Fairytales of Russian forest

Fairytales of Russian forest

We have spent the beginning of 2017 in Kaluzhskie Zaseki nature reserve, situated about 300 km away from Moscow.

Wisent, or european bison, is a symbol of nature reserve. Kaluzhskie Zaseki is one of the few places where those guys live in the wild without cages. This is a rare and unique case, because after wisent have been nearly driven to extinct after World War I, they mostly live in nurseries and zoos. Local wisents have escaped from the neighbouring Orlovskoe Polesie National Park, where they were living on restricted territory. Here, in Kaluzhskie Zaseki, they live in such a great natural conditions that the females give birth every year instead of once in two years in average.

If you are interested a story of wisent recovery, take a look at the Happy ending story

Here, in this endless forest, you can meet a full pack of eastern-european animals, but you should have a skills of a hunter or professional photographer (which is pretty similar talking about skills) to meet them. Opposite to sea or savannah, in forest you have to seek wild animals for hour, days and sometimes weeks, and it’s even more complicated to make a nice shot.

But wisents are completely different. The thing is these guys feed on bark and branches, which become very tough during cold winter months. When it happens, wisents come to eat from special feeders made by local rangers. Most part of winsent pictures are made near the feeders.

According to ranger’s stories, wild boars were neighbouring wisents on the feeders, but recently boar population decreased dramatically in a result of pig plague. Other local ungulates are not brave enough to share food with the Lord of forest.

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During wisents feeding, you can notice multiple kinds of behaviour. Enormous adult males move slowly and proudly, dwarfing females and youngsters, baby wisents drinking mother’s milk, young adults trying to climb up to unawaring females. The life is boiling.

Several times we were lucky to see wisent in a forest, away from the feeder. Just imagine, you stay in the cold snowy forest, eye to eye with the large adult male animal, which is staring at you. Complete silence, you can hear the branches cracking. This moment you can feel a complete unity with nature and this beautiful wild animal.

I would like to end this story with a pictures of Trekol, large low-pressure ATV made on base of legendary UAZ. It looks like this vehicle can pass everywhere, but we were lucky to stuck in the middle of the river:)

Kaluzhskie Zaseki have made a great impression to us. I would like to say a word about a guards of this endless snowy forests, rangers and administration of nature reserve. They are real enthusiasts of their job and absolutely great people. We are very thankful to them.

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Play behavior

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One of the most positive and emotional dives you can experience is diving with cape fur seals near Cape Point, South Africa.

You can meet seals in harbour and everywhere near the shore,  but there are several places where you can find them with a guarantee. Ten minutes boat drive from Simon’s town will bring you to the rocks, where seals live, play and relax. Seals have a strong fish smell, so they don’t seem to be very cute from surface. When you enter the water, seals start approaching you. It’s hard to define is it adult females or young males.

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Underwater seals behave quite the same as dog pups – they play, swim around divers, scratching their ears while hovering in the water. After a while they become bolder, come closer and closer, start to bite gopro, strobes and even fingers. It’s a perfect example of play behavior which you can observe in wild animals. It’s definitely the same as dog pups do, so I think the seals we meet were mostly young males. Adult males are large and aggressive, it would not be so easy and fun to dive with them, but didn’t shown any interest in us and stayed on the rocks.

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Sometimes seals bite diver’s hood and start to pull it. At first it looks a bit dangerous, like you gonna be eaten right now and right here. But then you realise that it’s harmless play behavior, not the aggressive one. So when you will see another breaking news about horrible and aggressive seals attack divers, do not believe it. They just like you, so they bite your head!

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Facts about cape fur seals: They live both in Cape and southern Australia, such population division is not very likely for seals. Also, they both feed on sharks (small inshore sharks and pelagic blue sharks) and being shark’s food (great white shark).

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Meeting seals underwater brings a lot of positive emotions. Their playful, interactive and kind behavior is something unforgetable. Fairly speaking, I love seals more and more. My next plans include walruses, elephant seals, steller sea lions and leopard seals… Don’t think ill of me!

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Orca season begins!

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October comes to the end, which means that all big animal divers switch focus from Mexico, where great white shark season comes to the end, to Norway, where the orca season begins.

Despite killer whales are present in all oceans around the globe, Norway keeps the name of world capital of orca snorkeling. When I first time visited Lofoten islands in 2013 onboard Sula, it was kind of exotic travel destination. Today, plenty of companies offer this programme. Is it good or bad? Time will tell.

