Thursday, August 26, 2010

Divers swim and play with white beluga whales under the Arctic ice in the White Sea, Russia

A diver gets up close with two white beluga whales under the ice in the White Sea, Russia.
The two grab the diver's arms and appear to be helping him swim (other pictures)

From TheTelegraph

These wild whales are not yet on the endangered list, but are considered to be under threat from pollution and loss of habitat.

Pictured here at a special whale sanctuary designed and built by Marine Biologists from St Petersburg University in 2006, the beluga is thriving.

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.
Occasionally, guests at the local dive centre can swim with the whales, and get close enough to touch.

Franco Banfi, an Arctic diver and photographer, who took the pictures, 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.
“Sometimes, I'm sure they're trying to figure out what we are and where we came from.
“As a 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 in the -10°C waters.
But the short straw is for the volunteer who gets to stay above ground in -30°C 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, “ says Mr Banfi, 58.
“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 – 10°C or -20°C 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.
“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.”

Mr Banfi said 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," 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.”

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