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!
Beluga whale communicating with his pod in Churchill. Ellen Cuylaerts photo.
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!
The lower Churchill River is often clouded from run off along the banks further south. Therefore, because of the clarity, the mouth of the river or near that area is the best place to view belugas and get close and personal with the beautiful mammals. The downside is that the water is much colder there where it melds more quickly with the frigid Hudson Bay waters. Dry suits with gloves, booties and hoods aide in getting in with the whales and enjoying the day.
These photos by Churchill photographer Alex De Vries – Magnifico portrays just how incredible sharing the Arctic waters with these animals can be!
catching up with belugas in the Churchill River. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
Snorkeling with the belugas in crystal clear water. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
Great visibilty with the belugas in the Churchill River. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
Serenity with the belugas. Alex de Vries – Magnifico photo.
This video of a male polar bear swimming in frigid Arctic seas displays how polar bears have increased their range of habitat in ice – free waters after break – up. Searching for seals for meals has extended past the traditional hunting season and the king of the Arctic can be found 60 miles or more from land swimming between scattered ice floes.
Polar bears have a different way of keeping warm from that of seals and whales. The latter two mammals species have blubber that contains protein and allows for body structure to have a springy, tough fibrous consistency enabling ease of movement in water. Polar bears do not have blubber but rather a layer of adipose fat up to five inches thick that facilitates energy storage for the shoulder seasons when food is scarce. Since polar bears spend the majority of time on land or ice above the water they rely more on the insulation of their fur.
Polar bear’s thick underfur is topped by varied guard hair lengths creating an incredible insulation buffer for the fat layer. The temperature of the fat closest to the polar bears skin is nearly the same as that close to the body core. This temperature consistency allows polar bears to conserve energy effectively.
Polar bear fur is actually transparent and hollow and appearing white from reflecting light. Polar bear fur appears whitest when they just emerge from water and sunlight comes from higher angles. molting occurs in spring and ends by later summer. Seal oil and dirt accumulating in their fur can cause a common yellow tint throughout a good part of the year. The video below illustrates how the fat layer of polar bears works as opposed to blubber of whales and seals.
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.
Churchill beluga whale watching operators breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans ruled that the recently proposed minimum distance regulations for observing belugas on the Churchill River and Hudson Bay would not be enforced for the coming summer season. A proposed 50 meter restriction was to apply to all vessels observing whales on the water. DFO was citing research recently conducted with results showing minimal contact with whales would be beneficial to them in their feeding and calving behavior.
Researchers have obviously not spent much time observing the whales interacting with tour operators vessels in Churchill. Having spent over 10 seasons with groups of travelers out on the Churchill River and Hudson Bay, I have seen the behavior in just about every situation many times over. Beluga whales are curious beings and when they are not feeding or tending to their calves they love to approach and follow boats of all sizes. Zodiacs in particular are favorites for the whales with their low throttle. The whales seem happy settling into the slipstream created by the outboard motor and often approach close enough without prompting for one to reach in the water and touch the melon of a beluga.
So, without hesitation, I can firmly state that beluga whales are safe around whale watching boats in Churchill. They are adept enough to avoid a boat traveling at fairly high speed though this practice is quite unusual for anyone out to view the whales. The video below highlights the behavior that beluga whales exhibit with no fear. Good job DFO!