The Great White Sea Canaries

Every summer, thousands of smart, playful white marine creatures gather in the Hudson Bay and Churchill River estuary area. The belugas, or sea canaries as they are often called, announce their arrival with a chorus of enchanting canary-like tunes that captivate nature lovers seeking the excitement of whale-watching and the tranquility of the environment.

Our plane descends into Churchill on the west coast of Hudson Bay in the middle of the Canadian sub-Arctic. During the winter, this is the world’s polar bear capital. But in July, it is the perfect place to get up close and personal with beluga whales and take in the spectacular tapestry of wildflowers and dramatic northern skies.

We climb aboard a hydroplane to begin the trip to the Seal River Heritage Lodge, located on a rocky peninsula in Hudson Bay 65 kilometres north of Churchill. Our fellow travellers are a diverse group with one common denominator – a true passion for nature. We’re glued to the windows, taking in the tundra landscape with its interesting rock formations along the shore and multicoloured waves of wildflowers and lichen. Soon, we catch sight of thousands of beluga whales oving gracefully with the tide.

Set just a few metres from the water, the Sea River Lodge is surrounded by fragrant yellow, red and purple flowers. The area also contains plenty of wild berries that the lodge cook will turn into our favourite pies and desserts.

After a day trip to an Inuit hunting camp, we gather for supper at the lodge. The delicious meal is comparable to the finest cuisines. The next morning, it’s time for our first close encounter with the belugas. In two Zodiac boats, we begin our expedition to the bay, where belugas swim at high speed. The excitement starts when we see their heads turn to get a good look at us (unlike other whales, they have flexible necks). We’re amazed to watch them swim in formation in a rough, synchronized ballet.

The largest groups of whales prefer the slightly warmer water found where the river flows into the bay. During low tides it becomes a great pool. Whales are all around us. The calves swim calmly by their mothers. The babies are gray-brown until their colour fades to white when they reach maturity.

The calves are very curious. Some swim toward the engine, placing themselves in front of the chorro de expulsion to get a free ride. Others go underneath the boat and rub their bodies on the rubber on the bottom. Mike, our host and leader, places a hydrophone under the water, and immediately the boats fill with the sound of their calls. As we listen to their song, we can finally appreciate why they are sometimes called sea canaries.

“I want to jump in the water,” says Alain, a 60-year-old New Yorker. “Go ahead,” says Mike. “The water is crisp but not too cold. With this dry suit, you’ll be just fine. Go slowly and start swimming toward the back of the boat. Then hold on to the rope. When we start moving, we’ll drag you along. The whales will swim next to you to keep an eye on what’s going on.”

Swimming with belugas is like floating with lighthearted phantoms in a dark summer night. The darkness of the naturally murky waters contrasts with the dazzling white skin of the whales. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Back in the cabin, we sit by the fireplace, comparing impressions of the beluga adventure we’ve just experienced. But the day’s adventure isn’t over yet, as someone shouts, “The aurora borealis!” The night sky is painted in beams of the brightest lights. A green light moves across the sky as if dancing to the sounds of a symphony. It’s a light show of motion and colour in an infinite series of combinations. We’re fortunate to see the display because summer is not usually the best season for the northern lights.

The days fly by. The memories pile up – caribou running across lush vegetation, amusing sik-siks hiding in the rocks, Arctic terns, gulls and wimbrels flying over the purple-red and orange skies at sunset, all sorts of lichen formations and, again, the most prominent feature: brilliant fields of wildflowers everywhere.

A vacation experience no nature lover could ever forget.