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Manitoba: Snorkelling with beluga whales

Far north, on Hudson Bay, on the edge of the edge of the world in Churchill, Manitoba, some 3,000 snowy white beluga whales gather at the mouth of the Churchill River to calve and feast on shoals of capelin every summer.

Manitoba: Snorkelling with beluga whales
Beluga whale, Canada. Image: Getty

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Rain pelted the tundra the day we were due to snorkel with them. The wind whipped across the channel, churning the water murky brown and dashing my hopes of a dream-like experience, floating weightlessly in icy clear waters, surrounded by a swimming daisy chain of whales.

“You can go, but we don’t recommend it,” my guide told me. “You’ll not see anything.” I hesitated, but it had to be worth at least trying.

Struggling into the dry suit was painful, the rubber seal at my wrists and throat oppressively tight. It may keep you warm and your clothes dry, but we were bouncing out in a boat across the waves before I stopped feeling choked by the suit.

Known as the canaries of the sea, beluga whales sing to each other and we were told that if we sang too, they might come to us. Our guide threw out a rope for us to hang on to. The plan was we’d float in the sea and the whales would come.

The reality was a little different. It was rough and I clung to the rope, the shock of the icy water freezing my cheeks and making my breath shallow — each inhalation through the snorkel rattled in my ears. The gargled sounds of my companions singing reached me from further down the rope.

Then a different kind of song came from beneath me. This was higher, more ethereal and immediately recognisable at a bone-deep, ancient level; this was a song of the sea, the chirp of a sea canary. Desperate to see in the murk of the water, I wrapped the rope firmly around my hand and swivelled desperately in the waves. Tossed like seaweed streaming from a rock, I scanned the sea for a sign.

And then it happened. A luminous white body swam underneath me. Beluga whale and I met eyeball to eyeball; for a second, maybe two, we looked at one another and for me everything changed. Dream achieved. It swam away and I exclaimed with joy. My snorkel filled with water and I popped out on the surface, choking, laughing, my heart hammering with delight.

As we motored back to the shore, we became surrounded by pods of whales. We cut the engine as two dozen sparkling white belugas and their gun-metal grey calves darted around the boat. It was a curiously intense moment. Unbidden tears sprang to my eyes as I watched them crest the waves, their bodies turning a translucent green as they ducked under the surface and then glittered white as they curved upwards through the water again, spray shooting from their blow holes. Diving, disappearing and then returning, riding the endless waves.

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