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My 2004 scouting trip began in August with a visit to Churchill to witness the annual visit by thousands of Beluga Whales that come to calf and rest in the warmer waters of the Churchill River (the water temperature is more than 10C warmer than in Hudson Bay). While known primarily as an autumn Polar Bear destination, in summer Churchill is a whale watching mecca when visitors can venture out in small boats and sea kayaks to watch and sometimes interact with these highly intelligent and social whales, and even don a drysuit and swim with them.

A denizen of the frigid Arctic waters the Beluga has a number of anatomical differences when compared with other toothed whales, most of which are adaptations to their unique environment. One of the most obvious of these is that they lack a dorsal fin which means they expose less surface area when they surface to breathe and therefore lose less of their body heat to the surrounding air.

Like their dolphin cousins Belugas are very curious and often approach whale watching boats and kayaks as if curious about their occupants. Unlike dolphins however, instead of riding the bow wave they prefer to ride in the wake and seem to enjoy having the propwash on their faces, presumably the Beluga equivalent of a jacuzzi! When kayaking with them the key is to keep moving or else they soon get bored of you.

On one of my whale watching excursions in a small zodiac (rigid inflatable boat) my guide tried playing a game which involved turning the zodiac in a tight circle. The Belugas seemed to really enjoy this and would swim around the inside of the circle we were making, on their backs or side looking up at us! This also created a mirror smooth surface inside the circle which made for great photo opportunities.


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