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
They don’t get visitors in these parts that often.
That’s because these beluga whales live under three feet of ice in the freezing waters of northern Russia’s White Sea.
But when some underwater photographers arrived, they certainly weren’t shy – as these stunning images show. The whales are not endangered but under threat from pollution and loss of habitat. (Pics)
They are thriving, however, at this whale sanctuary, where a natural bay under the ice provides a haven from the strong currents of the wider ocean.
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.
Photographer Franco Banfi, who took these shots after his team carved through the ice with a handsaw, said: ‘When a whale comes up to us and swims by, it looks you right in the eyes. Sometimes, I’m sure they’re trying to figure out what we are and where we came from.
I’ve always been driven to take photographs of animals one hardly ever sees.’
The whale sanctuary was designed and built by marine biologists from St Petersburg University.
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.
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.
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.
The animals in the natural farm are a mix of wild animals and former performing animals
‘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.’
Via Daily Mail