Animal Cruelty

Scientist Braves Freezing Temperatures To Swim Naked With Beluga Whales

Most people would die in subzero temperature waters in less than five minutes, but using meditation techniques to hold her breath, Natalia stayed underwater for an entire ten minutes and forty seconds.

Photo: Viktor Lyagushkin

Beluga whales are known for their sociable behaviour and human-like facial expressions. But did you know that marine experts suspect beluga whales prefer not to touch any artificial materials? This inkling was the driving motivation behind Natalia Avseenko’s decision to plunge nude into arctic waters.

Certainly, not anyone could accomplish such a feat. Natalia Avseenko, 36, from Russia, is an oceanographer, professional diver and yoga guru. Most people would die in subzero temperature waters in less than five minutes, but using meditation techniques to hold her breath, Natalia stayed underwater for an entire ten minutes and forty seconds.

Photo: Viktor Lyagushkin

The experiment took place in the White Sea, in the northwest corner of Russia, near the Arctic Circle. The water temperatures were recorded at -1.5 degrees Celsius. The area is in the Murmansk Oblast region, close to the Utrish Dophinarium. Controversially, part of the sea is closed off to prevent the whales and dolphins from getting out, and to facilitate instructors to train the mammals before they are sold to dolphinariums around the world.

Natalia stripped naked because the marine researchers believe belugas would be less likely to interact with her if she were covered by the artificial material of a diving suit. The exercise was an experiment designed by Russian scientists to test their theory of whether the whales would be more welcoming to a human without any barriers between them.

Photo: Viktor Lyagushkin

The belugas seem to be enjoying Natalia’s presence, but of course, that could just be their naturally benevolent expression. Belugas have a range of facial expressions because they have more flexible facial muscles than most mammals. They are known by scientists to be characteristically friendly and non-threatening, but often shy with humans.

Last year, the Obama Administration criticized Russia for their captivity practices with marine mammals. The federal government denied aquariums and Seaworld from importing 18 beluga whales captured off the coast of Russia. Worried about the fate of the 18 whales, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta (the largest aquarium in the western hemisphere) responded by petitioning for their rehabilitation and release back into the wild.

Belugas are amazing creatures that are highly intelligent. Their presence in their natural homes is important for balancing the ecosystem because they feed on a wide range of common species and prevent them from overpopulating. Captivity is devastating to the health of a marine animal, resulting in extreme mental distress and ultimately a reduced lifespan. Furthermore, whales habitats are at risk from underwater noise pollution from human activity that interferes with their communication and breeding patterns. Currently, the beluga is listed as “near threatened” on IUCN’s Red List.

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