So, I decided to join the trend and show you the video from our February’s adventure with Northern Explorers. There are moments when DLSR refuses to focus underwater because of the lack of light, so GoPro is the only way to record what’s happening. Murphy’s Law still works perfectly, so those failures usually happen in during the most exciting moments, when orca comes close to you, look eye-in-the-eye, circles around, test you with the clicks. These special moments you can find in this video. Enjoy.

P.S. Orca snorkeling gifts you with one of the most exciting and emotional moments in lifetime. I will definitely come back to Norway, and I can strongly recommend it to everyone who haven’t tried it yet.

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Tales from the White sea. Belugas of Solovetsky islands.

This summer we went to Solovetsky islands in attempt to make underwater footage of local beluga whales. The whales come here every summer, from mid June to mid August to breed, give birth and raise the calves. Sometimes it’s possible to see males fightings. Belugas are seen near the Beluga cape nearly every day during the low tide. Locals say that this is a beluga kindergarten.

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Belugas swim near the IFAW tower. You can find a head of a calf on this pic.

Group of scientists from Institute of Oceanology live in a camp near the cape. They listen to whale voices, taking photographs, counting whales, watch their behaviour, take tissue samples for genetic analysis. They even tried to dive with the whales using specially made one-space submarine. There is a tower on the cape built by IFAW specially to watch whales. Apart of scientists, belugas attract tourists. Every day several boats come to the cape filled with tourists. So we came to make snorkeling with the whales.

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Submarine for beluga research. Abandoned. The glass is broken.

At first, nobody wanted to bring us to the whales. After long negotiation we agreed that we need to ask scientists before we go. Scientists asked me not to go into the water before they leave, because all the whales will immediately leave. I was surprised, because I thought that my underwater experience with different animals will help me to reach the whales, but said nothing. So I had overall 3 days to try my fortune.

We came to the cape when there were no tourists. We saw about 15 whales, including brown and gray calves. When the waves raised, the whales started to show heads from the water. They stayed in the same place, as they always do here. It was looking very promising.

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But in the water it appeared much worse. Belugas refused to let me come close, despite of my attempts to swim quietly, slowly and even stay still. All skills of underwater photographer were useless – whales just left to the open sea in several minutes. Probably I did something wrong, maybe local whales are too shy shy to interact, maybe my time was too short – but in the end I failed.

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The boat we used for snorkeling. Sometimes I think it was our biggest fault…

We decided to film belugas with stationary underwater camera. Our brilliant engineering team built very cool underwater mounting for GoPro. We called it “rocket mounting” and placed it under water just next to Beluga cape. Once in 1,5 hours we changed the batteries.

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Vanya – our skipper, engineer and good friend.

After several hours of watching breathtaking video with underwater landscape, we finally found out that we have filmed the whales! Of course, it’s not the same as you can film in Canadian Churchill. It’s just belugas passing by. But we did it in just two attempts, and we were happy with that!

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Rocket mounting is ready to go to the outer space.

Here is the result of our underwater filming. Notice how the small fishes run away after belugas pass.

Unfortunately, we left Solovky without underwater pics of the belugas. On these islands you can find a lot of great interesting stuff, but you’d better find some other place if you want to make underwater pictures if the belugas. Maybe some other places of the White sea will bring better result…

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Miracle island

Miracle island

Today’s story about Maldives. Is there anything new to say about this place? It looks like Maldives are completely explored by divers and travelers, but we were surprised a lot after exploring Dhigurah island. Here, you won’t find expensive hotels and beaches crowded with tourists. In local village you can taste pure Maldivian food (mostly fish + coconut), the wild beach is glowing with plankton lights during the night, half of the island covered with the real jungle. Dhigurah is not a regular island for Maldives.

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But the main point of interest here is underwater wildlife. On the house reef you can meet a whale sharks which are just locals and live here on the reef. Not so common, am I right? You just go out of the hotel and go snorkeling on the house reef. For free. You don’t have to go to Mexico or Tanzania and pay a lot for the whale sharks!

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On the other side of the island you can find large aggregation of manta rays, the most beautiful ray of tropical and equatorial seas. Of course it’s not such a giants that you may find in Mexico, just “common” reef mantas. It takes 10 minutes from the island to reach the manta point, and they can be found there every day.

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In 2009 the status of reef manta as a separate species was confirmed. As the smaller relatives, the were given a new name of Manta alfredi, while the larger oceanic mantas keeped the classic name of Manta birostris. Both species are listed as “vulnerable” by IUCN.

