The first ever recording of a beluga whale spontaneously mimicking the human voice was released today, following research in the US.
This made me think back to my Canada travels in August, when I got to see, and hear, beluga whales in the wild up in Churchill, Manitoba.
More than 3,500 migrate here every summer to give birth and feast on the abundant supply of fish.
I saw beluga whales for the first time at Vancouver Aquarium in July.
It was amazing to then have the opportunity to watch them swim freely in their natural habitat.
These wondrous white whales have a majestic presence, but it was their incredible sounds that struck me the most.
Beluga whale video
The recording that has hit the media today features a nine-year-old male beluga whale known as Noc, who was in captivity at San Diego Foundation, California.
Although Noc passed away five years ago, scientists continued to study the recordings until the current findings were made.
You can listen to the human-like beluga sounds on this video…
Now, after hearing the sound that one beluga can make, just imagine the noise that around 3,500, in close quarters, are capable of creating.
During my five days in Churchill, as part of Frontiers North Adventures’ Big Five Safari, I was acquainted with the whales on several occasions; each instance being more breathtaking than the previous one.
On the first evening, I was standing on the beach, looking out into the bay at flashes of white that could be seen all over the place.
The following day, on a morning boat tour, pod after pod of beluga whales were regularly popping up in excitable flurries. There was even an unexpected sighting of a polar bear on some nearby rocks.
But it was my penultimate day in Churchill that was the highlight in terms of spotting beluga whales.
Snorkeling with beluga whales
The snorkeling tour had almost been cancelled due to poor weather conditions and, as a result of the wind and rain, the beluga whales had moved away from the bay and were nowhere to be seen.
As myself and a few others held onto the inflatable zodiac boat for dear life, as it bounced over baby waves ferociously, there was a real feeling that we might not be able to find any whales to snorkel with.
Then news came in over the radio that beluga whales had been spotted out at an area known as Mosquito Point.
So the boat went full speed ahead in that direction and it appeared that we were going to get to snorkel with the whales after all.
However, the water where they were was murky and we were told that the visibility would be pretty much zero.
Nevertheless, we all decided to get in there and try to get the best out of this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Despite it being the summer, this is still an Arctic region and the water is freezing cold. Therefore, we needed to wear full body wetsuits.
Because we had moved out of the bay, the area where the snorkeling usually takes place, we were told that the water temperature would not be as cold.
Soon we began to spot some beluga whales and got ready to make the plunge.
As I pulled down my snorkel mask and clumsily plopped into the water, I was expecting to at least be mildly shocked by the temperature.
Surprisingly, it was absolutely fine. It was cold, but not uncomfortably so.
The boat moved along slowly as I grabbed some rope at the side with one hand, pulled a starfish-like pose (as had been instructed) and submerged my face in the water.
An orchestra of high-pitched squeaks could be heard and I felt myself shrilling with excitement.
Unfortunately, as expected, I could not see anything below. It was too cloudy. But I did catch one glimpse of a beluga silhouette quickly swim underneath me – less than a metre away.
I can only imagine how great the snorkeling must be when it is possible to clearly see all of the whales beneath you.
Kayaking with beluga whales
The unpredictable weather continued throughout the day, but we managed to get out on the water later in the afternoon to kayak with the belugas.
Thankfully they had returned back to the bay and the river was eerily calm.
As we began kayaking out, torrential rain hammered down. A short while later, I would discover that my camera had been wrecked.
Before long the rain lightened and we were eventually surrounded by curious beluga whales, sliding out of the silvery water, coming so close to us that you could see the markings on their skin and appreciate their adorable, smiley faces.
We all came to a standstill and just listened.
What we were hearing was not just the usual squeaks. This was more like the sound of an old steam train revving up.
It was the beluga whales breathing.
I looked back towards the shore and noticed a dark cloud was moving towards us. Thunder could be heard moments later and we found ourselves kayaking back as a storm was setting in.
This added some electricity to the already overwhelmingly epic atmosphere.
I hope to venture up to Churchill to see the beluga whales again someday.
Have you ever visited Churchill to see the beluga whales? Or would you like to?