March 8, 2013 7:17 pm

Swimming with whales in Canada

Every summer, thousands of beluga whales converge in the waters off Churchill, Canada, giving tourists the chance to swim – and sing – alongside them
Beluga whales in the Hudson Bay, close to Churchill©Robert Harding

Beluga whales in the Hudson Bay, close to Churchill

It wouldn’t happen to Sir David Attenborough. I have a rope looped around my ankles and am being towed backwards, face down, through a chilly, tea-coloured ocean. As if that were not indignity enough, I’m gurgling a falsetto version of the British national anthem into my snorkel.

Wildlife viewing is rarely so bizarre – and rarely so thrilling, intimate and profound. Over the next 12 minutes my performance as tone-deaf human live bait attracts about 40 ethereally beautiful beluga whales, some so close we could rub bellies, others hovering within inches of my face. It is, without doubt, one of the most intense experiences of my life.

Ordinarily, fishermen lure sealife by throwing chum (consisting of fish blood or other food) into the water. Here, the guides suggest visitors try a technique they call “vaudeville chumming” – singing underwater, a practice that seems to attract the whales. I’m offering my sub-aqua serenade just off the western shore of Canada’s Hudson Bay, about 30 miles north of Churchill. The small quirky town and its surroundings are a well-established hotspot – or at least the subarctic equivalent – for polar bear watching in October and November. But now locals have realised they also possess a major summer draw for nature enthusiasts: the thousands of belugas that arrive each July and August to calve, moult and gorge on capelin.

I catch my first sight of this prolific gathering from a small plane on the short hop from Churchill to the Seal River Heritage Lodge, my base for the trip. The white whales resemble handfuls of rice casually tossed into the tannin-hued water among abstract swirls of sandbanks. Just inland is the airstrip that services the family-run lodge that has pioneered the unique beluga encounters. Forged from an abandoned scientific research station, it has wood-fired stoves, squashy sofas and panoramic windows overlooking the bay. Door handles are hewn from caribou antlers and polar bear bones, alongside decorative driftwood and books of wilderness photography, adding a cosy edge to the savage isolation.

After a night when the aurora borealis made a modest 3am appearance – more Turneresque daub than bold Rothko – our group rises to brittle 6am sunlight, catching a rising tide that carries our inflatable Zodiacs across the boulder-strewn seabed. On the six-mile journey into the Hudson Bay we pass merganser ducks and bobbing seals, and watch a polar bear ambling along a distant beach under a cloudless cyan sky.

A map of Churchill, Canada

The guide cuts the motor just past the mouth of the Seal River, a signal for the first human live bait to pull on dry suits over their clothes. We expect it to be freezing, but we’re wrong – the plume of fresh water pumping from the river is a relatively toasty 15C, and forms a metre-deep layer above the 2C North Atlantic.

Anticipation is high. While belugas don’t deliver the showboating drama of a breaching humpback or tail-slapping grey whale, they’re remarkable creatures. Adults can reach more than 5m in length and weigh 1,500kg, with a compressible chest cartilage that allows them to dive to 800m or more. With their short round flippers, small blunt heads and a prominent beak, they are – serious marine biologists look away now – ludicrously cute. Like a Disney cartoon character, they appear to permanently smile, although a lack of facial muscle makes this impossible.

They’re certainly curious. As the first swimmer drifts away humming “The Star-Spangled Banner”, a pressure wave betrays the arrival of several belugas. Andy MacPherson, the experienced guide on his seventh season at Seal River Heritage Lodge, steers the Zodiac at its 2mph trawling speed, and whales flock from all sides like iron filings to a magnet. Many investigate the live bait, but at least 10 swarm around the inflatable, their backs breaking the surface of the sea.

What’s spectacular from the boat is amazing in the water. With the rope around my ankles I start my eclectic setlist with a snorkel-mangled “God Save the Queen”. Initially nothing happens – perhaps they’re republican whales. I switch to Rolf Harris’s “Two Little Boys”, and within seconds a large white torpedo emerges from the surrounding murk to swim alongside me, before flashing across close to my mask. It’s not frightening – the worst belugas do is blow bubbles or spit water – but it jump-starts a cold heart.

A group watches whales from an inflatable©Alamy

A group watches whales from an inflatable

As adrenalin subsides, I relax and sing lustily. More friendly spectres appear. Some follow from a distance, including mothers with grey calves, other rise from below, twisting away with split-second timing, while one hovers within a foot of my face, staring into my eyes. As the only whales with seven unfused neck vertebrae, belugas can twist their heads to stare as they swim past. It’s this curiosity, along with the extraordinary numbers, that sets the experience apart from other whale watching.

This is an audio as well as a visual treat. The species are nicknamed Sea Canaries and constantly click, whistle, squeak and chirp, echo-locating off the human live bait. I attempt similar sounds and it appears to spark a two-way conversation. I’m totally lost in the moment.

