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Fall Issue


Beluga Biology


Beluga Whales!

Belugas, the great little white whale!

by Doug Collicutt

Thar she be, the great white whale . . . lying on a slab in the basement of a department store. One of the strangest memories I have from childhood is just that, a white whale, a Beluga, laid out dead on a slab, surrounded by ice and gawking people, in the basement of Eaton's department store, or maybe it was The Bay. To my probably eight-year-old eyes (I can't remember exactly when it was) it was an interesting sight.

Beluga - Georgia Aquarium
A Beluga in the Georgia Aquarium.
It was certainly the first time that I and likely most of the people there had ever seen a Beluga in the flesh. This was the 60's and long before eco-tourism had blossomed at Churchill, Manitoba, now home to the best Beluga watching in the world.

Unfortunately, the other memory I have of that day is the smell, the whale had been there for some time. Still, that didn't seem to repel the few dozen people that day. Odd how attitudes change over time. No one would think of displaying a dead whale as an attraction these days. Nowadays, it's the live ones people want to see. Whatever dredged up that memory for me, it got me thinking that it was time I started doing some marine articles for NatureNorth. Manitoba has a marine coast, as many of us in the southern part of the province often forget. Even when people think of the other iconic white species from up north, the Polar Bear, they tend to think of it roaming the tundra, or the streets of Churchill. Manitoba's sea coast and all the marine critters that go with it seldom come to mind.

Of course, the reason why Manitoba's sea coast is not that well known is that it's not very accessible. You can take a train to Churchill (from Winnipeg it's a two day trip) or you can fly up there or to a few other locations that let you get right to the coast. These options, however, are expensive and require a significant commitment of time, too. To get there on the cheap you could take a canoe and follow one of several rivers that ultimately disgorge into Hudson Bay, but, come on, how many of us still qualify as coeur du bois. So, unfortunately, most of us will have to rely on media and the internet for experiencing the coast of Hudson Bay and all the wonderful wildlife that thrives in this marine environment.

About 3000 Belugas visit the Churchill River in Northern Manitoba every summer, and hundreds of people travel to Churchill, Manitoba each year to see them.

Fortunately, at least for Belugas, there is lots of great information on the internet, enough for me to do this article and then some. I don't usually write about animals for which I've no direct experience (I don't count my whale corpse viewing), or at least some of my own photos, but learning about Belugas has inspired me to get serious about a trip to Churchill to see them for myself. Hopefully, it might inspire you, too. Plus I've include a bunch of links to some of the best online resources about Belugas, and some of the companies offering to get you out to see live Belugas, too. So I hope you'll take the time to learn a little about these great little white whales.

Carry on for more on Beluga Biology

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(This article makes use of images generously shared by a number of folks and agencies through WikiMedia Commons. The image used for the article banner is by Luca Galuzzi.)