A naked Russian diver plunged into freezing Arctic seas to frolic with Beluga whales. Was it a (literally) splashy media event or legitimate scientific experiment to tame the shy beasts? What’s remarkable in either case is that Natalia Avseenko survived ten minutes of swimming in temperatures of -1.5 °C. Five minutes in sub-zero water should knock you dead.
The experienced diver with a passion for white whales used yoga breathing techniques to prolong her swim, so maybe the real story is the power of meditation.
Some scientists believe Belugas dislike contact with artificial materials such as diving suits. The experiment allegedly tested if removing the clothing barrier would improve chances of inter-species connection.
Unlikely this experiment will be repeated at Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Research Center in Thuwal, on the eastern shore of the Red Sea. Inaugurated in 2011 at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the center has a mission to formulate fuller understanding of the Sea and its creatures. Its marine biologists are undertaking the world’s largest project to tag the poorly understood whale shark to determine population demographics, sharks’ site fidelity, and potential connections with populations outside of the Red Sea.
Back at the Arctic Circle, whales and dolphins are caught in pens and “tamed” by instructors at the controversial Utrish Dolphinarium located along the White Sea in north-western Russia. Domestication occurs before the animals are transported to aquariums around the world.
There are an estimated 100,000 Belugas in the wild. They are also in aquariums and sea parks across Europe, North America and Asia: the first to be held in captivity was at Barnum Museum in New York in 1861. It’s a practice that many animal conservationists consider cruel. No Middle Eastern aquarium houses Beluga whales.
These animals seemingly enjoyed their skinny dip with Avseenko, responding with their famously distinctive range of facial expressions. Their flexible bone structure allows them to mimic a large range of human-like looks.
Speaking to extreme sports blog Ant Williams, Avseenko said, “My Polar Circle story was a spiritual one. I tried to see how my concepts of open mind and heart, of ‘inner-smile’, work in extreme conditions, and how they can help people in their everyday lives. We can see now they really work. I had a great experience at the White Sea. We wanted to see what would be the reaction of Beluga whales to a human being who is vulnerable in front of Nature and society.”
While it is confirmed that the whales “smiled”, there’s no news if they also blushed.
All images by Viktor Lyagushkin/KNS News