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The Arctic warmth of Hudson Bay's belugas

The welcoming whales in waters lapping Manitoba break the ice with a bedazzled swimmer.

August 23, 2009|Margo Pfeiff

reporting from churchill, canada

I am beluga bait. Bobbing at the end of a rope tied around my feet, I am being slowly towed in the wake of a Zodiac, a small, inflatable boat, through the icy waters of Hudson Bay. Clad in a partly inflated rubber dry suit, I look like a Michelin Tire Man who has sprouted a snorkel as I peer into the murky brown, tannin-stained cocktail of salt and freshwater.

I have come all the way to far northern Manitoba, Canada, to snorkel with beluga whales that, if they do appear out of the gloom, will likely scare the daylights out of me. As my heart races, I remember my guide suggesting I sing to attract these most vocal of whales, known as "canaries of the sea" for their high-pitched songs and rhythmic clicks. The words to the kids' song "Baby Beluga" elude me, so I chum the waters vaudeville-style, warbling "Frosty the Snowman" through my snorkel. It's not working.

After 15 minutes, it's clear the belugas we had seen in the distance are not interested in me, so I am unceremoniously reeled in to flail on the Zodiac floor like a hapless seal. Over the years I've snorkeled with whale sharks, swum with manta rays, paddled with narwhal and scuba-dived with reef sharks. Have I gone too far this time?

The small community of Churchill is a two-hour flight or an adventurous two-day train trip across the permafrost-buckled tundra north of Winnipeg, where the trip began. For a brief six weeks in October and November this small town of 1,000 on the western shore of Hudson Bay is the site of a unique polar bear love-fest as thousands of the white ursi come ashore to await the freezing of the sea ice.

They are greeted by an annual migration of tourists firing gigabytes of adoration at them from the secure confines of monster-wheeled tundra buggies.

Churchill is clearly proud of its "Polar Bear Capital of the World" moniker: Dine alongside a giant bear pelt on the wall of the Lazy Bear Cafe, sleep at the Bear's Den B&B and stock up on "bear bum" boxer shorts and paw-shaped salad tongs at Great White Bear Gifts.

Less well known is the area's other wave of visitors. From late June through early September about 5,000 beluga whales arrive to give birth in the shallows and molt by rubbing their skins on the sandy bottoms of river estuaries. When I heard it was possible to don a snorkel and commune with these curious, friendly critters, I couldn't stay away.

Although it's possible to see and snorkel with belugas out of Churchill, I head for the family-run Seal River Heritage Lodge to the north, hopping a Turbo-Beaver bush floatplane for the 40-minute flight to the wilderness outpost at the edge of the tundra near the mouth of the Seal River.

As we fly, I can see dozens of belugas littering the estuary waters like kernels of white rice, some with gray babies at their sides.

The lodge is operated by veteran fishing, hunting and nature guide Mike Reimer and his wife, Jeanne. The couple's kids -- the fourth generation of a pioneering northern family -- help out during the brief summer season when they're on school vacation. The camp holds 16 guests; generally, about half are Americans, with Germans, Brits and Aussies making up most of the balance.

The lodge is on the site of an old government beluga research camp on a point overlooking the bay. In summer, folks come for the Birds, Bears and Belugas package. The water teems with whales, and a steady stream of polar bears meanders past. In fall, it's a bear traffic jam, and with longer nights, it's a great time to see shimmering sheets of red and green northern lights. Here on the tundra, it's people who live in an enclosure, and when bears peer into the picture windows you really do feel as if you're in the zoo. There also is a high fence surrounding an outdoor compound with four viewing towers.

Weather that can quickly become dangerous dictates activities, and during an unseasonably cool mid-July, a persistent offshore wind keeps us from the belugas. But there's plenty to do.

We trek across spongy tundra hummocks that feel as if we're hiking over down pillows. The bonsai vegetation includes ankle-high willows and magenta rhododendrons. We pick sweet Arctic cranberries and watch hyperactive Arctic ground squirrels darting among the rocks.

The birders on our trip -- from Britain and Switzerland -- spot eider ducks, a snowy owl and tall sandhill cranes emitting a strange musical rattle as they strut near the stone remains of an ancient Inuit campsite.

In this corner of the world, you don't walk outside without a weapon. Zodiacs left bobbing on the bay become chewable squeaky toys for rubber-loving polar bears, and every night plywood shutters bristling with 6-inch nails are battened down on the windows.

One guest was recently awakened by heavy breathing. When he pulled up the blinds, he was face to face with a standing bear whose nose print remains on the window -- 8 feet off the ground.

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