Half a dozen beluga whales dive and resurface around tourist paddle boards in Canada’s Hudson Bay, a handful of about 55,000 of the creatures that migrate from the Arctic to the bay’s more temperate waters each summer.
Far from the Seine, where a beluga got lost north of Paris in early August, the estuaries that feed the bay in northern Canada provide a haven for baby beluga to give birth in relatively warm and sheltered conditions.
In the murky bay, the belugas, with small dark eyes and big smiles, seem to be enjoying the presence of a group of tourists who have traveled to the remote town of Churchill — home to about 800 residents and only accessible by train and plane — to watch the whales watch.
The bay is frozen over for more than seven months of the year, between November and June.
The thaw marks the beluga’s return to port, where they are protected from orcas and feed on the rich food found in the estuaries.
The gray color of the young whales contrasts with the brilliant white adults as they glide through the water in packs, all the while communicating through their own sounds.
– hydrophone –
Nicknamed “canaries of the sea” because of the 50 or so different vocalizations — whistles, clicks, chirps, and screeches — they emit, Belugas are “social butterflies” and “Sound is the glue of this society,” said Valeria Vergara, who has known them for years educated.
“Belugas are sound-centric species, and sounds are really like visions to us,” the Raincoast Conservation Foundation researcher told AFP.
Using the loudspeaker of a hydrophone, the 53-year-old scientist tries to distinguish the multitude of sounds from below – a cacophony for the untrained ear.
“They have to rely on sound to communicate, and they also rely on sound to find echolocations, to find their way … to find food,” said Vergara, who has identified “contact calls” that occur between members of a group are used.
Newborn belugas, which are about 1.8 meters long and weigh about 80 kilos, remain dependent on their mother for two years.
As an adult, the mammal, which generally grows in the frigid waters around Greenland and northern Canada, Norway and Russia, can grow up to six meters long and live anywhere between 40 and 60 years.
The Hudson Bay beluga population is the largest in the world.
But retreating ice due to climate change in an area that is warming three to four times faster than the rest of the planet is worrisome for researchers.
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