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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Tales from the White sea. Bearded seals.

Tales from the White sea. Bearded seals.

Bearded seal is the biggest species of pinnipeds in White sea. We found those guys on the Top island near Solovetsky archiplago.
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The isle of Top is small, ibnhabited rocky island with the lighhouse in the middle. This silent and remote place gives you feeling of primal magic. Rocks of the island are covered with bearded seals. When the tide is getting low, bearded seals relaxing laying half-water on the rocks and wait for water to go away. This is the best moment to see them either from the boat or from the shore.

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Seals are adapted for living in the water, so they feel vulnerable while being on the shore, and jump into the water immediately when the boat approaches them. Some seals are more calm and feel comfortable being several meters close to people.

After getting into the water, seal becomes brave and shows interest about the boat. He gets closer and stares at you. Transformation of bearded seal:

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Once we woke up a seal sleeping on the surface.

In several years population of bearded seals increased in the result of hunting ban in the White sea. This is a good news for us, but local fishemen are not so happy about population reсovery – bearded seals get caught in the nets, destroying it and even dying inside.

I made several efforts to take underwater pictures of bearded seal, which will be published a bit later.