Beluga Immersion

August 21, 2011 at 5:09 pm (Life) (, , , , )

It was a calm, cool, cloudy day when we arrived in Churchill.

One of our first stops was a trip to see the Beluga whales. The babies are grey and stick close to their mothers; at first the whales were very hard to take pictures of. I was impatient and feeling rushed as I tried to get a perfect shot. Foolish human.

The beluga whale is a small, toothed whale that is white as an adult. The beluga’s body is stout and has a small, blunt head with a small beak, tiny eyes, thick layers of blubber, and a rounded melon. They have one blowhole. Beluga means “white one” in Russian. Its genus, Delphinapterus, means “whale without fins”, and the species, leucas, means white.

The beluga inhabits a discontinuous circumpolar distribution in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters ranging from 50° N to 80° N, particularly along the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia. In the spring, the beluga moves to its summer grounds: bays, estuaries and other shallow inlets. A mother usually returns to the same site year after year. As the summer homes clog with ice during autumn, the beluga moves away for winter. Most travel in the direction of the advancing icepack and stay close to its edge for the winter months.

Once the captain turned off the boat’s motor and set us drifting, more and more of the whales surfaced. Speakers allowed us to listen to the whales call to each other. Belugas are known as “sea canaries” because of their songs and chatter, which can even be heard above the water. The bay was full of whales; there was easily thousands as they were migrating back to the ice for the upcoming winter.

It was getting easier to photograph the whales but, I found, impossible to distinguish one from another.

Belugas are relatively slow swimmers. They swim about 2-6 mph. They swim in small pods or mother & child pairings.

Beluga whales are very social animals and congregate in pods (social groups) of 2-25 whales, with an average pod size of 10 whales (consisting of both males and females or mothers and calves). A pod will hunt and migrate as a group. The bond between mothers and calves is the strongest. During migrations, several pods may join together, forming groups of 200-10,000 belugas.

The water was clear. It was possible, if you paid attention, to anticipate where the next group would surface. Learn patience and you will be rewarded.

After a while, I put down my camera and just watched as the whales swam and dove around us.

The sound of the beluga’s voices and the rocking of the boat were very soothing.

As we headed back to the dock, a small pod of males swam near the surface following us.  As we gathered speed, they disappeared.

Were they sad to see us go? Did they enjoying watching us as much as we enjoyed watching them? Do they wonder what strange creatures we are?


1 Comment

  1. Rob-bear said,

    I remember seeing the Belugas at Churchill some years ago. Thanks for reminding me of how wonderful they are.

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