“It’s a very Zen experience,” says Mike Reimer, the founder and head guide for Churchill Wild, the company which runs Seal River Heritage Lodge. “You’re alone in their world, encountering them on their terms. People sometimes emerge from the water crying. It can be very emotional, even life-changing.”

At one point the guide’s gaze lasers on to a rock 120m from the boat, where a statuesque polar bear silently studies a potential seafood banquet. Each July hundreds of the bears swim ashore off the rapidly melting ice left from the previous winter’s freeze – adding what Reimer calls a “little extra edge” to the encounters. The swimmers are temporarily withdrawn from the water until it’s clear the bear is heading elsewhere. They’re yet to show interest in the dry-suited beluga bait, and the boats only carry shotguns in case they are forced to land away from the safety of the lodge.

A drysuited swimmer gets close to a beluga

A drysuited swimmer gets close to a beluga while being towed behind the boat

By the end of the four-hour trip, everyone has communed with the whales. Some live bait proves tastier than others – the women’s higher- pitched singing seems to be the most alluring – but nobody draws a blank. A second trip, two days later, is equally productive. “If the weather lets you get out, it’s a 100 per cent reliable wildlife encounter,” says Reimer.

It’s also open to all ages – our group ranges from nine to seventysomething – and, thanks to the buoyant dry suit, even to non-swimmers. But the whales are just one aspect of the wildlife on show here. Next day, after an excellent restorative Caribou Wellington, we join two heavily armed guides to stalk a male polar bear who peered through the lodge window earlier that morning. In the course of an hour, we gently approach to within 50m of the animal. He’s simply immense, his lustrous fur contrasting with the green summer landscape. Along with his jiggling rings of hip fat, his condition is evidence of recent weeks spent gorging on seal pups on the shrinking ice.

The Seal River Heritage Lodge

The Seal River Heritage Lodge

The brilliantly white bear is just one part of the region’s diverse wildlife. The combination of boreal forest, tundra and coast is an inviting environment for animals and birds. Over the following few days, we spot bald eagles and watch Arctic hare, before walking through carpets of vibrant purple fireweed. In late August millions of migrating geese arrive; in September and October, 500,000 caribou pass through.

They’re a gift for Churchill Wild, but tourists remain rare in this hostile terrain. Seal River is one of only two lodges north of Churchill on Hudson Bay’s vast western shore. “The Canadian Arctic is a completely untapped resource,” says Reimer. “Africa has hundreds of wilderness lodges; here there’s nothing.”

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Details

Ian Belcher was a guest of Abercrombie and Kent, which offers an all-inclusive eight-day Polar Bears and Beluga Whales trip from £5,975 per person, including flights from Toronto and transfers (or £6,995 including flights from London)

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The day of the atoll

The author (and expert diver) Frederick Forsyth finds scuba heaven in warmer waters.

I probably should not say this, but I’m going to anyway; frankly, I find beaches boring. Now I know that every travel writer I ever read, dealing with a tropical island or mainland resort, went on and on about the beach. It’s enormous, it’s long, it’s made of gleaming white sand (well it would be, wouldn’t it? As Mandy Rice-Davies might say). And so on and on.

But what can you honestly do on a beach? You only need 4 sq ft to sit on and three times that to lie prostrate. They don’t go anywhere, do anything or change into anything. They are just there, inert between the foreshore and the water. You can walk along them and when you get to the end turn round and come back.

If you turn through 90 degrees you enter the shallows. Look down and what do you see? More beach. Wade waist deep, put on a face-mask and shove your head in. What do you see? Beach. Is anything happening down there, any fish moving, any life at all? Nope, just that white coral sand.

Scuba diving on the ‘house reef’ at the Park Hyatt

Scuba diving on the ‘house reef’ at the Park Hyatt

And does it ever occur to ask how it got there? Well, it was the parrot fish wotdunnit. The colourful fellow takes his fused chisel teeth and grinds away at the coral until he has two cheeks full of gravel. Then he swallows. His guts extract what minimal nutrient there is in dead coral then grinds up the rest into fine white talc and expels it. Wait a million years and you have a coral sand beach. So that is what the travel writers are raving about. Fish droppings.

Now me, I’m a coral reef buff. I find these multi-thousand inhabitant ecosystems fascinating and I have snorkelled and dived an awful lot of them, from Lizard Island, Queensland through to Cabo Pulmo, Mexico, the long way round, and that includes the Maldives.

So it was while riffling through a promotional piece about the Maldives that my eye caught the phrase “spectacular house reef” and stopped. I know the Maldives pretty well (14 visits, a dozen resorts) but this one was new to me – a recently opened Park Hyatt hideaway islet in the deep south, hardly touched by tourism so far.

