Snorkelling and kayaking with Beluga whales (and more polar bears)

I decided to go snorkelling with Beluga whales again on Sunday. I had the thought the previous night, and as most thoughts that have anything to do with the possibility of missing out, it wouldn’t go away. In the morning, I asked the tour operator if there were any spaces still available, and there were. Glen declined to join me.

Snorkelling, take two

There was always going to be a risk that a second bite of the cherry wouldn’t be as sweet, but having already done it once, I didn’t have anything to lose, and everything to gain. Would there be more whales today? Would the visibility be better? Would they come closer and play? All questions that were at the front of my mind, though the most pressing question was, “Will my dry suit have a hole in it today?”

We left the Polar Inn at 11ish to get down to the launch and put on our drysuits. There were more people going snorkelling today, three zodiacs of between four and five people each (on Friday there were only eight people in total). I liked already knowing what to do when we arrived, and was soon given a dry suit.

I said that I’d had one with a hole in it the other day, and Lesley said it had been taken out of circulation. I put the new suit on, checked under my arms, and I kid you not, there was a hole. In exactly the same spot as on the previous suit I’d worn. Lucky I checked. I was soon outfitted with a new one, and a little while later my group jumped on the zodiac.

There were two couples on my boat, as well as Alex, the tour guide Glen and I had on Friday. One of the couples was from Boston, while the other was from Winnipeg/Chicago. Everyone had their cameras at the ready, and were very excited about the upcoming experience.

While heading out of the river, the guides spotted a polar bear swimming in the water. A gun had only just gone off on Cape Merry, encouraging the bear to swim to the opposite shore (and Fort Prince of Wales). The zodiacs were there to help shepherd it to the other shore and away from people, so we got to spent a while watching it eventually make its way to land.

Once there, it started heading towards the fort, where the archaeologists and a bunch of Parks Canada people were peering over the edge of the fort watching it (much like soldiers would have once watched for an approaching army). Something spooked the bear and sent it running away from the fort towards the point.

Alex had said on Friday about bears in the estuary and how the zodiacs are only allowed to get close to them (about 10 or 15 metres) when they’re being shepherded away from human settlements. It was such a surprise to be able to take part in it, and watch this giant bear float along to get away from us.

We then went around the point, and saw a mum and cub lounging in the grass. They might have been the same ones we saw on Friday. While everyone was watching the bears, I was listening to the chatter on the radio as the guides talked to each other, trying to find a good pod of whales. It wasn’t looking good. Still, I told myself, I got to see a swimming polar bear so that was well worth coming out again.

We headed out into the Hudson Bay and looked around for a while, but no whales were sighted. After a bit, we moved positions to find a few swimming around. We jumped into the water, this time was definitely much more comfortable as I didn’t have a hole in my suit. We looked, but visibility was poor and I only saw a couple of amorphous white blobs floating by at some distance. Time was ticking on, and I began to think today was not going to be a good day for Belugas.

We got back in the zodiac and headed to the same area we’d gone to on Friday. There were a number of pods hanging around, and so we thought we might have some luck. When we got in the water, the visibility was pretty good, so that was in our favour. We floated around for a little while, spotting a few whales swimming by below us. But it wasn’t until all five of us started huddling around in a group that the magic really happened.

A large pod of big, white males — I’d say at least ten of them — started to take an interest in us. We spotted them nearby, and then they’d dive, swimming below. They’d turn around and come back. Soon we realised they were playing with us.

They were so curious, spinning around to float on their backs, looking up at us, releasing air bubbles to shatter around our faces, on and on they swam, going passed us, under us, then turning and coming back. There were many times when I’d be following one, only to notice another two, three, floating beside me. I felt such joy. This is what I’d hoped the experience would be, and even then, it exceeded expectations.

We stayed playing with them for at least half an hour, going well over our allotted tour time. Alex had never seen anything like it, no pod in his two years here had shown that much interest in a group. It was truly something to behold. I took a tonne of footage, and reviewing it later showed just how wonderful it was. We didn’t want to get back in the boat, but we’d had such a good time.

Back in the zodiac and heading back to the launch, we travelled slowly and the pod continued to follow us. One hung at the back of the boat most of the time, while the others would crest next to us, then dive down and under and pop up the other side. They didn’t want to let us go. We couldn’t believe it.

A signal of distress back towards the mouth of the estuary drove us away. A boat had broken down but Parks Canada was there lending a hand. While we headed out to them, we also saw a seal swimming in the water. Another one to tick off the list.

We then went back to land, all of us so excited about what we’d seen and experienced. I dreaded telling Glen because I knew he’d be upset he’d missed out, but once back I couldn’t hold back my enjoyment. The second snorkelling experience was well worth the added expense.

We had three hours before we were going kayaking with the Belugas (we’d booked it before I booked the second snorkelling tour, and I was intrigued to see what this experience was like). We went for lunch, then back to the hotel while I downloaded Beluga whale videos.

Beluga whales

Kayaking

At six pm, we met out front of the Polar Inn for our final planned activity for this trip: kayaking. I’d been hearing from other people on tours who’d gone kayaking say what a great experience it was. The Beluga whales come up to the kayak, nudge it, play with the rudder or with the paddles. I was looking forward to it.

We got down to the launch, were given life jackets and paddles, and given a bit of a demonstration of how to operate our kayaks (these ones had rudders). Glen and I went in individual kayaks, though it was funny to hear the guide talk about how people in tandem kayaks should operate. Glen and I argued about this on the way to our singles, as I said he had done it wrong when we were in a tandem canoe on the Toronto Islands. He said I was doing it wrong, but of course Glen was mistaken.

I was the last to get out on the water as I had a bit of trouble getting my rudder pedals sorted. But eventually I was ready and I was pushed off. It took a little while to get the rhythm right but once I did, I was off.

We were meant to stay in a group, the reason being that the whales would be more likely to interact. It didn’t turn out that way. Nevertheless, there were plenty of whales out in the bay, and from time to time they’d come and play. And I really mean play. There is no doubt in my mind that these big whales were having some fun with us.

They’d follow along behind a kayak as the paddler went along. They’d blow big air bubbles right underneath the kayak as the passed below. They’d nudge the back of the kayak, or come up and play with the paddle. I had one hang around me for a while, as it investigated my paddle, then spun and swam away.

Poor Glen looked terrified half the time. He’d watched Jaws a couple of weeks ago, and to have all these air bubbles pop up around you, or to hear the whales breach the water behind you, was a little unsettling at times. I laughed at it, Glen grimaced. He was very cute.

There was also a seal swimming around in the water, and we hung around him for a while.

It was a beautiful summer’s night to do this, and a perfect way to wind up the trip. Kayaking was very peaceful and relaxed, the sun low in the sky casting a beautiful red glow…just heaven.

We spent plenty of time out there, finally getting back to shore about 8:30ish, then getting back into town at 9. We ran down to the Seaport for dinner (they close the kitchen at 9:30), and we had a big dinner. Service was much better tonight, and we chatted to the waitress about her upcoming trip across the Nullabor.

Sun set at about 10:30pm (we heard the air raid siren at 10pm again) and we’re going to set alarms for during the night in the hope that we’ll see the Northern Lights. Alex, my guide for snorkelling, said they’d put on a display the past couple of nights. If only I’d stayed awake until 1am. Fingers crossed we see them tonight as that would really round out the trip.

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