As white whales frolic beneath the waves, a strange presence becomes apparent in their midst: a woman is swimming naked beside their flukes in the icy cold waters of Russia's White Sea. She cavorts with the whales, an alien in an underwater world – and yet also not so different from these beautiful ocean creatures that seem to smile so. What's the story behind these strange yet stunning photographs? Let's find out.
Because whales like belugas sense objects through echolocation, Russian marine experts felt that taming these mammals of the deep – which were headed for a dolphinarium – would work better if their instructor were naked. Hence we have these incredible images, taken by Viktor Lyagushkin, of Natalia Avseenko, 36, in her baby suit and skin to skin with the white whales.
For Natalia this was no simple task of just stripping off and getting naked for a skinny dip. The temperatures in the White Sea at the time were -1.5 degrees Centigrade, and Natalia had to free dive. Those temperatures would normally kill a human after 5 minutes, but Natalia is a world champion free diver and yoga expert who uses meditation techniques to handle the freezing cold and hold her breath. She stayed in the water for an astonishing 10 minutes.
Nilma and Matrena the beluga whales seem to be having a wonderful time so close to Natalia while swimming in their enclosed area. The space is enclosed so that the belugas can't get out while they are tamed, before being sent to aquariums for public display. It's a controversial practice but, for the moment, let's focus on the wonder of these beautiful whales and leave the debate for another time.
These gorgeous mammals belong to the same family as the narwhal and are highly sociable animals. With endearing facial expressions caused by a flexible bone structure in their face, they have been favorites in zoos and aquariums worldwide. Also known as white whales, they are considered near threatened globally, although a specific population in the Arctic's Cook Inlet is critically endangered.
Beluga whales live in highly mobile pods which individuals are able to move fluidly between. One may be in one pod one day and a few hundred miles away in another pod the next. Calves can stay with their mothers and nurse for up to two years, and the mother/calf bond is so close that the young may return for visits years later. Natalia's nude dive with the whales is an unforgettably beautiful sight – of her as well as the whales – and reminds us that in some ways we are not so different from these creatures once we are naked with them.
Many thanks to Viktor Lyagushkin for permission to use his spectacular images.