Being Beluga

Subarctic Snorkeling in Hudson Bay

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

Hudson Bay belugas

Now's a good time, whispers my guide, Barbara Draper, a Winnipeg native who's lived and worked in Churchill for the last decade. She smiles—perhaps a little too enthusiastically—as I brace myself for the 38-degree-Fahrenheit water. I clamp my snorkel onto my mask and slip over the side of the Zodiac in my titanium-lined, blubberesque wetsuit, tow rope in hand. Barbara revs up the boat and slowly accelerates, with me trailing face down.
As I'm towed—we're hoping the boat's movement will attract a nearby pod of whales for me to see—the ice-chilled waters of Hudson Bay torturously infiltrate my wetsuit. Small wonder, I muse, that each season only a few twisted souls give this a whirl.

First I hear them: Their calls range from whistling tea kettles to chattering monkeys to squealing tires—kind of like several Hollywood sound-effect CDs all at once. Yet I see nothing but a gray-green gloom. Then a plump torpedo of radiant white, maybe 14 feet long, shoots up from the depths on its back. In seconds a beluga is beneath me, close enough to make eye contact before it dives out of sight. Moments later a second beluga coyly approaches, veering away when yet another joins in.
For two hours we carry on, me and dozens of belugas from different pods, including a handful of slate-colored calves. When I finally flop back into the Zodiac, the cold water has frozen my mouth into a permagrin.

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