Incredible Photos – Beauty & the Belugas & the Darker Backstory

belugasThe photographs are not new, though they were new to me. The story on-line dates back to 2011. Thanks to Carolina Salguero for posting about them on Facebook. The photos are both beautiful and incredible — a naked woman swimming in arctic waters with beluga whales.  Of course, the word “incredible,” has two meanings – extraordinary and also impossible to believe. Which meaning should we apply here? Are the photos real?

Anyone who has watched the Pacific Life commercial where humpback whales are seen swimming and breaching across glass skyscrapers understands that graphics composting should not always be taken at face value. Nevertheless, the consensus seems to be that the photos are genuine. The woman is Natalia Avseenko, a 36 year old Russian free-diver. The story behind the photos is fascinating, but sadly, rather darker than the beautiful photos themselves.

Marine experts apparently believe that beluga whales do not like to be touched by artificial materials such as diving suits.  So,  Natalia Avseenko, a two time free-diving world champion, was recruited by the Utrish Dophinarium to swim naked with belugas to “tame them,” to help make them more comfortable around humans. Ms. Avseenko has learned how to use yoga to control both her breathing and her body temperature, allowing her to swim naked with the whales in the sub-freezing temperature of the White Sea, near the arctic circle.  Ms. Avseenko spoke about the techniques that she used at the Brain Expo 2012 in Seoul.

But as stunningly beautiful and amazing as the photos are, why again were they taken and by whom? Was this real science or a publicity stunt? What could be better for attracting attention – a beautiful nude woman and whales. And what is the Utrish Dophinarium?

The Marine Connection comments about the Utrish Dophinarium:

One notorious Russian company, Utrish dolphinarium Ltd., to this day supplies wild marine mammals to facilities around the world. As well as walruses and seals, Utrish captures wild beluga whales and dolphins from the Black Sea.

Utrish dolphinarium openly uses wild beluga whales reportedly captured in the delta of the Amur River, where their “fattening zone is situated”. Wild populations of beluga whale are endangered and their future compromised by these continued captures from complex cultural pods which travel to the Amur delta.

A bit more commentary, by Patric Douglas CEO of

Nudity and Delphinapterus leucas – Ugly backstory?

The Utrish Dophinarium. I became aware of this outfit back in 2005 and they have quite a track record, as a high percentage of captive Arctic species found in zoos and aquariums worldwide come from this operation. Including Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). So, as it turns out, the real story here is not so much about half baked science as Natalia Avseenko could have just removed her gloves, but of a staged moment for the cameras, using captive Beluga whales on their way to a new home somewhere in the world as a backdrop for a series of inane shots, under the guise of science and conservation. While I have to hand it to Natalia Avseenko and her crew for going to the extremes they did for this shot, I am also not surprised that the Utrish Dophinarium is somehow involved or enabling of this stunt under the thin veneer of science and research. We can do a lot better with wild animals, and I think it’s high time we stopped stunt work with animals calling it science or conservation, because fundamentally both science and conservation does not look like this. Or does it?

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4 Responses to Incredible Photos – Beauty & the Belugas & the Darker Backstory

  1. Bill Koller says:

    Thanks for this Rick.

  2. Andrew Reinbach says:

    Rick, I just don’t think the pics are real. My understanding is that a human dumped into -1C water dies in about 5 minutes, yoga or no.

  3. Rick Spilman says:

    Andrew, I was skeptical as well. Nevertheless, there is video which seems to support the still photos.

  4. There are definitely people out there who are able to swim in water that would kill most of us in minutes – Lynne Cox is probably the best known but there are people swimming at Coney Island all winter long – not quite as cold maybe but still, brrrrr.

    I believe it happened but I was very disappointed when I read the article and realized that the whales were actually captive – when I’d first seen them I’d gotten the impression she was diving with wild belugas.