Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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A whale of a vacation

Make a date with Churchill, Manitoba's sociable belugas

It was a crisp, clear August day in Churchill, Manitoba. Four friends and I were seated in an Zodiac inflatable boat, all senses on high alert for the sight of a creamy-white beluga, hundreds of which congregate in the clear green waters of Hudson Bay at this time of the year.

As the boat putt-putted around the Bay, we were wedged in our places, hardly moving because of the arctic-weight neoprene wet suits into which we'd been stuffed. We were itching for the high point of our beluga-spotting trip and one of the more unusual wildlife encounters available anywhere -- snorkelling alongside the belugas. Polar-bear watching in Churchill is a well known arctic adventure, but the chance to mingle with beluga whales is a fairly new experience.

For the longest time, there wasn't a sign of life. Then all of a sudden, Jonathan, our guide, pointed to several ghostly white forms that seemed to have an almost greenish halo as they made a beeline for our boat. "Belugas are very social," he said. "They're coming to check us out."

While the belugas milled around the boat, we were almost falling over each other as we clumsily adjusted face masks, fins and snorkels in our urgency to get into the Bay. As I backflipped into the water, the reality of where we were -- at latitude 58ÂșN -- hit with icy clarity. My face felt as if it had suddenly been plunged into a deep freezer.

Looking down through my face mask, I could see one ghostly greenish form some distance below me, keeping pace with the slowly moving Zodiac. The trick for us humans was to hang onto one of the ropes attached to the boat while keeping perfectly parallel as we trolled through the water. Luckily, the neoprene worked as it was supposed to and, as water slowly oozed through the rubber, it was warmed to a near-body temperature.


Optical Illusions
The lone beluga streaked off somewhere like Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit and, for what seemed ages, I saw nothing but the blackish-green water below me. One by one, my colleagues called it quits and returned to the boat. But I was determined to have an encounter of a much closer kind.

Not long after, I looked down and suddenly there were three immense belugas right below me, almost within touching distance. I reached my hand towards them, but underwater distances can be deceptive -- all I ended up doing was sucking in a snorkel full of salt water. The trio of belugas glided along right below me for what seemed a long time. Then one slowly turned its head and looked right up at me with a quirky smile as if to say, "Oh, hello. Didn't notice you up there."

Soon, there were four belugas keeping pace, so amazingly sleek and streamlined and moving with such grace. They were peeping and chirping. Nineteenth-century sailors exploring the high Arctic noticed the belugas engaging in this kind of vocalization and thought they were singing; they dubbed them "sea canaries."

These belugas were obviously curious about the humans who flopped around in the water with them. I wondered what they were thinking -- possibly laughing at our clumsiness. I popped out of the water to tell my colleagues about the chirping. "The belugas," they told me excitedly, "they're all around you!"

When I returned to the water, I was surrounded by a cloud of beluga bubbles. There was probably something I was supposed to do in response, but we hadn't been briefed on beluga games. Far too soon, Jonathan tapped my hand and said we had to go: I'd been in the water for 30 minutes. Reluctantly, I flopped back into the Zodiac.


Acting Fishy
There is something in the human psyche that drives us to try to connect with other species, to share a moment or just get them to notice us. And the cetacean family (like belugas and dolphins) is high on the list of species that fascinate us.

Maybe it's because of their intelligence or that semblance of a crooked smile. Whether real or imagined, we sense that some sort of connection happens when we encounter them. ilarities: an X-ray of a beluga flipper, for example, looks remarkably like a hand.

The name beluga comes from the Russian word for white, belukha. They are highly social and live in pods of two to 25 males and females, with the average pod around 10. Belugas do everything together -- they migrate, hunt, socialize and play games.

Most belugas live in arctic and subarctic waters; the southernmost pod in the world is found in the St. Lawrence River. It's believed this pod got separated from others during the last Ice Age. Belugas move from the open ocean to coastal areas in response to the freeze-thaw cycle of sea ice. In summer, thousands appear in the river estuaries where they form nursing groups of females and calves.

