Next week, a troupe of 10 — including a contortionist and an opera singer — plans to put on the first in a series of summertime shows for thousands of beluga whales near the mouth of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba.
Artist Laura Magnusson, one of the organizers, has been "drawn in by the sub-Arctic sirens" since she first met the belugas in 2011. Since then, she has been going to Churchill to play music for the whales as they congregate over the warmer months.
Using a specially designed boat and underwater speaker system, she and fellow artist Kaoru Ryan Klatt play and sing various kinds of music to the beluga pods — with surprising results.
"We have had experiences playing clarinet or playing glockenspiel, using our voices ... and there have been times when there has been mimicry between the belugas and our vocal gestures and vice versa," Magnusson said. "We sort of shared this space together and it felt like a connection."
The southwestern coast of Hudson Bay becomes home to one of the largest concentrations of belugas in the world as sea ice recedes in the summer. About 57,000 migrate to estuaries in the region to feed and give birth.
Magnusson and Klatt pilot their inflatable boat to a corner of the Churchill River near the mouth of the bay and spend 12 hours a day there, connecting with the whales through music. Some of the whales have already demonstrated discriminating musical tastes.
"They have responded to different instruments more," Magnusson said. "We noticed in our first year that they really were interested in the glockenspiel ... Maybe they haven't heard that kind of sound before. That sound seemed to resonate with them."
The whales this year will be exposed to some acts many humans don't have the pleasure of witnessing. Contortionist Samantha Halas is set to perform for the whales on stilts bolted to a platform on the boat. Magnusson said she isn't sure exactly when that performance will take place, but one thing's certain — "It will be a very calm day."
Other artists include musician Jim Nollman, who plans to entertain the belugas on an electric mandolin, and Jamie Woollard, who is to perform remotely from Montreal and improvise on piano.
"It's a bit unusual to perform for another animal," Magnusson acknowledged.
The series, running through July and August, can be viewed by humans online at becomingbeluga.com
Performers will not be chasing the whales. Nor will they impose their music or art on the sea creatures. Every effort is made to be respectful and gentle, and to allow the whales to attend the performance if they are interested, Magnusson said.
"We invite the whales to come into this space with us," she said. "The whales are free to swim past us. The Churchill estuary at the mouth of Hudson Bay is a pretty big region."
The unusual concept has drawn a positive response from a Canadian musician who, while not serenading belugas, has used them in a popular children's song. Entertainer Raffi Cavoukian — known to millions of kids by his first name alone — wrote "Baby Beluga."
"Beluga suite," he tweeted Thursday.