Alexander Semenov graduated as a marine biologist from the department of Zoology at Lomonosov’s Moscow State University in 2007. Specializing in the study of invertebrate animals, he began his working career at the White Sea Biological Station (WSBS) as a senior laborer and progressed to become chief of the diving team after four years.
Operating from the WSBS at the Kindo peninsula on the border of the Arctic Circle, Semenov is also a gifted and patient underwater photographer - unbelievably, looking at the extraordinary images he creates, he is self-taught. Generously sharing his work (“Flickr”, “Behance”, “thisiscolossal.com”, “twistedsifter.com”, “1x.com” etc.) with those of us far distant from the Karelian Coast on the White Sea, Semenov creates breathtakingly beautiful images that alternately can look like strange extra-terrestrial organisms, or exquisite fine-art glass-blown sculptures.
With the polar conditions and the White Sea freezing for 6-7 months of the year, your time at the WSBS is limited and harsh. How do you cope in such challenging conditions, both physically and from a technical viewpoint?
In the field season, that starts in the middle of May and ends at the end of September, conditions are pretty good - polar day and mid-temperature northern summer are good for working in the sea and under the water. Water temperature is really low, especially in the beginning - minus 1*C or zero degrees, but we dive in dry suits only with warmest possible underwear. Wet neoprene gloves and helmets are 7-9mm thick - it’s warm enough too, so only one part that becomes frozen is your face. Only one problem we can’t challenge is the weather. When it’s really windy and waves are bigger than our Zodiac boat, we drink tea in our labs and wait patiently.
How long do you spend in the field, and how is climate change affecting this period of time?
Commonly I spend here at the station all summer field season - it lasts 4 months to the end of September, then we have 2-week expeditions in November, March or whenever we want to go here. We start to dive in March, when polar night is over. Climate change, I don’t know what to say about it. It’s cold here mostly, but there is no bad weather, if you are equipped well. Summer is short, once there was snowing until 14th of June, but it’s more like exception, than a common thing. Once here was eternal rain for 3 months. But weather can change 3-4 times in a day, like on any other sea.
Do you/your team eat any locally sourced foods during your stay at the WSBS or do you have to bring all your food supplies with you?
The Station is a huge scientific and student center, we have dining room for all visitors, who pay like 10$ a day for 3-time meals and it’s quite good and tasty. Two times in a week there is a special trip to the nearest village, where kitchen workers load full ship of food and bring it to the station. 10-12 guys unload it in half an hour here. It’s food for 120-150 persons. Who lives in his/her own house(not private, but regular station staff have rooms or houses) can cook for himself. After 5 years of work I’m a little bored of kitchen food, so now I cook for myself and for 2-3 more persons. You can buy some food in the kitchen, but better if you’ll go to buy everything in the big city Kandalaksha. We do it once in two-three weeks and it’s ok.
I have read that there are more than 700 species of invertebrate in the White Sea. Are you aware of having discovered any new species?
Much more than 700. Sometimes we find new species. It’s a constant process with almost any known sea. The reason is that under the water you can’t see everything in one moment, so you always can take piece of seafloor or planktonic sample with something new in it. Seas and oceans really are not so well known, and there are hundreds and thousands of species we don’t even think about.
Your photographs are both astoundingly beautiful and absolutely mesmerising. Of the many different series of photographs you have amassed, (the white sea, the red sea, the Northern lights, the lab shots, the Japan series) of which series are you most proud?
I’m not proud of any series, and I’m not thinking about “series”. I’m proud then I find and take a picture of something really uncommon or any unique scene, like copulation or feeding of rare nudibranch Coryphella polaris or hunting process of Sea angel Clione limacina. I’m not only underwater photographer, I’m marine biologist first, and for me that’s the most important moment. I’m trying to study marine life through the lenses of my camera, and when I know a lot about a current animal, I can take the photo I really want. I also need a lot of luck, for sure, but I spend a lot of time with all these guys to learn about how they act and how they live. And beautiful photos are illustrations for this knowledge. Good thing, that in our world it counts as art too. I really like that.
I have read of your fund raising efforts for new diver’s buildings at the WSBS. Can you give us an update on that project?
Sure! New building is here, right before my eyes! I’m amazed, that with the help of hundreds of people our old dream become true in just three months. We raised almost all planned funds, bought everything we need, hired workers and now they are here pounding with hammers and doing all the stuff. We still have to collect some funds for the last part, but now, when it’s 2/3rds complete, it’s already much better place for work than our old diving shed. And I want to say biggest “Thanks!” to all who took part in it! It’s just great.
When you are underwater, focusing on a shot, do you ever feel you are not on this planet, that you are in another universe?
