The White Whale

Wednesday 21 February, 19.15–20.00 pn FIVE

Daredevil explorer Monty Halls continues his investigation of rare and magnificent beasts of the deep. In tonight’s programme, he is in Canada on the trail of the white – or beluga – whale.

Monty’s adventure begins in the cold, fogdrenched waters of Newfoundland on Canada’s eastern seaboard. It’s an area with a history of commercial whaling, but this bloody practice has long since been banned, so the numbers of species like humpback whales – once hunted to near-extinction – are now rising. At Petty Harbour, local dive operator Rick Stanley takes Monty out in search of these 50-foot creatures. After only moments on the water the pair are rewarded with a sighting of a whole family of the creatures. “It’s a thrilling, thrilling sight!” enthuses Monty, who is humbled to think that the whale’s pectoral fin alone is more than twice the length of his own body.

And the thrills don’t end there. Later, Monty helps marine-mammal specialist Dr Jack Lawson track a humpback and take a biopsy – a small sample of skin and blubber that will provide vital information about the creature’s lifestyle and history. Ironically, the tool Monty uses to capture this sample is a crossbow not unlike those that were once used routinely to kill the whales. The difference here is the specially designed arrows, which only penetrate the whale so far before recoiling back out. As the arrows return, they contain samples that enable scientists to learn more about the creature they are looking to help.

There are no beluga whales in these cold waters, so Monty leaves Newfoundland and heads northwest into Canada’s interior to Hudson Bay. His specific destination is the small town of Arviat on the western side of the bay, where beluga whales gather in large numbers in summer. The Inuit people who make up the majority of this town’s community are still permitted to hunt beluga to get them through the long, harsh winters. Local fisherman James Tagalik agrees to take Monty out in search of the whales. Unfortunately, two hours of speeding around the bay prove fruitless so the pair head back to land – where there is an unexpected wildlife treat of a different kind.

Although Arviat’s main caribou hunt – a major local event – is not due to take place for months, James and Monty get word that the herd is on the move. “For the people who live here this is a really great opportunity to stock up on some meat,” explains Monty, who is once more struck by the close relationship between the townspeople and their natural environment.

Back on the trail of the beluga, the team decides to head 200 miles south down the coast of Hudson Bay to the tiny community of Churchill, home to some 850 residents and, each summer, around 3,500 belugas, who migrate here to calve in the shallow fresh waters of the Churchill River. Also prevalent here are polar bears, whose cuddly appearance belies the fact that they are highly dangerous. There is even a local practice of leaving cars and buildings open so that passers-by can use them as impromptu refuges if they come face to face with one of these large predators.

But when Monty heads into the Churchill River estuary, which flows into Hudson Bay, he has only one creature on his mind. He has been told that a beluga sighting is almost guaranteed in these waters, which apparently often resemble “a carpet of whales”. But as he has learned from previous ocean adventures, nothing can be taken for granted. “To see whales at all in their natural environment is a real privilege,” he says. “I just hope that the beluga whales I’m looking for will grant me that opportunity.”

About the author

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1