Spending ten minutes absolutely naked in sub-zero cold water may sound like a life-threatening ordeal. But for freediving champion and yoga practitioner Natasha Avseenko, it was a path to spiritual revelations.
Avseenko, 36, who has been diving since 2004, teamed up with underwater photographer Viktor Lyagushkin and several of her other friends to go for a most unusual adventure. They traveled to the “Polar Circle” aquatic animal shelter, a place in the Republic of Karelia, just 5 kilometers south of the real one. Whales are kept there in their natural habitat – in an inlet separated from the open White Sea by a net.
“The idea Natasha and I came up with was to try swimming naked with Beluga whales. It’s not about being naked because everyone likes naked women. Beluga whales have very sensitive skin and don’t like being touched by hard objects. That’s why they tend to avoid contact with divers. So we thought the whales may prefer a naked human,” Viktor told RT.
For Natasha it was the fulfillment of her childhood dream, a challenge to her stamina and a chance to deal with secret fears. As a bonus, the clear frigid northern sea was also good for photography, since it allows for better lighting.
The photo session posed great risks. Not only did Natasha expose herself to the warmth-draining water, which can kill in a matter of minutes. The white whales could also think that the naked woman was drowning and try to save her, perhaps doing quite the opposite.
“That was over-the-top and I don’t recommend anyone to do it. But on the other hand there were a lot of people ready to help, including a doctor. We were prepared to do intensive therapy for her on the spot, if the need arose,” Viktor said.
Before diving with belugas, Natasha trained for six months, getting used to submerging in cold water.
“I started swimming in the lake in autumn as it was about to freeze. As the temperature dropped, I spent more time there. When the lake froze we had to cut an ice hole,” Natasha said.
The training continued at the sub-polar station. The temperature of saline water can drop below 0 degrees Celsius, which poses its own secret danger to an unprepared swimmer.
“I had this strange sensation. My eye was open and I felt like a tear was running from it. A few days later, people told me that I had felt it freeze. If they hadn’t, I may have paid for my curiosity,” Natasha said.
The shelter had five white whales in April, when the expedition arrived. Two females, Nilma and Matrena, were chosen to star next to Natasha because they were only nine months old and very playful, as befits teenagers. The first time they met, the diver was wearing a diving suit to give them enough time to get acquainted. The whales were most friendly to Natasha and gave her a very special experience.
“[Whales] turn a human into a sensitive creature. He wakes up. The routine of life disappears, and he can no longer be a puppet. The creative energy surfaces. Love surfaces. Real, unconditional love,” she recalled.
Before diving naked with the whales, Natasha had a trial session. She dived under ice wearing a long dress and a shawl, while Viktor took pictures of the “dreadful and beautiful drowned girl” Natasha was acting, but doing the same thing in motion was even more challenging.
“The shooting was very difficult because belugas are very swift and you have to act in a moment. And they drag the human with them too. Plus the extreme conditions under ice,” Viktor said.
The whales were a bit confused when they saw their new friend naked.
“I had a reactive adrenaline rush, which my secret [yoga techniques] failed to prevent…Nilma and Matrena read it at once. And decided to take precautions. ‘Who is this stranger with adrenaline?’ They swam around, studied…Later they swam closer and saw it was my naked body trying to adapt to the cold. Still they thought it strange,” Natasha said.
Now the diver believes the belugas would have been much comfortable if the situation was not so stressful for her.
“Don’t swim with whales naked in wintertime. They won’t appreciate it. And there will be less pleasure from the encounter. Do it in summer when the water is warmer,” she suggests.
Now Natasha and other expedition members are working on a documentary about their experiment, the limits of human capabilities and ties with nature. It is expected to be ready by autumn.
Meanwhile the two other stars of the photo session have moved to a marine animal park in China. Viktor says they both took the journey well and are fond of their new home.