All the time! And yes, it is another universe! With its’ own aliens and strange life forms. Like people become astronauts and fly in space, we become aquanauts and dive deep in the sea. The difference is that everyone can do it. And there is life here, a lot of life. It sounds weird perhaps, but I feel myself absolutely free and comfortable under the water, all the earthly problems are left on the surface, there is only you and the Sea, face to face.
When you are off-station, when the sea is frozen, how do you like to spend your time?
I’m traveling to other seas and countries, writing articles, reading lectures and managing and editing photos I took. And there is a lot of work for the station at this time. We need to buy new equipment, learn new diving levels, manage all the things relating to the station and our work in the field. For two years I was making a book about flora and fauna of the White sea. It was huge collective project of many scientists and photographers, and as a result now we have a very good book (Russian only, but we are working on the English version) about most common species of the White sea.
One of my favourite photographs is of the “Bougainvillia superciliaris with Hyperia galba”. It looks to me like a peculiar glass bell jar with electrodes coming out of it. It doesn’t look like a life form at all, which is why I find it so fascinating. Is there one particular photograph you have not yet taken, that you dream of capturing?
There are dozens of such photos in my head. I can’t choose one, I think. I want to see hunting scene of Nereis worm, I want to see millions of amphipods feeding on dead seal body, I want to see Sea angel cocoon with larvas and newly born Gorgonocephalus inside soft coral. This list has no end. For sure, I want to see something really extraordinary and totally new. But the truth is that I see it all the time! All photos I capture are new for someone, and I’m more than happy about that.
The sea slug photograph “Risbecia pulchella” looks like a small, embroidered soft sculpture to me, and “Aurelia aurita sun” (jellyfish) is so delicate, intricate and fragile. What is it about the conditions in the White Sea that enables such creatures to thrive there?
Risbesia is from the Red sea, and Aurelia is most common jellyfish in almost all seas of the world. The White Sea differs from other northern seas because it’s semi-closed and there are a lot of rivers flowing into it, so the water salinity is lower than in World Ocean. For that reason, it’s not so rich in biodiversity as Barents Sea, for example, but there are some endemic species that live only here. And also this sea is “young” in geological scale and our fauna is changing a little all the time.
Have you ever exhibited your work, other than on the internet? - e.g. in a gallery?
Right now I have an exhibition in Timiriazev State Biology Museum, and earlier I had a few exhibitions in other museums and galleries in Moscow, and in the Ukraine and in Germany. Now we are planning some more exhibitions in different countries and in some cities in Russia.
Your gallery of photographs taken when diving under the ice is extraordinary, not just for the beauty of the images, but for the courage you must have had to find, to dive in such claustrophobic and dangerous conditions. How do you find such courage?
I love ice diving and hate it :) Especially after both air systems on my tank stopped providing air. But it was through the technical failure of a service man, who checked and prepared our breathing equipment. Now I do it by myself. When everything is fine with your stuff, ice diving is not really a comfortable thing, but it’s worth it.
What person/s or experiences in your life inspired you to become a marine biologist?
My parents are both biologists. I was surrounded with beautiful biological books from childhood, so it’s genetic maybe. After 8th grade I went to biological class in school and there I had my first field practice at the White Sea. I just loved it. But my general idea was to study octopus behavior, not diving with the camera in cold seas, that’s why I chose the department of Zoology of Invertebrates. After University it all changed a little and now I’m here, working as a head of scientific divers team and underwater photographer.
One of my own personal dreams would be to see the Northern Lights. Can you describe what it is like to be in the presence of such a natural phenomenon?
I can try. Imagine a spot of weak light slowly moving among the starry sky, and then this spot becomes larger and transforms into an arc or wall of light, covering half of the sky and light begins to run through it like the teeth of a comb, changing direction and power all the time, or green and red columns of light falling on your head right from space. And you feel the power of space, because it’s not our nature. It can last for 3 minutes or for 3 days. It can be powerful and 5-colored or barely noticeable. It is one of most amazing shows in the world.
I see that, like me, you are also a fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s work. If he were to make an underwater film based on your work, what would you call it?
Everyone is his fan :) I don’t know. Let’s send him this interview?
Plucking yourself from the cold White Sea waters, and turning your head towards the skies above the Kindo peninsula, what birdlife do you see flying forth from the Boreal forests about you? Will we see a photography series of airborne, as opposed to seaborne, creatures at some point in your photography portfolio?
Oh, I’m not an ornithologist, I don’t think I even know the common English names for these birds. Here I see a lot of other animals, not only birds. Foxes, bears, wolverines, deers, moose, hares, different mice live here and can be photographed. But I have my work and I love it. I’m happy with what I have. And I love sea.
I find your work fascinating and awe inspiring, Alexander. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I wish you the best of luck with your fund raising efforts and continued success in your career and with your photography.
Frances Elizabeth van Velzen.