noticed that belugas look less like traditional
whales and more like dolphins with swollen
heads. The bump on their foreheads is called
a melon, an echolocation organ that acts
like sonar and earns belugas the nickname
Yet belugas — whose closest relative is the
unicorn-horned narwhal — are also referred
to as sea canaries because of the high-pitched
sounds they make. And indeed, these creatures
are very chatty, and we were encouraged to sing
to them because they appear to love it.
“Singing seems to bring them on, and they
tend to respond to women’s voices,” Kemick
said. “I’m not sure if it’s because it’s a high pitch,
or if it’s something else. “
I remembered “Baby Beluga,” a childhood
song by children’s entertainer Raffi, about a
little singing beluga whale. I sang the refrain
all through the estuary as the belugas swam
around my kayak. The song seemed to trans-
port me back in time, and I was overcome with
emotion in the surreal moment. My 9-year-old
self would never have imagined that one day
I’d be singing my favorite Raffi song to a pod
With that tidbit of information, Kemick
pushed my boat out into the water.
There were already other kayakers on the
river, and I could hear them giggling and laughing as the belugas came up to their boats. They
are not small creatures — especially up close.
Adult males can sometimes weigh up to 3,300
pounds and span 18 feet long.
“They’re playing with my GoPro!” I heard
one boater say. I saw him holding onto an extended camera stick that went underwater,
where his action camera was attached. I can
only imagine the footage he’ll be watching later.
All of a sudden, I felt a bump underneath
my kayak, and the back end rose up out of the
water. I wondered in panic if I had hit a beluga.
I tried to steady myself, knowing my narrow
craft was already precarious enough.
“Be careful those belugas don’t tip you
over,” Kemick said as he rode over to me on an
inflatable kayak. “Belugas love to use kayaks as
I didn’t know whether to laugh at their
cleverness or panic at the though of winding up
in the water.
As I made my way through the estuary, I
Sea North Tours
The experience was incredible because it was
an authentic and genuine interaction between
two species. These are not trained animals in
an aquarium that are instructed to hang out
with humans. Belugas honestly want to check
people out, satisfy their own curiosity and stay
and play for a while. There’s absolutely nothing
forced about it.
Unlike dolphins and whales, the vertebrae
in a beluga’s neck are not fused together, so
they can turn their heads. I did not realize this
until a fluorescent white beluga floated toward
my kayak then turned and looked me straight
in the eye — I was not prepared.
“Bear season is huge for this town,” Kemick
said. “But I would pick beluga whales over
bears any day of the week because the experience is beyond interactive. You don’t want a
bear swimming up and knocking over your
kayak. If you do, you’ve got a different situation
going on!” X
The bump on a beluga’s
forehead is called a melon,
an echolocation organ that
acts like sonar.