Beluga whales are proving to be charming participants in the latest webcam project of explore.org. as it livestreams the animals where the Churchill River meets Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba.
Thousands of belugas migrate hundreds of kilometres each summer from the Hudson Strait in the east to the warmer waters of river estuaries on the western side of the bay to feed, mate and rear their young.
This year, their activities are being captured in real time by cameras mounted underwater and on the bow of a small Zodiac boat, which trolls the water for a few hours each day, Monday to Friday.
Much like dolphins and other marine mammals, beluga whales don't appear shy in the vicinity of people and will swim alongside, or underneath, the 4.2-metre (14-foot) Zodiac. Sometimes, they rub along the side of the boat.
“They’re curious and they’re somewhat uninhibited in a way, and friendly, and so when they hear the boats they have a tendency to swing closer, and after that the cameras capture the images,” said Charles Annenberg Weingarten, founder of explore.org, the same educational multimedia organization that livestreams the lives of polar bears at Cape Churchill on the Western Hudson Bay every October and November.
"Sometimes they can be kind of playful and docile and they will swim under the boat," he told CBC News. "When they're in a playful curious mode, they'll come right up."
"Belugas are like Casper the friendly ghost ... magical," he said.
The belugas near Churchill, Man., are attracted not only to the sound of the boat's engine, but also by songs by the Beatles, preferring them to other types of music, according to Neil Mumby, the tour guide operator who pilots the boat.
“When the Beatles are playing, there are always whales,” writes Numby on the team's blog. “But when I change the music, they disappear.”
The boat goes out at high tide and the cameras' best viewing hours are between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. CT.
The webcam project began at the beginning of August and will continue "as long as the belugas are there" and the weather holds up, said explore.org team member Tom Pollak.
Whale expert Pierre Richard with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans believes belugas swim to estuaries formed by the Seal, Nelson and Church rivers in northern Manitoba each summer not only to molt their skin in fresh water, but also to find protection from predators like killer whales, which could easily get stranded in the more shallow waters.
It's estimated the western Hudson Bay beluga population totals 57,000, making up about 35 per cent of the world's total. Marine biologists estimate 27,000 migrate to the Churchill River estuary alone.