Written by Amos Nachoum
Imagine being under the ice in the White Sea of Northern Russia and feeling warm and cold at the same time. How can this be? Because I was underwater in the company of three Beluga named Yegor, Kuzya and Kesha. The images you see here are of Kuzya. Yes, the water is freezing (29F or -1C) while outside the sun is bright, reflecting off the ice making the outside temperature 20F or 5C.
I found the Beluga welcoming and friendly. They will come within a few a feet of your lens and make faces, blow bubbles and inspect you with their small eyes. However, to arrive at this moment takes time and patience. Incredibly, these gentle whales seem able to sense the diver’s emotional state of mind. I was lucky to get these images….
Maria, the caretaker of the Belugas, (keeper and trainer are very negative words) described this incident. When a Yogi entered the water, the whales dove swiftly away aggressively thrashing their tails. The Yogi exited the water! On the other hand, when I was there two weeks ago, a 12-yr-old Russian girl had a very different experience. She was not a diver, however she stood on the ice and put her hand in the water. Instantly, a Beluga raised its head above the water several times to get her attention. Then she placed her tiny palm on the whale’s melon-head…clearly both felt a sense of connection.
I wonder how the Beluga saw me? What a contrast between their grace and my cumbersome movement: dressed in a dry suit, with a heavy undergarment, dry gloves, 28 lbs around my waist, scuba tank on my back and camera with strobes. I was missing only the kitchen sink!!!
Achieving buoyancy control is a must. Waiting motionless for the whales to scan me builds trust and allows them to feel safe in my presence. Staying still for 10 minutes in frigid water is a long wait. But with each dive our encounters became more intimate. Gradually the Beluga allowed me to get closer to their surface opening in the ice. They are vulnerable near their breathing-hole and may become agitated with strangers present. My patience paid off. I had gained their confidence.
In March 2013, I am planning for a follow up adventure to Russia. The trip will include diving with the Beluga, a visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg, renowned for it’s unique architecture.
There is a controversy regarding these Beluga whales. They are not wild. They are protected in a contained environment in an area where they were once hunted. Prior to my trip I knew these Beluga were raised and maintained in nearly natural conditions. During my investigation in Russia I discovered they are sold to aquariums to mate with captive females, to breed in captivity, in order to minimize future hunting.
I am torn between my responsibility as a photojournalist and a adventure planner. Without first scouting and exploring I could not bring such issues to light. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to get close up images of Beluga in the wild. Does increasing our knowledge and respect for this elusive animal justify keeping it in captivity?
I hope you will join me in exploring this controversy.
Keep your fins wet and spirit wondering.