IN THE EMER­ALD WORLD OF BELUGAS

Scuba Diver Australasia - - Contents - By Joseph Tep­per

I close my eyes – some­thing not rec­om­mended for un­der­wa­ter photography. But the vis­i­bil­ity, float­ing at the sur­face of Canada’s Hud­son Bay, is less than an arm’s dis­tance, so all I can do is wait pa­tiently.

And then the sym­phony starts: A crescendo of squeaks and clicks build un­til I feel my chest re­ver­ber­at­ing. It’s time to take a deep breath and freedive down. Six me­tres be­low the sur­face, the brack­ish haze turns into a dark emer­ald green and I can fi­nally see with my eyes what all the com­mo­tion is about.

Each sum­mer, more than 50,000 bel­uga whales gather in the mouth of the Churchill River in the Cana­dian sub­arc­tic to feed and give birth. Most of­ten seen in cap­tiv­ity at zoos and aquar­i­ums, these Arc­tic whales are rarely pho­tographed in their nat­u­ral habi­tat. But the trek to the edge of the Arc­tic – where po­lar bears pa­trol the shores and but­ton-sized mos­qui­toes buzz about in the sum­mer sun – is worth the chance to meet the white whale.

THE CANARIES OF THE SEA

Just weeks ear­lier, the brack­ish wa­ter of Hud­son Bay re­mained frozen solid. Even with most of the ice gone, the wa­ter hov­ers around 2°C to 3°C.

It’s a shock to en­ter, de­spite my dou­ble-lay­ered 7mm wet­suit, which is nowhere as thick as the 12-cen­time­tre-thick blub­ber borne by the belugas.

The re­sult of the mas­sive flood­ing in 2016 is quickly ap­par­ent. I try the old trick of test­ing my cam­era ex­po­sure on my fins, but I look down only to find green smog where my feet should be. Pok­ing my mask just above the sur­face, I see the belugas com­ing within a mat­ter of me­tres, but un­der­wa­ter, the five-me­tre ma­rine mam­mals are noth­ing but blurry shad­ows.

I’m not the only one who strug­gles to see in such con­di­tions. Liv­ing in dark, cold con­di­tions for most of the year, bel­uga whales have evolved com­plex vo­cal­i­sa­tions for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and nav­i­ga­tion. Void of vo­cal cords, the whales use their unique melon-shaped heads to ma­nip­u­late the move­ment of air be­tween their nasal sac and blow­hole.

The clicks and whis­tles of the whales are so in­tense that they can be heard above the sur­face and through the hulls of ships, earn­ing the nick­name, “Canaries of the Sea”. I de­cide to join in the cho­rus through my snorkel, which draws a pair of cu­ri­ous belugas in for a closer look.

EN­TER­ING THE WHITE WHALE’S WORLD

Af­ter pho­tograph­ing pairs and small pods of belugas just be­low the sur­face, I de­cide to strap on a weight belt for some free­d­iv­ing. I am no bel­uga breath­holder – the whales can slow their heart to stay un­der­wa­ter for up to 15 min­utes at a time. Belugas have even been mea­sured to dive down to more than 400 me­tres.

I can­not see the whales be­low, but their pres­ence is marked by a swell of singing. When the vo­cal­i­sa­tion reaches its peak, I grab one more breath and then pivot my body and fin-kick down into the un­known dark­ness. For what seems like an eter­nity – but is ac­tu­ally less than nine me­tres – the mist per­sists.

With one fi­nal kick, I am trans­ported from a foggy en­vi­ron­ment into a dif­fer­ent uni­verse al­to­gether. The sed­i­ment stuck at the sur­face has fil­tered out much of the sun­light, turn­ing the far-clearer wa­ter be­low into near dark­ness punc­tu­ated by large pieces of white de­tri­tus float­ing about. I too am or­bit­ing weight­less in this en­vi­ron­ment, hav­ing achieved neu­tral buoy­ancy at depth.

As if on cue, the canaries ar­rive: A pod of more than a dozen belugas pass right un­der me. Tak­ing ad­van­tage of their un­fused vert­ibrae, sev­eral whales turn their heads back to check out this strange in­truder. With my lungs be­gin­ning to burn for air, I snap my last few clicks be­fore start­ing my as­cent.

The re­sults on my cam­era’s LCD screen are sur­pris­ing. The dark green back­ground dot­ted with de­tri­tus al­most looks like the night sky – with the stark white belugas ap­pear­ing to be float­ing around in space. Talk about an out-ofthis-world ex­pe­ri­ence.

Tak­ing ad­van­tage of their un­fused vert­ibrae, sev­eral whales turn their heads back to check out this strange in­truder

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