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Today it’s hard to impress experienced divers with mantas and whale sharks. But here you can find both in the same place and in 10 minutes from your hotel! Local divers told us that you can see both species all year round. We came to Dhigurah by accidentally and fell in love with this place.

Honestly, this article was written to show you this video. I really love it.

P.S. That was a lovely time when I haven’t started to use DLSR underwater, so all the pictures and videos are made on my GoPro HERO3. Sorry for that:)

What fears the ocean’s top predator and who is the biggest carnivorous fish?

 

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Great white shark was one of the main targets in our South Africa trip. I was lucky, as always – the orcas have arrived to False Bay a week before us, and all the Great whites and cowsharks were gone. Do I love orcas? Yes I do, but not when they cause problems with the sharks! Such stories happen from time to time in several places in the world, including Australia and New Zealand. It’s pretty obvious for me who is the ocean’s top predator. Great whites always avoid the orcas.

So, we had a plan to meet great whites in False Bay, there weren’t any so we went to Gaansbai. This is the bay where you can always find great whites, which are the main touristic attraction and the main city-forming factor.

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But let me describe the process and the sharks. It was my first encounter with the great whites, and it impressed me a lot. The viz was something like 2 meters, so watching sharks from surface was not the worst option, but I spent the most time in the water. The guys begin with chumming, and when the sharks are there, they start to attract it closer to the cage by dropping and pulling a rope with a tuna head, which is considered to be the most delicious food for sharks.

Great white shark is a massive and fat fish. It swims slowly to the bait, but when grabs, it starts to fight in attempt to tear it off the rope. This fight is very impressive when you are inside the cage and you can see and feel how the shark hardly hits the cage with it’s body and tail, with a feeling of a sledgehammer. Sometimes it suddenly appears from the murky water following the bait, with it’sl primal fury and great power. A breathtaking scene.

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Despite the local sharks are not the biggest great whites (3-4 meters comparing to 6 meters-long giants in Guadalupe island), it’s much more impressive than any other shark I’ve seen before, because you can feel it’s great strength and power, same as in twisted spring ready to strike. That day we saw four sharks near the boat, which was unforgettable. 

The video is not as cool as you can film on Guadalupe, but it gives you the feeling of the process of being inside the cage.

BTW, did you know that great white is not the biggest carnivorous shark, as many people think? The first place is held by the legendary Greenland shark with a result of 7,5 meters. The same sized smalltooth sawfish is the biggest carnivorous ray. Comparing to this fishes, the great white is not such a giant.

Ethical difficulties of whale shark snorkeling

Ethical difficulties of whale shark snorkeling

After spending a great week in Malapascua (Philippines), the world capital of thresher sharks, we headed to the southern Cebu, to the small town of Oslob, famous for having year-round whale sharks feeding. Here local fishermen realized that they can make money out of feeding whale sharks with shrimps.

We got from Oslob to the place by local “taxi”, sitting on the 2nd place on the scooter and holding my DLSR with UW housing in my hands, while driving along the wet slippery serpentine. That was the invigorating start of the day.

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Shark swim vertically and suck the shrimps from the surface. After a while shark become bored, swim several meters away and start feeding again. Local whale sharks are 5-6 meters long, much less than their maximum lenght – they can grow up to 14 meters.

If you decide to go there, you should remember about several things which can make your day worse than you expected. First of all, the number of tourists is enormous – everybody goes here for the whale shakrs. The smell of shripms is everywhere, and the visibility could be much better. Nevertheless, it worth visiting if you haven’t seen this big guys before. And you should also remember that you can go to jail if you touch the shark.

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How this way of making tourism affects the ecosystem and the living of wild animals?  Many conservationists claim that feeding in Oslob is wrong, unnatural and unethical. If you google “Oslob” you can find several articles with scary titles and pics of bloody corpses of whale sharks killed by bad guys.

I understand that conservationists who write such articles love sharks. And they also love shark diving in places like Tiger Beach or Capetown, where exactly the same process takes place – shark feeding, but with the different species of sharks. The only real difference is that here in Oslob anyone can go in the water with the sharks, while in Tiger beach and other places it looks like “diving for the chosen” or “diving for the brave”, because there we dive with dangerous sharks. Isn’t it hypocritical?

I love diving with sharks and I don’t blame anyone who feeds the sharks, as long as it doesn’t cause a real harm to the animal. If the animal feels uncomfortable, it will simply go away. And I don’t think that the shark can forget how to find food if you feed it.

What is your opinion?

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