Snorkeling with Whales in Canada
by Y. CARDOZA & B. HIRSH
Drysuits and whales were the last things on our minds when we made plans to visit Churchill, Manitoba, situated on the Hudson Bay. We were going for the geese, the wolves, the caribou.
"Ah well, you might as well look at the whales," Churchill-based operator Mike Macri said over the phone. We were in the middle of arranging the usual tourist thing--three hours aboard an oversized viewing platform with two dozen other gawking guests--when Macri mentioned, matter-of-factly, that a few other clients had tried swimming with beluga whales.
Suddenly, an afternoon layover on our return from a tundra lodge turned into three days of being trolled from a zodiac, like so much bait. Definitely in its infancy as a tourist sport, diving with whales promised to be a pioneering experience. None of this "You shoulda been here 20 years ago during the glory days." This was like lugging converted oxygen bottles to scuba Grand Cayman in 1963.
We headed out at 8:30 a.m. on a sunny, mid-July day, 90 minutes shy of high tide. Everything that happens on the water in this region is linked to tides, since they can vary by 15 feet. And though whale swims are done from a shallow draft Yukon (an inflatable Zodiac clone), you still have to leave on high tide or spend part of your valuable boat-charter time hauling gear across boulder-strewn mud flats.
Ten minutes out, as we motored past blooming purple sweet pea, yellow arctic daisies, and icebergs, Manford Bussell, our guide and boat captain, rummaged in a long, narrow case.
"When you go into the water, I'll load the shotgun. That way, if a bear happens by, I'll be ready."
Manford was not grinning when he said this.
Churchill is Polar Bear Central. Probably more bears live here than anywhere else on the North American continent. They wander around during the warm months, waiting impatiently for ice to return so they can go out across the bay and feed on seals. On the day we arrived in town, a mosquito-harassed male grumpily took possession of the railroad tracks, and a few days before that, a mother and cub were spotted on the outskirts.
We zipped up our drysuits and slid into the water, picturing what it would be like to be mistaken for a seal by a ravenous, 1,500 pound bear.
Below the surface, the thermometer read 37 degrees. Our bodies were warm enough, but our faces were another matter. It was the ice cream headache from hell ... like getting a lobotomy without benefit of painkiller.
Over the years, Macri has worked out a system for whale swims. The logical plan would be to tow swimmers behind the boat, almost like a waterskier, but that doesn't work. For some reason, it spooks the belugas. Instead, rope is strung through "D" rings on the side of the boat, and divers ride plastered alongside, with one arm though the rope.
Because belugas, like dolphins, love boat wakes, swimmers are pulled alongside the boat at about a half-knot, creating waves that will hopefully attract the whales. This is usually successful, since even kayak wake draws them. Happily, they tumble in the slipstream, sometimes piling up so thick you can hardly see the water.
It was time to meet our whales. We rode. And rode. And rode. For 30-40 minutes, we were so much chum in an empty ocean. Then suddenly, Manford yelled, "Coming from the back! Behind you!"
Not 20 yards away, we could see white backs arching on the surface. We ducked below and a face materialized from the gloom. The water clarity was 20 to 30 feet at best. It was pea soup green, which turned to glowing emerald at midday when almost tangible shafts of sunlight cut through the water. But one after another the belugas came into view, until there were two dozen graceful, torpedo-shaped bodies sliding over and under one another around us.
The first whales melted into the soup only to be replaced by more. As the day continued on, it became apparent that one specific pod had claimed us. About every 15 minutes they would come, play and then disappear into the waves.
Though the pod was mainly comprised of adult males, there was also a single juvenile who stayed glued to his mother. From underwater, we could see the mother's skin being pushed by the force of the youngster's contact.
It was fascinating to watch the playful whales in such close proximity. First, they'd swim past in a group, sometimes flipping over onto their backs and bending their heads up to see us better. On another pass, half a dozen of them lined up in a vertical row, their heads bent and nodding as if in greeting. There had to be 20 or 30. After a while, we gave up counting.
We could hear the whales clearly underwater. They chirped, whistled and clicked, and then there was a buzzing, almost electric sensation, on our faces.
"They were sounding on you," Manford said when we came up. Like bats, belugas send out high frequency clicks thousandths of a second apart to navigate and find food in murky water.
When we climbed back aboard the boat to warm up, Manford stopped the engine and lowered his hydrophone. Wave after wave of chirps, clicks, whistles, pops and squeals came out of the speaker. It was positively melodic.
Back in town, we went to the Parks Canada visitor center to learn more about our swimming buddies. Belugas are related to dolphins. Scientists still can't tell you where western Hudson Bay's 23,000 whales go during winter, but they can sure tell you where they are when the ice breaks up the first week of July: roaming in clots sometimes 100 strong, waiting to hit the Churchill River.
They come to the river for the warm water, so their babies can grow, and for the shallow depths, in which they rub off the old, dead skin which they shed each year. Amazingly, as many as 3,600 whales have been counted in Churchill River at once.
On our final morning, we made one last trip to visit the whales. For a while, it looked like nothing would happen. Then Manford yelled, "They're back!"
Six huge males approached from the rear of the boat. They skimmed beneath us, tumbling against one another and then, in unison, turned upside down to face us, nodding to pinpoint us with their sonar.
The biggest bull edged forward, coming closer and closer, until we could clearly see blemishes on his chin and, when he opened his mouth, his full set of peg-shaped teeth. He swiveled his head slightly to the left and we made eye contact--two different species holding some sort of mental conversation, though for the life of us, we'll never know exactly what was being said.
Finally, he twirled around, bent forward and dove beneath us, coming so close, we could almost touch him with our feet.
We had come to Canada hoping to get a glimpse of wolves and caribou.
Instead, we talked with whales.
Summer whale season is mid-July to mid- or late August with the peak in late July. General tourist viewing is done aboard a 32-passenger tour boat but for snorkeling, you must charter one of the Zodiacs. You'll need a minimum of two hours (three is better). Tours in the large boat run about $45 US. Rental of Zodiacs for swimming runs $110 - $160 US per hour, depending on size of boat. If you want to swim with whales, you will need to bring your own wetsuit (or much better, drysuit) and snorkel gear. The water temperature of the bay is in the mid- to high 30s.
If you're planning to arrange things yourself, contact Sea North Tours Ltd.; 204-675-2195; Website: www.cancom.net/~seanorth.
For a package where everything from air to hotel and boat is arranged, contact Frontiers North: (800) 663-9832; Website: www.frontiersnorth.com. The package includes air from Winnipeg, four hotel nights in Churchill plus two in Winnipeg, four whale snorkel trips in a zodiac and assorted other Churchill activities such as hikes and tundra buggy tours for approximately $1,800 US. Divers must bring their own snorkel gear and wet or dry suits.
For information on additional programs and tour operators, see the Activity Index under "Whalewatching--Canada."
Focus on Belugas
--Belugas are distinguished from other whales because of their ability to turn their heads. Scientists believe this allows them to look for blowholes in ice.
--Belugas can stay submerged for 20 minutes at a time and can dive to 1,000 feet.
--Belugas have been protected from commercial whale hunting since the 1970's.