Taking a dive into an unexplored marine galaxy.
I first got to know of Alexander Semenov around six ago when I saw some the picture here above while researching marine creatures on the web. The picture left me mesmerised and I knew I needed to collaborate with him. I reached out to him on Facebook with an idea to create an activewear collection with his photos and he was immediately up for it! We met for the first time in Bangkok a couple of years later with his wife Maya, who's also a researcher and professional diver.
Alexander and I share something in common: the passion and love for nature and a special sensitivity for its extraordinary beauty. Since then a friendship and beautiful collaboration begun.
Underwater photographer and marine biologist who welcomed us into his underwater world and gave us the first "skins" for Aquatilis Collection.
Originally from Moscow, Russia he lives across the world oceans travelling for expeditions with his wife Maya. They spend most of their time in the White Sea of Russia running research, teaching and filming under the cold ice with an equipe of professional divers.
Here is an extract of a chat that Alexander and I had during Skin of Nature's virtual launch event where I get Alexander to share some stories about his life and work. Watching this short edited video you'll enter the world of a marine biologist, hear the sounds he hears and see incredible creatures that he encounters and studies in this fascinating underwater galaxy.
E: Alex, tell us a bit about what you do as a marine biologist and photographer with your research team, Aquatilis?
A: To be honest I feel like I’m more of an old-school naturalist than as a marine biologist. I just look around, trying to notice things no one has noticed before. You know, nearly 80% of marine organisms are still undiscovered, and little is known about the life of creatures we already discovered. Even after two thousands years of ocean exploration today we still have so much to discover. At Aquatilis we explore the underwater world, we observe life as it is, filming it in its environment, not in the lab. We are the ones that are always in the field, gathering scientific data through the lenses and sharing our findings both with the scientific community and to all the curious people who just love to explore our planet.
E: You have your own research base, but you also spend lots of time travelling and sometimes you go on expeditions, your office sounds like a lot of fun! Where do you conduct your research usually?
A: We have our research base in Russia, at the White Sea - right at the border of the Polar circle. There is where my wife and I spend most of our time. It’s an amazing place, untouched northern nature. The world stops there, everything is quiet and wild. During summer time we work a lot, providing samples to universities and conducting underwater research projects. When the season is over we can stay and continue our work or go on expeditions to other parts of the world. We worked in the Sea of Okhotsk, Sea of Japan, near Novaya Zemlya Archipelago, rarely we go to warmer places, like Maldives. Actually, we love to be in the warm water sometimes! Usually we spend the winter in Asia, gathering some heat before jumping under the White Sea ice again.
E: What does it feel like to be out there is the wild ocean and explore?
A: Exciting! You never know who you will meet. Some of the creatures we see are beautiful, others look like aliens, like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Sometimes you just get weird surprises, when few thousands of planktonic worms swim to you from the darkness to check your powerful lights, sometimes you’re trying to avoid a spiderweb of jellyfish tentacles, sometimes you just meditate alone in the sea, looking at some of the most beautiful unearthly flowers, who are actually carnivorous animals. Nature has an imagination so powerful that we can’t even try to compete, so we just look and learn from it trying to understand better the world we live in. We’ve gone quite far already but there is still a long way to go.
E: With Aquatilis you are exploring, you are filming and taking pictures? What does that mean in your work? Is that part of the science or is that a passion of yours?
A: Both! But it is more than that, for me it is a way to connect the underwater world with the one above the water, to give everyone an opportunity to see this incredible world with my eyes. We need more underwater researchers, more people who want to study the World ocean, who care about the conservation of marine ecosystem, but if we don’t show them what that is and why it’s so important for us, how can they fall in love with it? I believe that the power of beautiful images and firsthand storytelling is the key to awakening a new curiosity in people’s mind.
E: I could not agree more! I had that exact feeling when I watched for the first time some of your photos on national geographic years ago. Without being a biologist or an experienced diver I feel very connected to the underwater world, something draws me to it, maybe it’s that mysterious element, the idea of the power of the ocean, of its undiscovered inhabitants. But lets’ talk a bit about gelata, jellyfish and plankton, those are the species you and your team mainly focus on right? Can you explain a bit what they are?
A: Gelata are my favourites. It's all plankton, all those creatures that live in a huge world without walls and are carried by the currents all over the world ocean. Plankton is the essential part of the ecosystem, the fundamental component of the food chain that all life on earth depends on. But plankton is more than just tiny creatures invisible to the eye, they are also some of the largest animals on the planet like the 37meter Lion's mane jellyfish or 46meter Apolemia siphonophore, which was discovered just a few months ago. These creatures are often so tender that it is impossible to study them in the laboratory, we can only to observe them under water. It's a rather complex process, but we love challenges, so we chose it as our main research topic.
E: Into the depth of the dark ocean some creatures seem to have light of their own. How is that possible?
A: This is not a bioluminescence, but their real colour. You know, they are like marmalade or gummy bears - light from the diving torch goes in and they “glow” from inside, that’s why they are so colourful and bright at the photos. But a lot of creatures have their own glow, usually it’s green or blue, but it can be seen only in complete darkness.
E: I know that during Covid-19 lock down you were “locked” in an island! You spent 3 months in Ponza, Italy and I was so jealous! What were you doing there?
A: Oh yes! My wife Maya and I were super lucky to be stuck there for 3 months and we were allowed to dive and film! We’ve done so much more than was planned and even made some new discoveries. Our NGO Aquatilis is in fact based in Ponza, my co-founder is Italian and he runs all our Mediterranean research expeditions. So it’s our second home after White Sea station.
E: Oh wow! Tell us more about Aquatilis please.
A: This can be a very long talk! We have so many projects and activities under the hood. Educational courses for kids, new beautiful book, scientific collaborations, new publications, summer field school for students from all over the world… Now we’re working on a new documentary series that focuses on marine life, but not in a classic BBC way. We’re going to make it fun and entertaining, but give some deep knowledge at the same time. We want to rethink and change the style of educational movies and show something that no one has ever seen before.
E: I cannot wait to see! How was shooting in the Mediterranean Sea?
A: Its magical Elena, honestly one of the most diverse marine ecosystems I’ve had the pleasure of diving into. During our night dives we found the combination of wind, stream direction and moon phase, when upwelling current bring deepwater creatures to the surface and we met so many weird and wonderful things! It took some time to understand how the sea works in this place, and it was our fourth expedition to Ponza, but only in this recent expedition we finally have the whole experience. And yes, at the day dives a whole different fauna would show up. Endless world. It is always a great satisfaction to shoot in the Italian waters!
E: I really hope next time you’ll go we’ll meet there! Before I let you go I’d like to publicly thank you Alex, from the bottom of my heart. For having welcomed me into your underwater world and having inspired the beginning of Skin fo Nature’s journey. I cherish our friendship and our collaboration and I’m excited for the things to come!
Reading time: 5 minutes