You could be forgiven for thinking that the frigid seas of the far north are “lifeless deserts where only sad-looking fish circle the cold darkness” but you would be wrong, and in the best way possible.
Alexander Semenov is a marine biologist and head of the scientific diving team at the White Sea biological station of Lomonosov’s Moscow State University. He’s also an exceptional underwater photographer. Because of his job, his speciality is cold-water fauna, a subject that is absolutely unforgiving to photograph.
The White Sea (Russian: Белое море) is a southern inlet of the Barents Sea located on the northwest coast of Russia. In winter the sea freezes, with the average January water temperatures of around -1.8°C.
Going on a dive involves taking an ice drill and special saws where they make triangle-shaped holes in the 0.5 – 1.5 meter thick surface. Dives can only happen in the 40-60 minute intervals between high and low tide, because the currents are so strong that a diver who is carried away “is difficult to pull even on a rope.” All of this, and the requirement of carrying ropes everywhere you go, makes for a very frustrating shooting environment.
Studying cold-water fauna is not a task for the faint-hearted, mainly because the conditions are so extreme both in and out of the water. Long polar nights, freezing temperatures, ice-covered seas, strong currents and often harsh weather conditions mean that field work is only possible for a few months each year, and only after very rigorous technical and physical training
“It’s awfully uncomfortable to shoot – you have to constantly put the camera down and exchange signals with the surface, pulling the rope in a special manner,” explains Semenov. “But all these inconveniences pay off more than when you see the landscapes that appear before you, and even more so when you meet the first inhabitants of the underwater world.”
“In winter the water in the White Sea is incredibly clear, because on a polar night there is no sun – so no photosynthesis, and therefore the water will have less microscopic phytoplankton and zooplankton, which eats it,” says Semenov. “There is also no wind and wave mixing of water, because the sea is covered with ice, as well as all streams, rivers and swamps that flow into the sea in summer and bring a heap of organic suspension.”
“In short,” he continues, “the water under the ice is most often crystal clear, with visibility of up to 40-60 meters, while for more than half a year visibility rarely exceeds 6-8 meters.” For an underwater photographer, this is bliss. A bliss that is only amplified by the sheer variety of underwater life you’ll find in the depths of the White Sea.
Each boulder and every square meter of the sea floor is home to tens, hundreds and thousands of different creatures: a vast colourful forest of sea anemones, sea squirts, sponges, bryozoans and colonies of hydrozoan polyps, with an infinite number of polychaetes, amphipods, sea spiders and many other underwater creatures scurrying among themAlexander Semenov
“In the dark depths of the water above this forest, giant crimson Lion’s mane jellyfish slowly glide along, astonishingly beautiful pteropod mollusks called Sea angels drift elegantly, and predatory comb jellies sparkle like little rainbows.”
After nearly 13 years as an underwater photographer, Semenov still has no fear of “running out” of incredible subjects to shoot.