Polar Bear Blog – About a Beluga

Churchill is just recovering from a heat wave this week and quickly running out of beer while they wait for news of the train.  Omnitrax is now issuing updates that seem to just be the same four paragraphs repeated everyday but they say the line should be open to freight in the first week of July.  After that, VIA will send its own people up to inspect the track – that would take a minimum of five days – but in my opinion, its probably another two weeks after the track opens before any passenger service returns to Churchill.  The Town or someone really needs to put together a list of ‘lost revenue’ and put a claim in to the province or the feds – they gave Omnitrax $40 million to fix the tracks which obviously, didn’t work… now it is time to compensate Churchill small businesses.  Have my doubts though.

Anyway, the beluga cam is going strong so that, I guess, can tide folks over for a while.  There was a pretty cool ‘feeding frenzy’ yesterday with both beluga whales and seagulls pretty excited about a capelin round-up.  The Hudson Bay Post newspaper is at the printers, I delayed it a bit to try and get some info about the train… but there’s honestly not much else to say – the tracks are closed and no one seems to have a real answer when they will open.  In the mean time, relax, have a beer before they are gone and learn about belugas…  photos courtesy of Alex de Vries, www.alexdevriesphotography.com Beluga Pic - Alex de Vries Photography Beluga Capital of the World

Churchill is best known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World but it holds another equally impressive, the Beluga Whale Capital of the World. Each summer, over three thousand white whales return to the ‘relatively’ warm waters of the Churchill River after wintering in Hudson Strait.

It is estimated that 57,000 beluga whales inhabit western Hudson Bay, about one third of the world’s white whales. By contrast, only 900-1000 whales live in the St. Lawrence River. In Churchill, they come and go with each day’s tide, chasing capelin, raising their young and occasionally swimming with visiting snorkelers. This population has not been hunted for several decades so they swim right up to, around and under the tour boats, so close you can almost touch them.

They are a fairly small whale, the males weighing between 400-1000kg and measuring up to 14’ long. The largest in Churchill measured 14’7 although generally the western Hudson Bay population is slightly smaller than average. Females are about two thirds of that size with juveniles slightly smaller. Newborn calves might measure only 150cm or 5’ long. They spend much of the summer travelling in pods of half a dozen to a dozen whales, usually segregated by sex; bulls travelling together and females with young in other pods.

Belugas spend a good chunk of the summer feeding. In these pods, they will work to herd schools of capelin, small sardine-like fish that are so numerous at times that they resemble dark currents in the Churchill River. Other times, they will dive and exhale air to flush fish closer to the surface. For the most part, they eat capelin but they will pretty much eat anything including squid, arctic char, shrimp, etc.

They mate in April and May with a gestation of 11-15 months so, in June and July, newborn belugas and even births are occasionally witnessed in the Churchill River. Females over 9’ are generally considered sexually mature and mating is occasionally witnessed late in the whale watching season.

The calves will nurse for almost two years, raising their tail out of the water as their calf feeds. Females will often help her newborn swim, supporting them underneath the water to help them save energy. Newborn beluga whales have a mottled brownish colour. This quickly fades as they age to take on the characteristic ‘bluish gray’ of juveniles.

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Dolphins Without Wings

Beluga comes from a Russian word (Belukha) meaning ‘white’. However, this white whale has been known by various names along Hudson Bay. In Inuktitut, it is called Qilalugaq, Wapamek in Cree and Ituwe-ch in Sayisi- Dene. European whalers and traders called it the ‘sea canary’ due to the wide variety of chirps and tweet heard through the hull of their ships.

They have a complicated underwater vocabulary with over 1200 vocalizations. Their brains are very large and complex, suggesting a high level of intelligence. Most whale tours in Churchill carry an underwater hydrophone with them to give visitors a glimpse into this world. Of course, beluga whales make a variety of sounds above water when coming up to breathe, but most of these range more to the awkward than articulate side of sounds.

Aside from the large fatty deposit on their head, the melon, they do resemble dolphins. This melon along with their jaw is used in echolocation, a process of interpreting sounds underneath the water. Their clicks and chirps are used to identify objects and prey underwater. As they near a school of fish, these clicks will become so numerous, they sound more like a buzzing as they search for more ‘details’.

The beluga’s Latin name, Delphinapterus Leucas, actually translates to ‘white dolphin without a wing’. This refers to the fact that Belugas do not have a true fin, only a slightly raised dorsal ridge. These whales have a few other unique adaptations. They are the only whale species without fused vertebrae in their neck, meaning that they can turn their head. It is a pretty surreal moment to watch belugas turning to each other and seemingly talking about the snorkeling tourist above them. They are also incredibly agile and acrobatic underwater, even able to swim backwards if necessary.

Beluga Pod - Alex de Vries Photography

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