Latest News

beluga whales

It's like no fish this beluga whale has ever seen before.

Deep in the Arctic ocean, daylight obscured by layers of ice and snow, the majestic animal has just come face to face with a scuba diver.

In the midst of the freezing waters of northern Russia's White Sea, the belugas seem fascinated by the humans - and vice-versa.

The encounter is taking place at a special whale sanctuary designed and built by marine biologists from St Petersburg University.

Up close: A beluga whale, Delphinapterus leucas, eyes a diver a few feet away as it swims under ice at the Arctic circle Dive Center in the White Sea, Karelia, northern Russia

The 'natural farm' acts as a nursery for breeding whales, as well as acting as a rehabilitation centre for former performing animals before they are set into the wild.

The natural bay under the ice means that the whales are protected from the strong currents of the wider ocean and left to breed in peace, while also leaving them free to roam as they wish.

These wild whales are not endangered, but are considered to be threatened by pollution and loss of habitat.

Occasionally, guests at the local Arctic Circle Dive Centre can swim with the friendly giants, and get close enough to touch.

Arctic diver and photographer, Franco Banfi, 58, who captured these shots said: 'When a whale comes up to us and swims by, it looks you right in the eyes. Obviously we don't know what they think, but they are very curious creatures.

Close encounter: A scuba diver braves temperatures of -10C to approach the whale

Sometimes, I'm sure they're trying to figure out what we are and where we came from.

'As photographer, I've always been driven to bring photographs of animals one hardly ever sees to a printed page.'

But while the beluga, or white whale, is built for these harsh surroundings, the diving team face extremely tough conditions to get close to the gentle creatures.

Before each dive the team have to create holes in the three-foot-deep ice using a hand saw, just to get through to the sea below.

Once they're in they have to swim around in heavy layers of clothes to keep alive in the -10C waters

Open wide: The whale tries to eat the camera, unsure of what it is

And it's definitely a case of choosing the short straw for one volunteer who gets to stay above ground in -30C winds, making sure the ice hole doesn't freeze over and trap the group.

'Photographing a story in very cold water can turn into a logistical nightmare,' admits Franco.

'But, if we are well trained, the underwater part of things is not really as harsh as you might think.'

'When we come out on land, temperatures can get down to -10C or -20C and things will instantly freeze, so we can barely move.

'Cold itself will not hurt the equipment, but it may slow down some of its functions as well as our own.

Safe: The animals in the natural farm are a mix of wild animals and former performing animals, who are allowed to rehabilitate in the safe environment before being released into the ocean

Because of the ice-layer and snow cover, there is not sufficient light to shoot with ambient light and batteries lose their charge more quickly in cold weather.'

Franco added that he was keen to show the beauty of the undersea world to those who can't face the icy deep themselves.

'As photographer, I've always been driven to bring photographs of animals one hardly ever sees to a printed page,' he said.

'I want to see these amazing animals in a way that only a few people have seen and I want to share it with others.'


Leave a Reply