The largest concentration of belugas in the world is in Churchill, Manitoba where I had come to see them in every possible way -- from a helicopter, a boat, a kayak and right in the water -- a relatively new summer "soft adventure" program developed to complement Churchill's more famous polar-bear watching.


Polar Bear Country
After landing in Churchill airport, my first impressions of this Arctic town were plucked right out of National Geographic. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but marshy tundra dotted with stunted conifers whose branches grew only on one side because of the prevailing winds.

Churchill itself is a one-main-street town with no traffic lights. The buildings are one-storey tall with gravel yards. Since everything must be flown in, basic goods are expensive: two litres of milk is $3.99 at the Northern Store.

As we strolled down Kelsey Avenue, the main drag, we noticed "Beware of Polar Bears" signs. The bears do come into town, and everyone with an ounce of brain matter gets out of their way. They are treated with respect but those that become a nuisance are drugged, put into "polar bear jail" and then relocated.

In summer, bears are rarely seen but, occasionally, one will swim up and come ashore. During a hike along the shore, our guide, Paul Ratson of Nature 1st Tours (tel: 204-675-2147; www.nature1sttours.ca), toted a rifle and kept his eyes peeled and his binoculars handy. Paul is a walking encyclopedia about the Arctic: northern birds and plants, northern lights and, of course, polar bears which he referred to as "testosterone with teeth." Our hike was capped off by a bear sighting way off on the horizon.

Our introduction to Churchill's marine life had come from Captain Mike Macri on board the Sea North II (tel: 888-348-7591; www.seanorthtours.com), a hydrophone-equipped tour boat that takes people whale watching and out to the massive 18th-century Prince of Wales Fort. As we scanned the sea , Mike told us that there are 2000 to 3500 belugas in the waters in the summer months -- our chance of not seeing one was slim. He told us about the fish they eat, how they can hold their breath for half an hour, how they change colour and make those odd sounds they do.


Whatever Floats Your Boat
Our first actual encounter with the belugas was in sea kayaks with Kayak Churchill (tel: 204-675-2638; www.kayakchurchill.com), a well-equipped company that takes everyone from total neophytes to seasoned pros out into the estuary where the belugas feed. As we donned our wetsuits, our guide, Kirsti, fired instructions at us and clued us into the nuances of paddling a kayak. She was thorough, totally safety conscious and she insisted that we'd do just fine. Heather, a participant who was neither a kayaker nor a swimmer, asked what the possibilities were of tipping over.

"Slim to none," replied Kirsti. "Only two people have been dumped in four years."

Out on the water, those of us who had kayaked before were in hot pursuit of belugas that appeared very quickly and seemed more curious about us than we were about them. We did notice however that Heather seemed to be having a hard time getting started. I heard another paddler squeal with joy when a beluga nudged her kayak from behind and another cruised by the side. Then we heard a big splash and a string of cursing: Heather had dumped her kayak, fortunately in shallow water.

"Slim to none, eh, Kirsti?" called out Heather who, from that moment, was dubbed Slim-to-None.

I worked up a rhythm and headed off in search of whales with whom I could do a little "relating." Every time I got close, the whales seemed to have business elsewhere or were just more intent on feeding than playing with curious humans. A pair cruised beside the kayak for a few minutes, three metres off port side, and then were gone. Time went quickly as we paddled from one pod to another, but the whales weren't intent on sticking around.

We caught our final glimpse of the whales on our last day in Churchill, during a 30-minute helicopter ride down the estuary and along the coast with Hudson Bay Helicopters (tel: 204-675-2576; www.hudsonbayheli.com). The sight of the beautiful white belugas below just knocked our socks off. There were pods everywhere, with more than a dozen belugas in some. At the low altitude we were flying, the whole Bay seemed like a green-layered tapestry with whales stitched in shades of greenish-white. The belugas dove and surfaced; 30 or 40 of them were just in the area where we kayaked the other day.

I've swum with dolphins and giant green turtles, hugged koalas, been scuba diving with manta rays and had several nose-to-nose encounters with alpacas and llamas but somehow these Churchill moments -- especially with my new best friend, the beluga who looked at me and smiled -- topped them all.

 

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