Join award winning professional photographer Franco Banfi on an expedition to the White Sea, one of the best places in the world for sea ice diving. Part of northern Russia’s inland sea the White Sea belongs to the Arctic Ocean basin and is the only sea in Europe to freeze every year. Nature here is untouched by man and the wildlife is rich and unique. We experience this on an exciting husky safari on our way to the lodge. Every winter Greenland seals make their rookeries in the northern part of the White Sea and their calves are born there. The sea is also home to white beluga whales.
“The beluga swam up to me and turned just before touching me. He did this several times before stopping right in front of me, giving me the chance to take some pictures. Most of the time he was just investigating the new visitor” Franco Banfi, your expert guide on the White Sea photography expedition.
The White Sea
The underwater world of the White Sea boasts a magnificent sea life and excellent scenery with fantastic underwater ice formations, caverns and fissures. The underwater environment is exquisite with soft corals, sponges, starfish, crabs, hermit crabs, sea urchins, shrimps and sea anemones. Underwater rocks provide dwelling places for cod, wolf fish, sea perch, butterfish and flounders. In winter lancet fish, tomcod, flounder and pinogor will allow you to approach very closely. There are seals and beluga whales and you may even catch sight of the incredible aurora borealis.
The Arctic Circle is known as the ice diving capital of the world for its excellent dive experiences and the dive instructors at Arctic Lodge have many years’ experience of diving in severe Arctic conditions. For diving we use a mobile ice camp with comfortable warm wooden huts fully stocked with all the necessary equipment and accessories. If you are not a qualified ice diver you can take the PADI Ice Diving Course during the programme.
All year round it is possible to observe, dive and snorkel with the White Sea beluga whales. Two male belugas and, more recently, a female have been introduced to a natural habitat (an enclosure divided from the open sea by a net) not far from the Dive Centre. This is a joint project between the Arctic Circle Dive Centre and the Utrish Dolphinarium, owned by the A. N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The plan is to introduce more females and to expand the territory where beluga whales will thrive.
Franco's experience with Beluga Whales
” Ice diving is not the only activity we can enjoy at the Arctic Circle Dive Center. After a day of diving I went for an extra dive with some beluga whales that are in an open water cage, near the Dive Center. Beluga Whales only live in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters and are protected from the cold temperatures by a thick layer of blubber.
There was only a part of the surface cage open, the rest was covered with ice like the rest of the White Sea. After a short drive on a ski-doo we arrive at the spot. I immediately could hear the Beluga squeaking. Approaching close I could see them swimming on the surface and the big male lifted himself out of the water to see what was going on.
Before entering the water, the guardian of the white mammals explained to me that the beluga can be inquisitive, especially the big male, which is more accustomed with divers.
He said: “Don’t worry if he tries to bite your legs or arms or even the camera”. I thought “that will be an exciting dive” !.
But don’t worry, the forty sparse teeth are too widely spaced and too flat to catch and hold prey. I went underwater with my camera and positioned myself in a place under the ice waiting for the Beluga to come, I didn’t have to wait long for the first approach.
The Beluga swam up to me and turn just before he touched me. He did this several times before stopped in front of me, giving me the chance to take some pictures. Most of the time he was just investigating the new visitor. With its flexible neck and supple body, a Beluga can twist, turn and manoeuvre in confined spaces.
I noticed he was comfortable with my visit because he started to show me his tongue with open mouth and tried to bite first the strobe and than the camera. It is a big animal and the first time it can be quite impressive, but they are not aggressive. They just want to play, checking you out and understand what you are.
The Beluga way of eating is not by grabbing the fish, but instead he sucks the fish, and when he is ready to swallow, his big pink tongue squeezes water out of its mouth to prevent it from swallowing sea water.
Belugas are playful and beautiful creatures, and it was an amazing experience to swim with these animals. I could do it over and over again.”
The Arctic Lodge
The Arctic Lodge is a well-established comfortable guesthouse on the shores of the frozen sea. Accommodation is in comfort twin rooms each with their own private bathroom. Exquisite Russian food is served along with traditional and international beverages. The Russian banya (steam bath) completes the unique experience.
At Kuusamo airport you are met by Franco Banfi, your photo guide, who will accompany you on this ice diving expedition to the White Sea. Overnight in the region of Ruka.
Today we gather for an exciting Husky dog sledge safari in the beautiful region of Ruka. You will spent the whole day in the wild, relishing the essence of Finland and the majesty of the breath taking sceneries over arctic wilderness, crowned with trees thickly covered in snow.
You will be provided with all the necessary outer thermal dresses : suit, gloves, hat, etc. before you had out to the husky farm where you will be given a short lesson on how to handle the sledge and the dogs.
A day you will remember for the rest of your life !
Overnight in Ruka.
Today we take the long drive to the lodge in the small village of Nilmaguba, at the mouth of Nilma river, in the Kandalaksha bay. We drive through the untouched wilderness of Finland and Russia, and before we leave we use the opportunity to shop for some packed lunches and drinks.
During the last few hundred years, technology has allowed us to become visitors of regions where we do not belong. In more recent years, after the Soviet Union crumbled, even the Russian Karelia region is slowly opening its doors at few foreign tourists.
We pass the Finnish and Russian border on our way and arrive in the evening for nice welcome dinner in the Arctic lodge.
Day 4 - 8
Ice diving programme with daily trips to the ice camp for two dives a day. Dive or snorkel experience with the Beluga whales. In the evening relax in the Russian banya (steambath) and enjoy Franco’s photo workshops.
For more detailed information please read the triplog.
Early morning departure to Kuusamo airport for the flight to Helsinki and onward.
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