“Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea,
Swim so wild and you swim so free.
Heaven above and the sea below,
And a little white whale on the go……” Raffi
The fascination of a pure white ‘smiling’ whale that can create joy and laughter by its mere presence, was my raison d'etre for the journey to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada - I wanted to meet with belugas in the wild.
Churchill is a quaint village situated at the estuary of the Churchill River at Hudson Bay. It is the home of over 3,500 beluga whales, and often called the “Polar Bear and Beluga Capital of the World." Accessible by either a three-day train ride on the Muskeg Express or a Calm Air flight, Churchill is one of those rare places where I feel one with nature. There are no billboards, no traffic jams, no street noise, just the occasional sound of the polar bear siren warning or sled dogs barking. There is a real sense of freedom in Churchill.
I was told the optimum time to see belugas is summer, preferably mid-July, when abundant numbers of whales are calving and swimming in Hudson Bay. During winter, the ice crawls with tundra buggies in search of polar bears, but in summer, the ice melts and Hudson Bay becomes a playground for belugas.
Upon arriving in Churchill, I was greeted by Jennifer and Gerald Azure, avid mushers and dog lovers. For the next six days, I would be introduced to the beauty of the tundra and the everyday life of the locals. The next day, Cameron and I planned to spend three hours cruising the Hudson in a small Zodiacto photograph belugas. Anticipating my time in the water with the whales, I donned my dry suit and ventured out with four other divers onto Churchill River and the Hudson. As the Zodiac left shore, I could see hundreds of pure white belugas dodging in and out of the murky emerald green waters, heads up and tails trailing as they dived down. They would approach our boat out of curiosity, swimming sideways while peering at us. As soon as Cameron gave the word, I jumped in and waited wide-eyed and excited at the water’s surface. Belugas are somewhat shy at first, so I began to wonder if I would ever get close to one. Their fascination for the sound of the boat engine gave me an idea. What if I tied a line from the boat to my waist, and had our guide slowly tow me four to five metres behind the boat with camera in hand as the belugas approached? Cameron was game, so the next day, I rigged a tether and away I went as he towed me behind the boat. The belugas seemed to like this and gradually came closer, twisting their necks to look me in the eye.
The poor visibility and schools of capelin in the water made it difficult to photograph during the first two days. Nevertheless, swimming next to belugas was a magical experience. The following day, the Hudson was rough and conditions poor, so we refrained from snorkelling and explored the summer tundra with its riot of wildflowers atop the permafrost instead. Azure sled dogs pulled us around in a cart through the boreal forest with lightning speed and enthusiasm. We even hiked through a small village to explore the Eskimo Museum, Prince of Wales Fort, Polar Bear jail and other sights of Churchill.
My fourth and fifth days were an absolute dream. The sun was shining, the water was clear and the belugas were ready to play. They travelled in groups; the mothers often had adorable mottled gray babies by their sides. I sang to them through my snorkel in my best beluga-like voice, and spun sideways and upside down to see if they might respond to my gestures. It worked! I looked around and saw at least 10-14 belugas swimming next to me, staring at me as if to say, “Who is this crazy, odd-looking little whale holding a funny object and making noises?” They repeatedly approached me, playfully blowing bubbles in my face or trailing curiously behind. On the last day, after three hours snorkelling without getting out of the water, Cameron called out to me, “Are you OK? Do you need to take a rest, maybe warm up?“ I shouted back, “I am having a religious experience!” and continued photographing until I could no longer feel my fingers or hold my snorkel in my frozen mouth. My flashcard was full of images. It was truly one of those extraordinary days that is imprinted in my mind’s eye and always will be. This is where belugas belong, swimming wild and free.
My dream came to fulfilment. I felt grateful to have such an amazing adventure with one of the most beautiful and friendly whales I have ever dived with. My dive buddy, Art Haseltine, said, “When we were in Churchill, we met God, and she is a beluga.”
Essay & photographs by Virginia Bria (see OG Issue 32)