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Bears and belugas

C
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Mike Unwin gets up close and personal with the wildlife along the remote shores of Hudson Bay


We've got company," says Mike. "Better grab your buckets."


I straighten up, wiping cloudberry-smeared hands down my jeans, and follow Mike's nod towards the ridge. A polar bear is emerging from the dwarf willows. First, glimpses of white, then the whole animal ambling onto the skyline. Our scent brings him to a halt, head swinging as his keen nose combs the breeze. Just 150 metres of hummocky tundra separates berry pickers from bear.


"Easy, big guy," Mike calls out, in a reassuring Manitoba drawl. "We were just leaving." With that he ushers us into practised single-file and we tramp back towards the lodge, acting casual. Mike brings up the rear, gun in one hand, ice-cream tub of cloudberries in the other. We've got plenty for tomorrow's pancakes, he tells us, so best to leave the big guy in peace.


I don't recall such hazards on childhood blackberrying excursions. The odd irate wasp, perhaps, but not the world's largest terrestrial predator. Then again, this is not the Home Counties. I'm on the shores of Hudson Bay, some 60km north of Churchill, Manitoba. And the cluster of wooden cabins into which we now stumble is Seal River Heritage Lodge. Out front lies four million square kilometres of bay; out back a wilderness of tundra and taiga that stretches unbroken across half a continent. I don't think I've ever enjoyed homespun hospitality anywhere quite so remote.

 

POLAR BEAR CAPITAL OF THE WORLD


But polar bears no longer faze us. We've already met them closer than this – just 40 metres away yesterday, when we crept up to a shingle ridge while one lounged in a tidal pool on the other side. And a quick scan from the lodge's watchtower invariably reveals at least one of our furry white neighbours roaming the horizon.


Not that Mike Reimer, who runs the lodge with his wife Jeanne, would ever allow guests to become blasé. "See that door?" he said, when we first entered and he closed it behind us. "Well, it's no longer a door. From now on, we go out the back." A lowdown on bear protocol followed. Essentially, stick close to our guides and do what they say; they know the bears, and though they carry an arsenal of deterrents – from firecracker to shotgun – little more than the occasional shout should ever be required.


The closed doors were reassuring when a young female bear came nosing around just as we sat down to dinner. We watched her circle the compound, no doubt savouring the aroma of snow goose casserole with wild rosemary. And who could blame her? The lodge menu – all Jeanne's family recipes based on fresh wilderness ingredients – is reason alone to maroon yourself in the tundra for a spell.


Hudson Bay is famous for its polar bears, which gather from late summer, waiting for the winter ice that will take them out across the sea in search of seals. Indeed, Churchill, where we spent one night before boarding our floatplane to the lodge, styles itself 'Polar Bear Capital of the World'. The ice and blizzards to come are hard to imagine now, though, with the land luxuriating in such midsummer plenty. The tundra is bursting with berries, sulphur butterflies dance around the purple fireweed, and the air rings with bird calls, from shrill sandpipers to bugling sandhill cranes.


Summer has also brought another large, white mammal to the Hudson Bay: one that is more fins than fur. Every year, more than 25,000 beluga whales – around a quarter of the world's population – migrate to the western shores, where they gather in the shallows to give birth and slough off their old skin. I've already seen them from the air, scattered like rice over the dark water as we banked to land at Churchill. Now on a late evening walk to the shore we watch their white backs flashing above the waves. Binoculars reveal their spouts, backlit by the low sun, detonating for miles along the coast.

 

TAKING THE PLUNGE


Belugas are among the most beguiling of cetaceans. But there's only so much you can appreciate from the shore – and Mike has something better in store. And so it is that by 7am the next morning I am perched on the side of a Zodiac, encased in my Michelin-man dry suit, staring into the cold, dark water.


The drill sounded simple enough when Mike briefed us last night: "Just float and sing," he explained, "as high and as loudly as you can." But now, as I adjust mask and snorkel, lower myself overboard and allow our guide, Andy, to slip the line over my feet, I'm not so sure. The boat chugs slowly away, towing me behind, and I feel my confidence ebbing away into the murk.


No sooner are my ears under the surface, however, than I hear the belugas.


Not for nothing are these sociable cetaceans known as 'sea canaries'. Their strange submarine communication pulses around me like radio static, buzzing, clicking and squealing. Remembering my instructions, I start warbling into my mouthpiece (the William Tell Overture, since you ask) while trying not to swallow too much sea.


Something pale enters the sepia-tinted edge of my vision. A beluga? No need to wonder, when another looms up from below and hangs within touching distance: a four-metre white whale staring me straight in the eye. Breathing like Darth Vader, I take in the quizzical dolphin smile, bulbous forehead and button eyes. It slips away, only to be replaced by three more cruising past directly below. They peer up at me with naked curiosity.


For the next 15 minutes the belugas come and go. I have up to a dozen around me at a time: individuals, mothers with calves, companionable pods of four or five. I sing when I remember but mostly I just gawp. It is a genuinely dreamlike experience.


A day later and I'm high over Hudson Bay once again, as the floatplane ferries us back to Churchill. Peering down on the now-familiar landscape rolling out far below it's not long before I spy white dots scattered across the shallows at the mouth of the Seal River. Then another white dot, sauntering out along a spit. Bears and belugas: I'd know 'em anywhere now.

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