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HUDSON BAY :: CANADA
Our small raft bobs in the water of Manitoba’s Churchill River, where the summer-warmed river meets the cooler Hudson Bay. All around us a feeding frenzy is underway.
As dozens and dozens of beluga whales feast on fish, our group finds it hard to contain our excitement. We point to a white-and-gray pair—mother and calf—that swims directly toward us and then plunges deeper. Suddenly, an adult appears two feet away, and we all exclaim. If whale-watching involves squinting into binoculars at the fleeting sight of a tail, this must be whale-communing.
Our small group has come to Churchill, the "Polar Bear Capital of the World," in July. In a few months, thousands of wildlife lovers will arrive to see the largest concentration of polar bears as they wait for the bay to freeze. But right now, these waters are home to more than 3,000 belugas. The Western Hudson Bay attracts around 57,000 belugas each summer.
These sociable whales, up to 15 feet long, migrate here every summer to give birth, nurse their young, and feed in productive waters. Like the closely related narwhal, they lack a dorsal fin, an adaptation that helps conserve heat in their arctic home. The beluga’s flexible neck allows the head to move up and down, and from side to side. And a bulbous flexible forehead, called a melon, allows the beluga to make facial expressions as well as sounds.
Later we come across another pod of belugas, and our boat driver lowers a hydrophone a few feet below the surface of the water. The concert begins, and we learn why belugas are called canaries of the sea.
We hear a symphony of chirps, clicks, squeaks, whistles, squeals, and moos; it’s an impressive, wide-ranging repertoire. So many belugas join the chorus that it's impossible to distinguish one message from another. But, of course, we are not the intended audience.
While these communicative whales seem to be doing fine here, climate change is affecting other parts of the belugas’ arctic home. Melting sea ice means more open water for increased shipping, marine construction, and oil and gas exploration. These activities cause underwater noise pollution, which interferes with beluga communication and could cause them to have difficulty navigating, finding food and mates, and detecting nearby predators.
After my front-row seat at the beluga concert, I return home newly inspired to protect these amazing whales and vulnerable wildlife everywhere.