Churchill, Manitoba, Canada!
Baby Beluga

Baby Beluga

Photo Courtesy of Frontiers North Adventures
“Welcome to The Beluga Capital of the World,” says Greg, my guide. “We’ve got the happiest whales on earth.” Good thing, because I’m ready to hug a beluga. I’ve flown nearly 2000 miles from Charleston, SC to Churchill, Canada to swim with snow-white whales summering in Hudson Bay.

“What makes a whale happy?” I ask, scrambling into the “Sea North Tours” Zodiac with eight other intrepid travelers. Greg’s answer: “A fish buffet. No predators. Warm waters for raising their baby belugas. Paradise, right?”

Motoring in our Zodiac into Hudson Bay’s calm green waters, we scan the horizon. Arctic terns soar into fluffy clouds. Snow geese honk over our heads, flying in perfect V formations. Greg doesn’t mention the water is a brisk 45 degrees- we’ll find out about that soon enough.

We see dozens of belugas exhaling and inhaling, then diving to their buffet of capelin, shrimp, crabs, arctic char and whitefish. “I can’t guarantee they’ll play with us today,” Greg warns. “But let’s think positive. Maybe you should sing to them.” He’s kidding, of course, but Greg doesn’t know I’m a devoted beluga lover. I’ve brought along the lyrics to “Baby Beluga,” a children’s song by folksinger Raffi, and begin to sing:

Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea,
Swim so wild and ya swim so free.
Heaven above and the sea below,
And a little white whale on the go.

Greg and the other passengers laugh, probably thinking I’m nuts. Meanwhile, Greg entertains us with interesting beluga facts: they can dive to 2000 feet for food, and hold their breath for up to twenty minutes; they navigate cold dark waters using eco-location, bouncing sound off the sea floor; they can grow to fifteen feet, weighing in at a hefty 2200 pounds; eight inches of blubber keep them warm and buoyant; and, most of the year, they live under Arctic ice, breaking ice holes with their heads to breathe. Belugas’ predators are Orca killer whales, polar bears, and humans.

Now here is something I wish I could do: one half of their brain rests during sleep, while the other half keeps awake.

According to Greg, only 88,000 wild belugas still live on our planet. “So maybe you will be super lucky and get to swim with them today.” On cue, two-dozen belugas swim boldly towards our Zodiac. It’s playtime…and we’re the new kids on the block. I sing more of Raffi’s song:

Baby Beluga, is the water warm?
Is your mamma home, with you, so happy?
Way down yonder where the dolphins play
Where you dive and splash all day
Waves roll in and waves roll out,
See the water squirting out of your snout!

“Okay, humans -” Greg commands, “swim time. Remember- hold one arm around the boat rope. We don’t want to lose you out here among the whales.”

Zipping my wetsuit, I pull on hood, gloves, and mask, and slide into painfully cold Hudson Bay. I soon forget about the pain, because adorable wild belugas swim through my legs and around my shoulders. The graceful white whales squeak to each other, no doubt asking “Wouldn’t Sharon look slimmer in that wetsuit if she stopped eating brownies?”

One baby beluga is close enough for a hug. But doting Mom quickly positions herself between us. “Admire my child,” she gestures, “but keep your distance.”

How thrilling is it to play with wild belugas? Raffi says it best:

Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea,
Swim so wild and ya swim so free.
Heaven above and the sea below,
And a little white whale on the go.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Sharon Spence Lieb

Twenty-five years as a globetrotting journalist: Sharon has tasted broiled cobra and baked guinea pig. Seven guidebooks and 400 travel articles later, she prefers to stick with fish, seafood, veggies, fruit and desserts. Her writing and photography assignments on food, adventure and memorable restaurants/resorts worldwide, appear in monthly newspaper photo/features on THE GLOBETROTTERS, published ...(Read More)

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