Sunday, July 24, 2011

Day 53: Belugas and the Bay

I got to be a tourist yesterday with Belugas on the Bay, the current learning vacation up here. It turns out, I'm a bad tourist. Mainly, I tend to wander away on my own...

We stopped at the polar bear jail - where the polar bears that become a problem in town are placed during the fall, bear season. They aren't fed in the jail and just hibernate until the ice freezes over. If there are too many bears, the conservation staff will parole the bear that has been there the longest to make space for new ones. The tranquilize the bear, sling it up to a helicopter and transport it 60 km north, up the coast. It takes them several days to make it back to Churchill, but they mostly do come back until the ice forms on the bay. So how do you catch a polar bear? A polar bear trap of course! You dip a rag in seal fat and hang it on the inside of the tube by a rope. The hungry bear will follow his nose into the trap. When he pulls on the rag, trying to eat the "seal," the gate closes behind him and locks him in. There is no tranquilizers involved! The conservation officers then hitch the trap to a truck, drive it out to the bear jail near the airport, back the trap up to a door and bang on the tube until the bear walks into the jail on his own. How do you release a bear onto the ice? Again, unless paroled, the bears are not tranquilized. The conservation officers trick the bears back into the traps, just like before, then drive them to the beach. Open gate and let the bear come out on his own, then drive quickly away. They don't come back once the ice is on the bay. It's a pretty good management system that limits conflict between tourists and bears. Side note, Polar Bear alley is this transect along the coast from Wapusk National Park to the old open landfill where bears used to feed in the burning trash and dirty diapers. The residents got rid of the landfill , partly to eliminate the problems with the bears, partly to live up to modern standards for a landfill, partly to clean up the beach. Now they use the dump in the building, which I've talked about before, and sends trash to Thompson. There is some more talk in Churchill about dealing with the garbage by burying it (CBC interview with Churchill Mayor Mike Spence). We'll see what happens.

First stop: This is one of my favorite flowers in Churchill, the Indian paint brush! It has only opened up this past week, but the buds are beautiful themselves. Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of the bud. Being a tourist let me play with my camera for once!

CNSC manager, Mike Goodyear, was found laying in the wreck of Miss Piggy - a cargo plane that crash landed a few minutes after leaving the Churchill airport in 1979. Moments later he was laughing at his staged joke. No one in the actual crash got hurt so the joke was only slightly morbid!
Back to the boats! We went with Sea North Tours across the Churchill River to Fort Prince of Wales and then to look at the whales.
Again, a bad tourist, I decided to talk to the stone mason and the carpenter who are repairing the walls in the fort instead of following the tourist group. I think it was a good choice. I learned that most of the fort has been reconstructed, but 75% of the original material was reused. I learned that the walls were falling apart even when it was in use so the occupants stuffed whatever they could, scraps of anything and everything, from food scraps to broken cups into the wall to keep it stable, I learned that they say it will take 7 years to finish the restoration, but that's what the original fort designer said and it took him 40 years to finish building the fort - and there are so many little things that keep having to be done. I'm glad I talked to them. I did kinda get yelled at when I wandered around the fort near the archeologists, wondering what they were finding. When I got to them, they strictly told me to leave because I was in a construction area! When I was with LeeAnn at the fort, and a scientist, I could go anywhere. Being a tourist has its down sides.
Next was the beluga whale tour! Yes, belugas are white, but they start out as grey. So the older the animal, the more white and less grey they are. In this picture, you can see the tail. This is really unusual for belugas because they are pretty well trained to keep their tails down when the water is covered in ice. It makes taking distinctive pictures pretty hard!
Pod! Notice the dorsal ridge, not the dorsal fin. It's been reduced in belugas, hypothesized because of the ice.
See the blow hole above water, the eye and the mouth below? It was so hard to get a head picture!
Baby beluga!
Baby beluga, born this year, swam really close to mommy beluga (the white).
The captain turned on the hydrophone so we could hear the beluga whales singing below us, live! Just to give you an impression of the sounds, this video is pretty close (you may want to turn down the speakers).
Parasitic Jaeger or Arctic Skua: this is a gull that doesn't spend time hunting for his own food when it isn't breeding, but instead attacks other gulls that have caught food until those gulls drop the food. Then the jaeger flies down and gets the food. This makes them kleptoparasites! A new concept of kleptomaniac!
This is the mixing zone between the freshwater of the Churchill River, on the right, and the salt water of Hudson Bay on the left. The belugas swam in both waters, trying to catch these small sardine-like fish, capelin.
Bouy to guide the ships into the port so they don't get stuck in the shallows.
Then we went fossil hunting! This paleozoic fossil is bigger than my foot! I will tell you the GPS coordinates if you can tell me what it is and cite me in the paper about the discovery! I'm thinking some sort of invertebrate. Just to give you a reference, this is the time period of the famous trilobites. The largest trilobite ever found was from Churchill! This rock was way too big and heavy to try and carry back.

So after the day on the bus, the boat and the beach, I went to Bear Fest where there was live music and I danced on the grass till 1am with stars in the sky! It was a lot of fun, but no pictures. The sleep deprivation of today was totally worth it. Today was rather boring in comparison - lake sampling, filtering, and black box and now recovery from yesterday!

Special treat: Polar bears in winter


  1. Beluga's are one of my favourite animals :-) Great pictures.

  2. Mine too! I have a beluga whale necklace from when I was really small that I wear all the time. I don't even remember where I got it, but it has always inspired me to get up to the arctic... and here I am!