Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita)
From Wired by Pete Brook
There is no road to the White Sea Biological Station, which sits at latitude 66° N on the cusp of the Arctic Circle.
Located on the shores of its namesake, the White Sea, the only way to get there is by boat in summer and snowmobile in winter since the waters of Kandalaksha Bay are frozen six months out of the year.
Inside the station is an unlikely photo studio where Alexander Semenov, 25, is sharing his stunning photographs of arctic sea creatures with the global online community.
“I’m trying to act like the Discovery channel, but as a single unit,” says Semenov.
A marine biologist, photographer and head of the WSBS deep-sea diving team, Semenov has been stationed at the WSBS since 2007.
Over the years he’s developed a worldwide audience for his photography using Behance, Flickr and his personal blog and website.
Pteropod mollusk sea angel (Clione limacina)
“I think all the people in the world know how tigers and lions looks like, but only a few ever know about scyphozoan jellies – that they can grow up to 3 meters in diameter and have tentacles of 36 meters,” says Semenov.
“I’m trying to bring these hidden worlds to the masses and it’s much easier to do with internet.”
Semenov’s first ventures into deep-sea photography were merely experiments.
He spent his first summer at the research center, operated by the Biology Department of Lomonosovs Moscow State University, photographing invertebrates in the laboratory without any professional equipment.
With an entry-level camera, low-light conditions and shaking tripod, Semenov was only able to make a few shots he describes as “not so bad” that he shared with his enthusiastic crew.
Soon after, the official WSBS underwater camera sunk – a loss Semenov actually considers a stroke of luck.
“We decided to buy a Canon 400D with some good macro lenses, underwater strobes and housing. When I got this piece of equipment, underwater photography became part of my job.”
Semenov grew up in a family of biologists, surrounded by “hundreds of books about nature, oceans and animals.”
He focused on biology at gymnasium (the high school equivalent in Russia) and went on to specialize in marine invertebrates and squid brains at Lomonosovs Moscow State University.
At age 19 and in his third year of University, he had his first underwater dive and his passion for deep sea science was fixed.
“When you read about marine life it’s interesting, but it’s only theoretical knowledge,” says Semenov. “When you see all this life with your own eyes it’s an amazing experience. It was at that point I became a ‘real’ marine biologist.”
Semenov’s photographs have been used by scientists, teachers, book authors and encyclopedia editors around the world.
His team has identified species that were previously unknown to inhabit the waters of the White Sea, but he says it is rare that his team discovers a new species entirely.
“The important thing is not to find new species but to understand how every creature you already know lives,” says Semenov.
“There is not so much information about underwater worlds, because scientific diving isn’t old at all, 60 years maybe. I try to make snapshots of the life-cycles of the animals I see: growth, feeding, copulation, reproduction, birth and death – all these moments can be seen and photographed.”
Skeleton shrimp (Caprella septentrionalis)
Gearheads will approve of his equipment: He uses a Canon 5DM2 body with a Canon 100mm/f2.8L macro lens in Subal housing with Inon Z-240 strobes, but for Semenov, the photos are more about the experiences behind them.
“Nobody knows what you feel on the other side of the camera,” says Semenov, who considers his photographs of a sea angel his biggest triumph (Clione limacina, seen on slide 3 in the gallery above).
“The sea angel is a planktonic pteropod mollusk, that lost its shell in the evolution process and became a swimmer,” explains Semenov.
“Sea angels feed exclusively on Sea Butterflies (Limacina Helicina), also pteropod mollusks. Angels have six large hook-shaped buccal conuses, hidden inside their head; weapons with which to catch sea butterflies. When a sea angel hunts, its head divides in two parts and the hooks pull out.”
“All this process in the hunt lasts only for seconds, and sea angels swim at a crazy speed, but I shot it. Technically, I think it’s my most amazing photo,” adds Semenov.
With only 40 to 60 minutes underwater on any given dive, Semenov also makes many photos in the laboratory where he uses a Canon 8-15mm fisheye, 16-35mm/f2.8L II and a Canon MP-E.
“In the laboratory you have unlimited time and hot tea, so it’s much more comfortable to work,” Semenov stresses.
But Semenov is not satisfied with his output just yet.
He’s looking for more modern equipment to ramp up the resolution on his images.
“My dream is a Nikon D800E.”
While marine biology fans are used to alien-looking creatures from the deep sea, Semenov usually dives no deeper than 40 meters.
Even so, he says it’s unlikely he’ll ever run out of compelling subjects.
“There are so many animals within the 40m water layer, that I could spend all my life exploring it and maybe I’d photograph 5 percent of the present biodiversity,” says Semenov.
“When you dive every day for 3 to 4 months and see the same creatures every time and see what they do, you start to understand their life. With the photos, you can share your understanding with other scientists and get the full picture.”