to communicate through language. Blue whales have been studied and found to communicate over a 1000 mile stretch of ocean. We have so much more to learn from these incredible animals in the realm of audible communication!
When I first started guiding Churchill Arctic summer trips I fell in love with beluga whales in the Churchill River and out in the Hudson Bay. Every year for ten years I returned pulled by the same force that I felt the whales were pulled by each year. I felt an incredible calm and peace inside after the very first whale trip on the River. Actually, I felt that calmness within ten minutes of being with the whales. Year after year that feeling became stronger as I bonded with the whales through different interactions on the water.