Dawn over the White Sea coincides with the turning of the tide, leaving seaweed and starfish in its wake.


IN THE MID-1980s, when I had just taken up underwater photography, I read an article about the underwater world of the White Sea. Years passed, but the dream of diving there never left me. Alas, I never had the chance until, on a recent visit to Moscow, I met two divers from the Nereis and Arctic Circle dive centres and arranged a visit to my dream destination.
Our group caught a train from Moscow bound for Murmansk and, after 24 hours that flew by in good company, alighted in the dead of night at Chupa.
Two minivans then took us and all our gear on a further three-hour trip to a little settlement called Chkalovsky and the comfortable Nereis hotel and dive centre, built on the base of an old ship by the shore.
Everyone wanted to rest, but I just couldnt resist the beauty of the northern landscape. I went off along the White Sea shore with my camera to watch an incredibly beautiful sunrise, the light reflecting in the calm sea. Starfish left by the now receding tide were slowly retreating back to the water.
It was too late to sleep, and I wanted to go on taking pictures, but under water. I decided to freedive for now.
August is a warm month in the White Sea, though hardly tropical. In water of 12C and a 7mm wetsuit I spent two hours noting and photographing my surroundings before growing too cold.
As I warmed myself with hot tea and dried my equipment, breakfast arrived and everybody woke up.
Following a briefing, we split up according to our interests. I decided not to go out to sea but to revisit on scuba the more interesting places I had noticed earlier. My buddy and I jumped in from the jetty. At 10m, the bright sunshine turned to gloom, and the temperature slid to 7C.
Maximum depth in the bay was about 15m, and any unwise movement would raise muddy clouds. We found only solitary actiniums, starfish and thickets of sea kelp. Nearer shore, however, seaweed clumps hid shrimps, crabs and small fish, all suitable macro subjects.
Next day we went further out. Everybody knows what a sea should look like - an immense expanse of water and sky bisected by a horizon line. But everything was different there. As far as we could see there were islands. At times it felt as if we were not so much at sea as on a big river.
Our remote destination was the Rock of Actiniums, 90 minutes boat-ride out. We started diving in the sunshine opposite the rock. Here in the shallows we found snails and starfish competing in slow acrobatic contests.
Deeper down, sedentary jellyfish hung in bushes of sea kale, attached by thin stems as they caught passing plankton in their tentacles.
Carried away shooting macro, I only just noticed in time that I was down to 50 bar. At the surface, instead of lazing on the boat I went ashore with my camera and lay down among the bilberry bushes. Eating bilberries and bog whortleberries, I almost missed the signal to sail.
The Rock of Actiniums is not big, but photographers enjoy the wide-angle opportunities it presents. I took the obligatory shots and then went to check out the laminaria bushes and big solitary actiniums.
Thick fog put paid to any sea trips next day, so I had to content myself with the bay again.
Everything had changed there. Between 3 and 8m I saw ctenophores and jellyfish of all shapes and sizes, some like flying comets, others like UFOs suspended in the water column.
The important thing was not to get carried away by my interest and expose my face to their tentacles, or I would remember the touch of their delicate beauty for the rest of my life.
That evening we hit the road again, this time heading for the Arctic Circle dive centre, which we reached after midnight. We were well fed and lodged in wooden houses, so were refreshed for our briefing after breakfast. A detailed description of the dive sites allowed us all to decide where we wanted to go and when.
Our launch pad by the jetty had everything we needed: warm changing rooms, hot tea, air, weights and boats all ready to go. I started close to the dive centre again, because just opposite the jetty a couple of good-natured white whales, also known as belugas, lived. With my buddy and our guide, we took the boat to meet them.
At the bottom the whales, attracted by the sound of our breathing and bubbles, emerged from the darkness. They greeted us loudly and the show began.
The smaller one was very playful and showed no fear of us. It would come close, sticking out its tongue and emitting a stream of bubbles, as if in imitation of us.
The other whale, a 5-6m male, was more interested in our equipment. It was quite difficult to take a picture, what with one whale posing and the other biting our flashes and wires.
My buddy and I moved 3m apart to take up positions like duellists, aiming our cameras at one another to see who would be luckiest.
I managed a few shots while my buddy was being bitten, and vice versa. We spent 25 minutes under water and, shooting film, took as many good pictures as if we had dived a dozen times.
The second site, Orange, was named for the bright colour of the actiniums that cover every stone here in 12-18m. Even on a sunny day it was almost like night, and in 25-30m we entered full darkness and a water temperature not much above 2C.
Soft corals grow at the bottom in these severe conditions, and on the way back up, at 20m, we encountered that rare starfish fittingly called a Gorgons head.
The big treat after diving here, as at Nereis, was well-heated Russian baths!
The last diving day is often the richest. We started out at a site promisingly called Actinium Paradise, a vast plateau with a small rock in the middle, thickly covered by actiniums.
Then it was on to Sponge, named for the yellow sponges covering its stones, although I would have been inclined to name it after its thick laminaria bushes.
You can visit Sponge only when the tide is right, and lack of current allows you to make yourself comfortable at the bottom to shoot macro.
At 12m, the sponges swayed in unison with their constant fellow-travellers, the shrimps and their close relatives the sea goats. Strolling crabs moved among the sponges.
As we were carried away by our photography, the tide started running. Soaring with the flow along the coast, I noticed a 70cm lancetfish trying to hide among stones at the bottom. These big fish dont usually leave home, though I didnt notice any holes or cracks.
The fish was infuriated by the sudden appearance of paparazzi, and showed its displeasure by lifting and blowing its gills to make it seem even bigger before darting towards us, yellow and white jaws agape.
Out of film, we departed, and the lancetfish lay back down with relief. Before packing to leave, I decided to complete my stay in the White Sea the same way I had started it, and spent a last hour snorkelling and photographing that magnificent scenery.

Divernet
Returning
Returning from night fishing in the morning fog.
Known
Known locally as a lancetfish or Atlantic catfish, Anarhichas lupus is better known to UK divers as a wolf-fish. It lives on molluscs, which it cracks open with its powerful teeth.
This
This diver has come across the rare Gorgons head starfish.
Common
Common starfish
a
a sedentary jellyfish attached by the stalk to laminaria to catch passing plankton
these
these actiniums or plumose anemones have given the dive site the name Orange
a
a lions mane jellyfish
Beluga
Beluga whales pose for the photographer
and
and see the divers off at the surface.
Periwinkle
Periwinkle
nudibranch
nudibranch
nudibranch;
nudibranch; dahlia and plumose anemones and starfish combine to form a flower arrangement.
Divernet
FACTFILE

GETTING THERE:Fly from the UK to Moscow or St Petersburg. The dive centre can arrange rail transfers for you. Arrange visas well in advance through the Russian Embassy.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Nereis Hotel and Dive Centre, www.nereis.spb.ru/eng/index.html. Arctic Circle Dive Centre, www.ice-diving.ru/index/en.html
WHEN TO GO: Andrey Nekrasov was diving the White Sea in summer, but the very best times for diving are in March and April, when the sea is frozen but the snow has already melted. The light is good and the water is clear down to 40m. The drawback is that temperature is only -1.5°C at this time!
LANGUAGE: Rusiian
MONEY: Roubles
PRICES: Return flights to Moscow from 180, train to Murmansk about 12. Full-board accommodation at the Hotel Nereis in March/April starts from about 42 a night (two sharing). Two dives cost around 63.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.russia.com