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Amazing adventure - in search of Belugas
Diving with whales
How far would you go to get the perfect photograph? For wildlife cameraman Dan Burton, it means taking a risky dive into freezing Arctic waters in search of Beluga Whales. Inside Out follows his journey from Devon to the icy wastes of north Russia.
Photographer Dan Burton from Topsham in Devon has a remarkable job which takes him to some impressive locations around the globe.
He spends much of his time in the air or underwater searching for the perfect picture opportunity.
Beluga Whales c/o AP Images.
But his latest assignment is one of his most challenging to date.
It involves travelling to the Arctic Circle in Northern Russia, one of the most hostile locations on the planet.
Once there Dan hopes to film Beluga Whales beneath the ice pack, but there's no guarantee that he'll succeed.
The Beluga Whale is a species threatened by climate change and pollution, and they are notoriously hard to find, even in their favoured habitat of Arctic waters.
An expedition of this complexity involves serious preparation but, luckily for Dan, some of the world's leading experts in Arctic survival are based in Plymouth.
They've been on hand to offer advice on his trip.
Dan knows that a standard wetsuit will not afford him a huge amount of protection, so one of the biggest challenges will be to prepare his body for the shock of immersion under the ice:
"There'll be an element of acclimatising yourself - getting at one with the ambient temperature, and then going for your breath hold. And hopefully the breath holding will increase the longer the dive goes on."
In search of the Beluga Whale.
Inside Out follows a prepared but anxious Dan as he set off on his epic 2,000 mile journey to Russia.
The trip to Northern Russia takes 24 hours of travelling with two flights to the city of Murmansk and a further five hours by road to the diving headquarters.
Despite the strenuous journey, Dan is upbeat - for him it's a dream come true:
"I wanted for years to come here to photograph Belugas... A friend of mine told me about this place, this secret place so I'm out here... and hopefully I'll get some photographs and some film of the Beluga Whales."
Dan's base in Russia is an Arctic expeditions and marine research outpost.
He plans to take a series of pictures and video of both whales and free divers under the ice.
Such a shoot would often take two weeks but Dan only has three diving days to achieve his goal.
But his mission is helped thanks to two whales that have recently been moved from an aquarium into a large pen in the bay as part of a conservation project.
Scientists are preparing the whales for a possible full release.
Dan has special permission to dive in the large netting area in the White Sea, but his dive under the frozen Arctic will require just one breath of air.
It's a huge physical and mental challenge.
On the first day Dan takes a 20 minute snow mobile ride on top of the frozen White Sea with his camera gear and fellow divers to get to the dive site.
The whole operation requires a fleet of 'warm up' huts to be towed out to the dive location.
Belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) are sometimes called 'white whales' due to their pale-white colour.
Beluga Whales are mainly found in the Arctic Ocean as well northern Canada and Russia.
They are around 3-5m in length: 3-5m and weight between 0.4-1.5 tonnes. The male is larger than the female Beluga. They have melon-shaped heads.
Belugas make chirping, whistling and squeaking noises. They are nicknamed 'sea canaries' because they are highly vocal.
The Beluga can nod and shake its head from side to side unlike most other whales.
Belugas eat fish, squid, octopus, crabs and snails.
Marine experts believe that Belugas can live up to 50 years in the wild. Scientists have recorded them diving to depths of more than 2,000 feet.
These portable saunas are essential for the divers to keep warm in between dives.
The ice is up to a feet thick and ice cutting saws are needed just to get through to the water underneath.
It's a chilly day with a wind chill factor of minus ten - in these extreme conditions, even simple tasks can become problematic.
Dan doesn't quite make it into the water on his first attempt - there's a problem with his camera.
The extremes in temperature have caused the lens to fog up.
Eventually he's ready to dive.
Dan needs to spend the first day just getting used to diving in such extreme conditions, as he explains:
"The temperature on my watch is minus one - it's the coldest I've ever been in. My lips are going blue, my face is going numb but I'm having a wonderful time...
"It's another planet... it's dark down there but very peaceful... very peaceful, no noise, nothing."
Having spent the whole day acclimatising, Dan only has two days left to get the whale shots.
Snow storms and whale encounters
The next day a snow storm threatens to delay Dan's dive.
The temperature is minus 15 degrees and it's a lot colder in the water than the previous day.
However, Dan's persistence pays off. Finally he's in the water - he can hear the Beluga Whales squeaking and can see them swimming close to him.
The whales are not threatening - but they can be physically imposing, weighing up to a ton.
Beluga Whale - spectacular sight.
They're playful, sociable creatures and appear extraordinarily graceful.
For Dan it's the moment he's been waiting for:
"It's amazing swimming with these animals. They're so big - they grab hold of your leg with their mouth. You think they're going to pull you down but they're just playing, just touching you, just feeling you."
At the end of his second day, Dan has got some quite good video but he didn't manage to take the all important still photograph he was hoping for.
The final day of the trip is the last chance for Dan to get the picture that would fill half a page on a national newspaper, but the elements seem to be set against him.
Dan is feeling less optimistic: "The light's continuously changing, we've got a blizzard now, so we've lost from a sunny day, to now a blizzard. And we've lost about three stops of light so it's going to be hard to shoot underwater."
But on the positive side the whales seem more relaxed in Dan's company.
Finally Dan manages to capture the whales 'spy-hopping' on the surface and diving deep below the water.
After three days of diving, Dan's got the shots he was hoping for including some stunning pictures of the free divers swimming with the whales.
Dan Burton shot Julia Petrik, one of the world's top free divers, swimming underwater with the Belugas and capturing a ride with one of them.
Julia does not use air tanks and can hold her breath for up to two minutes - and her graceful movement through the water make for some sensational photographs.
Dan is elated: "It's one of the best things I've ever done... It's not all about making money, it's about the experience. I'm very lucky to have a job which allows me to have two whales biting my leg... amazing."
Dan's trip has been a success and he's overcome many challenges to get some amazing photographs.
Dan Burton - man with a mission.
On his return to the UK, Dan's images make it in to the national newspapers, raising awareness of the endangered Beluga Whale.
For Dan it's been a remarkable journey - and one which has deepened his understanding of the whales and their natural environment.
For the rest of us, we can only marvel at the astonishing photographs and videos of these incredible creatures.
last updated: 21/04/2008 at 09:47