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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Singing with Belugas

Air Date: Week of

Thar she blows! (Photo: Mark Seth Lender ©)

The numbers of Beluga whales are dramatically down. But at their resting place in Hudson Bay, Canada, writer Mark Seth Lender was lucky to have a close musical encounter with a group of Beluga whales, and one in particular.


GELLERMAN: The Beluga is known as the white whale because of its color and the sea canary because of its high-pitched songs. The Beluga is prey for polar bears, killer whales and Arctic people. And it’s under threat from pollution and industrial development. The population down, by half, in just 15 years.

A family of Beluga whales. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender ©)

Hudson Bay in Canada is one of the last strongholds of the Beluga and it is there that writer Mark Seth Lender got up close and personal with a snow white whale.

LENDER: From the crow's nest Hudson Bay is all aglow, green as the land. Ploughed by flukes and pectoral fins the surface churns in lazy furrowed rows. The hours grow short. The day drifts. The season of sun is coming to an end. There she blows! White whale! We tack toward the spray.

Less than a fathom down, herded close in the wavy light that bathes their spouts and warms their bones; steady and slow. On the black ground of the sea, calved from snow and floating ice, these are the full-grown. Between them, all in gray, are the young and the very young who cling at the breast that is full as a world. From the low boat, I watch whales rove. Their backs rise like half-moons, and their spray rainbows.

A pod of Beluga whales, Seal River inlet, Hudson Bay. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender ©)

There she sounds! Hudson Bay opaque blue, rough as a cooper’s file. Weather crowds her now. A hard peace abounds…

In hood and dry suit I tumble in. I am patient, face buried in the coal-cellar dark of water. Only the perilous emptiness now. Not one whale… It is said if you sing to the whale, whales will come, and sing in reply. I give them opera in drowned tones. And as the notes drift down shadows play below, and at the second stanza I am surrounded. And if I stop they leave and if I sing they stay and now sing back to me. Then, with no warning, as if to mark and take my measure, a whale takes the fingers of my right hand gentle into her mouth, and lets me go.

Now the Arctic winter sets and the pack ice grows thick as rock, pressure ridged into giant loaves. And I think of that parting kiss and wonder if she dives to great depth and with that same mouth rips squid pod from limb and tears the codfish from his fins or swallows him whole? Or is she now among the eyeless carcasses I’ve seen, Belugas stripped of their fat and the meat left to rot on the bone?

GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender is the author of “Salt Marsh Diary – A Year on the Connecticut Coast.” There’s an underwater video of the Belugas Mark encountered at our web site: LOE dot org.

Beluga Whales are known for their singing. Less well known is what happens when you "sing" back. Watch Mark Seth Lender’s underwater encounter with the White whales who were drawn to his song.



Listen to the backstory of Mark’s encounter with Beluga whales.

Mark Seth Lender’s website


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