It’s a strange country; basically around 1,200 coral islands in 26 scattered atolls spread in a north-south chain more than 500 miles long. The highest point in the republic is 2.4 metres above sea level, so mountaineers might wish to stay away. About 200 islands are inhabited by Maldivians, a gentle and courteous people, devout Muslims without being strident about it, who used to subsist on basket weaving, tie-dying cloth and fishing mainly tuna. The other thousand islands were uninhabited but now host about 130 resorts.

The Park Hyatt is in the unexplored deep south of the Maldives, specifically on Hadahaa Island in North Huvadhoo atoll just south of the One and a half Degree Channel. That odd-sounding waterway means one and a half degrees above the equator. It is fiercely hot when not blessed with welcome showers; no sunblock under 50 should be attempted for fear of a tiresome burn.

And it was quite a long slog to get there. First it was Gatwick to Male, the capital with the international airport. Then a quick canter down to domestic departures to catch the next Maldivian Air departure for the south. First stop, something unpronounceable. A wait in the heat. Another 30-minute hop to Kooddoo. Met by a buggy for the half-mile run to the jetty. A speedboat for 30 minutes the last 10 miles to the speck of Hadahaa.

As I hauled the old corpus up the last jetty towards reception I thought “This had better be worth it.” Well, gentles all, it is. It is tiny, covering far less than a tenth of a square mile.

From above it looks like a doughnut, perfectly circular. At the centre are the staff quarters, stores, fridges and power generating machinery, but buried in deep palm and pandanus forest. Outside them is the ring of villas, 20 with their own private plunge pool and 16 without. The encircling lagoon is penetrated by three jetties: the Dusk Jetty facing north for guests, the Dawn Jetty facing south, mainly for resupply steamers, and the walkway on piles above the water facing west, hosting the 14 over-water villas.

The common parts are grouped in a convenient cluster. They include the guest salon in the form of a huge inverted dhoni boat, two restaurants serving excellent food – part Maldivian, part Subcontinent/Oriental and part Western. Add to that the bar, reception, gift shop, exercise/yoga hall, spa and dive centre. All you need, really.

I am not really into spas; my wife, Sandy, who stayed behind in the UK, would have been in and out like a fiddler’s elbow. But, like the questing vole, I indulged in a blissful massage. The spa consists of five private “treatment” villas, each set in a walled garden, and extensively uses Maldivian oils, fruits, flowers, scents and spices including lemon grass and nutmeg oil.

For me the magnet was the dive centre, presided over by the marine biologist Arabella Willing, a British general’s daughter, and Italian diving instructor Marco Fregosi. While others confined themselves to the two enormous infinity pools, I wanted to see the house reef. So Arabella led me down to the end of the Dusk Jetty, we pulled on the fins and mask and went off the quay. And there it was – a magical wonder world of living reef: stag and elk horn, huge plates one above the other, brain and fire coral, all alive with myriad small fish drifting and flitting from clump to clump.

One of the hotel’s oceanview villas

One of the hotel’s oceanview villas

I counted 10 varieties of hard coral and a few soft, waving like fronds in the breeze; and more than 20 fish types, though I was told there are 50 or more down there.

Clouds of the usual suspects – butterfly fish, surgeon and sergeant-majors, angelfish and unicorns, a lion fish hovering like a bantam beneath his venomous feathers, a stonefish between the rocks (also with deadly spines) and dear little Nemo, the clownfish, peering out from his home amid the poisoned anemone flowers to which he is immune.

After an hour drifting in the warm water it was time for a light lunch under awnings by the pool, then a nap at the villa, a freshener in the plunge pool, a change into white cotton togs and a glass or two on the beach as the sun went down. Then dinner under the stars.

The theme of the resort is polished stone, terrazzo and burnished timber from Indonesia, designed by Singaporean architects. With a hundred guests and 175 staff, service is rapid and total. Oh, and no mozzies. Every night the entire mini-jungle is “fogged” and anyway Hadahaa is 10 miles from the nearest neighbour island, and mozzies can’t fly that far without a tailwind. So even at night, with the patio doors wide open to the sonata of the waves on the shore I never heard that whining song of the hunting female anopheles that can leave you a mass of lumps in the morning.

On my last day Marco took a fast Boston Whaler and we motored the 15 minutes over to the Dhaandhoo Channel, which cuts through from the enormous inland lake of the atoll to the 2,000m depth of the Indian Ocean. Here the eagle ray prowl, with green turtles and the endangered hawksbill, and harmless sharks: leopard, nurse, black-tip and grey reef.

Departing meant a pre-dawn scoot across to Kooddoo for the first plane in order to make the 11.20 departure from Male to Gatwick. Like I said, it’s a bore to get to but heaven once you’re there.

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Frederick Forsyth was a guest of the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa. A week’s package, including half board and air and boat transfers from Male, costs from $7,280 for two; nightly rates for villas start at $1.040

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