IN THE EMERALD WORLD OF BELUGAS
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