Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Sharon Spence Lieb

—Churchill, Manitoba, Canada:

Wriggling into a too-tight neoprene wetsuit, I’m ready to hug a beluga. I’ve flown 1910 miles from Charleston, South Carolina, to Hudson Bay, Canada, to swim with the 3,000 snow white beluga whales summering in Hudson Bay.

“Welcome to The Beluga Capital of the World,” says our guide, Greg Lundie. “We’ve got the happiest whales on earth.”

“What makes a whale happy?” I wonder, scrambling into the “Sea North Tours” zodiac.

“Lots of fish,” Greg answers. “No predators. And warm unpolluted waters for raising their baby belugas. Paradise, right?”

Arctic terns soar into fluffy clouds. Snow geese parade in perfect V formations. A hot sun warms our hopeful faces as we motor into Hudson Bay’s calm green water. Greg doesn’t mention the water temp is a brisk 45 degrees—we’ll find out about that soon enough.

Scanning the Bay, we see marshmallow shapes on the horizon. Dozens of belugas exhale and inhale as they dive to an enticing buffet of capelin, shrimp, crabs, Arctic char and whitefish.

“Can’t guarantee they’ll come play today,” Greg warns. “But let’s think positive. Maybe you should sing to them.”

He’s kidding, of course. But Greg doesn’t know I’m a devoted beluga lover. I’ve brought along the lyrics to “Baby Beluga,” a children’s song by folksinger Raffi. I sing:

“Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea,

Swim so wild and ya swim so free.

Heaven above and the sea below,

and a little white whale on the go.”

Greg and the other passengers laugh. “This woman’s strange,” they think. True, so true. Greg entertains us with interesting beluga facts. We learn they can dive to 2000 feet for food. They navigate cold dark waters using echolocation, bouncing sound off the sea floor. Belugas can grow to fifteen feet, weighing in at a hefty 2200 pounds.

They spend most of their year in the Arctic, living under ice, using their heads to punch through the ice to breathe. A beluga can hold its breath for twenty minutes. Eight inches of blubber keep them warm and bouyant. One half of their brain rests during sleep, while the other half keeps awake. (Wish I could do that!) A beluga’s predators: orca killer whales, polar bears and hunters.

“Only 88,000 wild belugas still live on our Planet,” says Gregg. “So you’re lucky to swim with some of them today. And only a few hundred tourists have actually been in the water with belugas…so congratulations, kids!”

On cue, two dozen beluga whales boldly approach our zodiac. It’s playtime…and we’re the new kids on the block. I continue singing Raffi’s song:

“Baby Beluga, is the water warm?

Is your mamma home, with you, so happy?

Way down yonder where the dolphins play

where you dive and splash all day

waves roll in and waves roll out,

See the water squirting out of your snout!”

“Ok humans,” Greg commands. “Swim time. Just remember—keep one arm
tethered to the boat rope. Don’t want to lose you out here among the whales.”

I have to suck in my stomach to zip my wetsuit. Then I pull on my hood, gloves and mask. Over I go, into heartstoppingly cold water. Takes my breath away. But who cares? I’m surrounded by adorable wild belugas. They’re big, but smiling, so I don’t get too worried. They swim upside down, horizontally, a few even drift vertically up from the bottom. With my flailing arms and legs, I’m no match for their gracefulness and speed. They squeak and chirp to each other, no doubt saying, “She’d look slimmer in that wetsuit if she stopped eating brownies.”

One baby beluga is close enough for a hug. But doting Mom quickly positions herself between us. “Admire my child,” she gestures, “but keep your distance, human.”

How magic is it to play with wild belugas? Raffi says it best:

“Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea,

swim so wild and ya swim so free

heaven above and the sea below

and a little white whale on the go.

You’re just a little white whale on the go!”

Before you depart our Planet, swim with Belugas. Just do it.

* * * *

For More Information

Tour Operators and Guides in Churchill, Manitoba Canada

1. Sea North Tours, Ltd.

888.348.7591

www.seanorthtours.com

This family owned business has been showing beluga whales to visitors since 1977. Wetsuits, mask/snorkle, expert guides, and zodiacs, make swimming with the whales easy and safe. Or hop aboard their 32 passenger boat, to photograph the whales and hear them sing.

2. Hudson Bay Helicopters

204.675.2576

www.hudsonbayheli.com

Spectacular aerial tours of belugas, polar bears, caribou and the Hudson Bay shoreline
in comfortable Bell Jetranger helicopters. We enjoyed flying with pilot Wayne Goodridge.

3. Nature 1st Tours & Transportation

204.675.2147

www.nature1sttours.ca

Hiking, bus tours, snowmobiling and dog sled rides in Churchill’s forests, tundra and shoreline. Longtime resident and guide Paul Ratson shares his expertise and love for this wild and scenic area. You may encounter polar bears, red fox, birds and caribou. Paul will customize your adventure by land, sea and air.

Destination Winnipeg, 800.665.0204,

www.destinationwinnipeg.ca

Travel Manitoba, 800.665.0040,

www.travelmanitoba.com

Winnipeg

Travellers to Churchill Manitoba will enjoy a pre or post visit to Winnipeg. A city of 700,000+ citizens from all corners of the world, Winnipeg is known as the “cultural cradle of the nation.”
Art galleries, museums, theatres, dance companies and music organizations will keep you happily busy. We stayed 3 days and enjoyed:

The Forks

Located at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. At the sacred Oodena Celebration Circle, you’ll discover fascinating astronautical limestone monoliths. Dine at Sydney’s at the Forks, one of Canada’s Top Ten New Restaurants, visit Explore Manitoba Centre, and the Manitoba Children’s Museum.

The Manitoba Museum

Winner of a Michelin Green Guide top award, the museum presents vivid portrayals of the area’s nature, history and culture through dramatic dioramas and interactive exhibits. Subjects range from the Boreal Forest to a full size replica of the 17th century “Nonsuch,” whose 1668 voyage led to the formation of the Hudson Bay Company.

www.manitobamuseum.ca

Hotel: The Fairmont Winnipeg

We loved this hotel for its convenient downtown location, attentive service, comfortable rooms, and indoor rooftop pool. The hotel’s Velvet Room, featuring Dijon Crusted Lamb, Bison Carpaccio, and Chocolate Ganache Tartlet, is Manitoba’s only five-star restaurant.

204.957.1350

www.fairmont.com/winnipeg

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