Photographing wildlife requires immense patience, more so when the subject is as shy and intelligent as the Nerpa seal. Nerpas are the only freshwater seals in the world and have been valued for thousands of years for their meat, fat, and fur. They are found in only one part of the planet: the icy waters of Baikal Lake in Russia, where I photographed them in the numbing winter of April 2017.
Baikal is the largest, oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world, and it freezes over completely from November to the end of April every year. The average temperature in January, which is the peak of winter, is -21°C. By April, when I visited, day temperatures were around -12°C, and the surface of Baikal was still frozen solid. In some parts of the lake, the ice is so thick that cars full of people drive across from one side to the other.
For us, this was a both a blessing and a curse. The frozen surface guaranteed access to more remote parts of Baikal, but it also meant that we had to spend a good chunk of time carving a hole in the ice, so that I could slip in and photograph the seals underwater.
The weather in Baikal isn’t always so unforgiving. In summer, the mercury rises to as high as 15°C, drawing travellers from around the world. They come to swim, fish, boat, and for the stilling views of the forest and waters. But I chose winter. I didn’t do this for the landscape, which is quite breathtaking, in a brutal kind of way, but because it’s pupping season for Nerpa seals. In February-March each year, females give birth to a single baby (in most cases) in an ice nest. In a matter of days, the baby seals begin to explore their surroundings, sniffing around the ice and taking short swims in the water—this is when I wanted to capture them, when they were young enough to be curious rather than fearful of human beings.
But first, we had to find them.